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Renewing Our Faith in Jesus

I’ve never been a Jesus freak. When I was a student pastor, there was a woman at the church who was constantly talking about Jesus, praying to him, referring to him. In her eyes, he absolutely was her savior, but maybe even more than that he was her friend, her companion, her confidant. That’s never been me, but given that many co-called Christians are complaining that Jesus’s teachings are “weak,” maybe it is time I got on board. If white Christian nationalists and right-wing evangelicals and fundamentalists do have Jesus (metaphorically) bound and gagged and stowed in someone’s trunk, then it is time to step in and set him free! Maybe it is time to renew or form a deeper faith in Jesus and his radical message.

Jim Wallis, in The False White Gospel, said that “The greatest threat to faith is not disbelief but cynicism.” I’ve had my share of cynicism about religion. Can you blame me? There is much to be cynical about when it comes to the Christian religion – the prosperity gospel, purity codes, white Christian nationalism, abusive theology that holds people in guilt and sin, backlash against LGBTQIA+ people, pedophilia in the Catholic Church, clergy who are out for power, I could go on. It’s been an odd tension to hold to be a pastor and feel fairly cynical about the institutions of religion. But the cynicism has been toward the institution, not Jesus. Maybe that is while I’m still here.

The interesting thing about Jesus is that he didn’t stop at a personal, private religion. He wasn’t just trying to get people to believe in God and be better people, he was also trying to reform the religious and political systems that were oppressing the people. He was calling everyone to a higher moral and spiritual ground, holding them accountable for poverty, violence and inequity. Had he stopped with merely asking people to pray more and attend synagogue on a regular basis, he’d been ok, but he pushed for systemic change and that was threatening.

Faith. It’s a tricky word because it is too often equated with belief. If someone asks, “Do you have faith in Jesus?” what exactly does that mean? Are they asking if you believe he was a real person? Are they asking if you believe he died for your sins? Are they asking if you believe he was literally born of a virgin, Son of God? Are they asking if you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

To be clear, when I’m suggesting we renew our faith in Jesus, I’m not asking you any of those things.

Think for a moment about the person in your life you have the most faith in. What does that mean to you? What kind of person are they that you have faith in them? When we talked about this on Sunday morning, folks said it means you trust them to have integrity, to have your best interests at heart, to be honest, to be there for you no matter what, to be non-judgmental and not talk about you behind your back, to be consistent behaviorally.

This type of faith, with these characteristics is closer to the kind of faith I have in Jesus. From the way others shared his story and his teachings, I have faith, complete trust, that he was a much more enlightened soul than I will probably ever be. I have faith in his intimate connection with the divine because it is right there in his teachings. I have faith that if I could bring Jesus any problem, he would approach it with compassion, with understanding, and with a deeper perspective that was not judgmental. I have faith that he had a clarity of vision, that his model of living and loving is deep and true and worth following. I also have faith that he would not condemn me if (when) I fall short.

In Luke 4:14-21, we find Jesus in the synagogue reading from the scroll of Isaiah? 

The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.

In Isaiah, the prophet was addressing the Israelites who had just been freed from 50 years of bondage in Babylon. They were returning home, but after 50 years, home wasn’t as they remembered it. They were starting over and had an uphill climb ahead of them.

The fact that this passage was put in the mouth of Jesus by the author of Luke suggests that people saw Jesus as this same type of prophet for their time. There was a deep hope that Jesus would free them from poverty and oppression, and once again bring a time of prosperity for all people. Let’s flesh this passage out a little bit and take our understanding deeper.

What do you suppose good news was to the poor – then and now? I'd suggest the good news is that they are worthy and loved by God, but more importantly, in a just society where this matters, they will receive care, education, living wage jobs, food, fair housing, equal treatment, medical care, a place in the community, respect. Yes, the poor need good news.

What does it mean to proclaim liberty to those held captive, release to those in prison? Isaiah may have been talking in part of Jewish people still being held in Babylon, but I think that for Isaiah and Jesus there was a metaphorical aspect about this. Metaphorically, people are held captive by many things, like their fears, their grief, their insecurities. One can feel held captive when one doesn’t fit the norms of society. In Jesus’ time that meant being a wealthy Jewish male. In our time, it means being a well-to-do white male. We are often held captive by our gender, our sexual orientation, our race, our color, and our ability because we are not considered as good as the norm. We are held captive by cycles of poverty, addiction, circumstances. Of course, there are also plenty of folks in prison who don’t need to be, but are put there because of racial profiling, because of the privatization of the jails, because our systems are geared for punishment and not rehabilitation or reconciliation. Yes, the captives need to be set free.

And what did it mean for Jesus to want to bring recovery of sight to the blind? Sure, we have stories of him literally helping blind people to physically see again. But I believe it goes much deeper than that. He wanted people who could no longer see or know God to see and know a compassionate, justice-filled, loving, forgiving Spirit. He wanted people to stop getting stuck in their egos and their self-centeredness and to see their interconnectedness with one another. He wanted all to see, know and experience the kingdom of God not as a hoped for future, but as a present reality.

Jim Wallis, in The False White Gospel, wrote that “Jesus has suffered identity theft in America, and it is also time for Christians to come back to the real Jesus. His clear texts and teachings about loving our neighbor – especially those different from us, welcoming “the other,” and finding the truth that will set us free form our ideological captivities – must all be believed and, if not, to no longer call Jesus Lord.”

I haven't called Jesus “Lord” in a very long time. It strikes me as too feudal, too male, and too hierarchical when he wanted to be a servant-leader, when he never claimed he was better than anyone else. But what if it simply asks the question of who gets to be the authority in our lives? Whose advice will we listen to? Whose footsteps do we want to walk in? Who has the wisdom to guide us?

I have faith that Jesus wanted a life of abundance, equality, health and goodness for every person… I still probably won’t call him Lord, but I’m ok with giving his teachings authority in my life. And I think I have (at least most of the time, no one’s perfect). Yes, I try to follow in his footsteps because his way brings me deeper into communion with God and a path with heart.

Faith is more than intellectual agreement. To use an old illustration, imagine you are at Niagara Falls watching a tightrope walker push a wheelbarrow across the rope high above the falls. After watching him go back and forth several times, he asks for a volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow as he pushes it across the falls. Do you have faith that he could get you across?

If the guy pushing the wheelbarrow was Jesus, I’d say yes, absolutely. But if the guy pushing the wheelbarrow was any institutional religion, I’d say no way, they’d probably deliberately dump me in the falls. But Jesus, I’ve got faith in him.

Love & Light!