Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope was dead, would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are?
Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.
In an early essay the young Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came and he came making claims and promising much.
In the first century he offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And he continues to scandalize us all to this day. Don’t you know I’m talking about the real Christ and not the one we hear about in so much preaching. Or the real one we don’t hear about in so much preaching. The one who’s hidden under ceaseless explanations of what this or that verse means, who’s hidden behind the patter of the wise who handle all the “difficult questions” people ask, the one who’s buried under the same unending calls for us all to be morally better—as if we hadn’t heard this call ten-thousand times. Christless moralizing with the usual Bible verses thrown in to prove we’re different from the secularists who preach the same Christless moralizing—and who now and then use Bible verses.
There are people who care nothing for him—and never did—they’re not affected by him. The crass hedonists who think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.
They ignore the churches with their inner squabbles. [That might be a smart thing!] Or, they listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs—before they go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.
It’s the people who hear him, I mean really hear him, that the Jesus of the cross disturbs. Look around you at the state of the world and the church and our own personal situations.
If you hear him at all, Jesus is too stubbornly real and we can’t get away from him. Not that we’re trying to, don’t you know. We neither try to nor want to get away from him but being in his presence and listening to his kingly promises that are written in blood can make us impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t he in his sovereignty transformed the world already? Matthew Arnold in his sad poem said that in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now, he said, all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes we sorely want the present King of Kings to show himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. We’d like him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the strength or wisdom to do it, even supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world seems to “prove” that the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords is sheer nonsense.
And when we muse about the church as a whole don’t we at times lament how pathetic and weak it can be and often is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth and wants more to gorge on while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked and perverted, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and they call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for. In a world of tortured and tormented, sick and oppressed, humiliated, blind and despairing fellow-humans in their thousands of millions and our latest inner-church crusade is what? IS WHAT?
It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed and reveals himself than it is to believe in the Church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What’s your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” “What are my rights here?” “Does this church know we’re living in the 21st century?” At one end of the spectrum we have these prime-time hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?]. Ceaseless support for the religion of the healthy mind that is said to be gospeling. And in more recent decades, isn’t there reason to wonder if the Church will take a stand against anything? Arrrrgh!
And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Those who know nothing of such experiences often find themselves with a smug smile of self-congratulation at their moral maturity and consistency and out of that smugness stems isolation from society–we wouldn’t want to attract into our congregations “the wrong sort” so our “outreach” (where it exists at all) is carefully tailored. When our eyes focus on all this and more Jesus seems more and more distant and beyond us. And in our worst moments disillusionment sets in—weariness comes with it and, Pack it in—walk away, comes to mind. It’s then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings…
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.
Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad so with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!
And for a while, a day, a week, a month, a year we sulk and snarl and prowl and criticize and, God help us, we sneer, at the Church we were once thrilled to be part of. Then we see him! He’s always been there; we just didn’t notice during that wretched period. We see him looking at us with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”
Why can’t He leave us alone?
Why can’t You leave us alone?
Why can’t we who have met Him leave Him alone?