by Joshua Graves
September – December, 2006
I keep having the same vision. It’s not a wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night vision. It is a simple, subtle, yet very real vision. In this vision, I’m standing in a huge crowd following an ancient Rabbi named Yeshua. We know him as Jesus.
The crowds are huge. Murmurs, questions, and awe fill the air. One can smell the anticipation hovering like a cloud. Jesus turns to the large crowd I’m in and says, “I know many of you admire me, cheer me on, root for my cause. I am honored that some of you would worship me and believe in me. However, I do not need anymore admirers, fans, worshippers, or believers. I’m going to Jerusalem to take up a cross. I need some people who are willing to follow me.”
The crowd gets smaller instantly. I leave waffling in my own doubt, fear, and apathy. Wrestling with Jesus is harder than I thought it would be.
There are many ways to experience God’s presence in our world. Corporate and personal “worship” (as the word has come to be known) can be powerful reminders that we were made for community. Scripture comes alive and changes the way we see the world, bringing us closer to the heart of God. Deep prayer takes us to strange but holy places. Enjoying the good creation gives us a sense of God’s majesty and splendor. Music, art, drama, and poetry also pull the blinders off and allow us to see the divine in our midst. Even silence, a tough lesson for Westerners to learn, can point us to the higher things.
And though all of the previous are legitimate pursuits in the Christian life, I want to suggest that the most powerful way to come into contact with God is by living in the margins, with people, according to some, who have nothing to “offer.” The British, I’m told, have a great phrase. They call this meeting of the divine and human the “thin space,” the unsuspecting place where God and creation come together. These thin spaces are the moments and places where eternity, ever so subtly, creeps into our lives.
Think about Jesus for a moment. Here are some generally accepted facts about this carpenter Messiah as understood from the Gospel accounts: Jesus is born in a barn. Jesus is Jewish, a minority in the Roman schema (I often remind my students that Jesus is not a Christian). Unlike Paul, Jesus isn’t even a citizen in his own nation. Some might say he is an alien. Jesus is from Nazareth, not exactly a cutting edge city producing great thinkers. Remember the infamous line from the Gospels, “What good can come from Nazareth?” Jesus and his father are carpenters, more migrant workers than middle class; he does not appear to hold any elite positions. He has no special education that the reader is made aware of as do some of his contemporaries; Paul and Josephus to name a few. Jesus depends on the generosity of others during his ministry. Jesus is voluntarily homeless. Jesus is crucified as a criminal; a political insurgent who threatens Rome’s power in the region and Judaism’s tests of orthodoxy.
Churches would not hire this Jesus. Moms would think twice before letting their daughters date this Jesus.
When one wrestles with this Jesus, a haunting question emerges: What does it say about the Almighty that when he enters into human history, in the most palatable way, he takes up residence in Jesus of Nazareth? What does it say about the very nature of God that he came to us in these very specific ways?
I think it says many things about God we often fail to consider. Fundamentally, it says that God can be found “outside the camp” in the margins of our world. One New Testament writer says it this way (Hebrews 13:9ff):
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
Or, as Charles Campbell said at my church in May 2006, “It is not that we good Christians take God outside the camp, outside the walls of the church. We go outside because God is already there.” [http://rccaudio.christianwitness.us/?page=6. Campbell has written a provocative book, The Word on the Street: Performing the Scriptures in the Urban Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).]
I need to confess that I’m often guilty of what Dallas Willard calls “Vampire Christianity”—evangelical Christians tendency to “only want Jesus for his blood,” ignoring the way he calls his followers to live.
I am white. I am American. I am male. I am educated. I have a bit of power in the circles I run in. I guess the only thing going for me is that I am not a New York Yankees fan. Remember, God is in the margin.
My confession does not stop with me because I am not an island. I serve a local church. A church that is mostly white, educated, wealthy, and full of power.
I’m not confessing the former out of guilt. I’ve lived that lie for far too long. I’m confessing because I don’t think God is male, white, or American. And I don’t think God uses power the way I often do.
In short, I wrestle every day with whether I’m an admirer of Jesus in that crowd, or whether I’m truly following his radical teachings. I feel like Robert Jordan, the brother of the influential writer and activist Clarence Jordan. Clarence sequestered the aide of his rising powerful brother, a lawyer in Georgia, to help provide some protection for Clarence’s demonstration plot, the Koinonia Farm, which was created to be a visible sign that blacks and whites, poor and rich could live in solidarity. That might not sound too radical, until you realize the vision was born in the early 1950s.
Clarence thought his brother might be able to provide some legal advice or protection to ensure the continuation of the vision that birthed the Koinonia Farm. Here’s one recollection of the conversation. Upon being asked for assistance by Clarence, Robert responded:
“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything too, Bob.”
“It’s different for you.”
“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the same church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the same preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”
“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”
“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, do you have a church?”
This was quoted from Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 103 (bold is mine).
The chief antagonists in this mini-drama were not the conventional boogeyman constructed in much of contemporary religious manipulation: the “liberals,” “atheists,” and “homosexuals.” No, the ones who physically assaulted shunned, and imposed economic difficulties on the Koinonia Farm were Christians. Baptist. Presbyterian. Churches of Christ. It was the “Christians” who got in the way of the gospel.
Every day, I wrestle with my identity: am I a merely a spectator, or am I truly following? I stand somewhere between these two brothers—at times willing to lay down everything for the kingdom, at other times, doing everything in my power to preserve my comfortable life, career, and positions.
A Theological Battle
There is a theological battle heating up in the United States. If you listen carefully to the language coming out of the dismay of our post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Presidential Elections (’00 and ’04) world, you can hear a debate over the meaning of sacred religious words. The words that appear to be at the heart of the debate within Christian conversations are “Gospel” and “Jesus.”
Gospel. A loaded word to be sure. What does the church mean when she says “The gospel is the hope for the world”? Does she mean what Martin Luther meant: salvation by grace through faith? Does she mean the myriad of answers found within evangelicalism today: The Sinner’s Prayer; avoiding hell; and personal fire insurance for the afterlife?
The gospel Jesus preached sounds strange to modern ears, religious persuasion not withstanding.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
There are a few things that strike me when I listen to this gospel (“good news”) preached by Jesus. First, the gospel is the in-breaking of the reign of God. The gospel is the announcement and embodiment of God’s kingdom coming to earth.
Second, the call for repentance is more than a judgment made by Jesus; it is an invitation to a different way of living in the world; a different way of seeing the world. I wince when I hear the word repentance. I think of the story Eugene Peterson tells in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. For several weeks Eugene had been persecuted in his hometown by the town bully (Garrison Johns) for being a “Jesus-sissy.” Time and time again he resisted evil with good until he could take it no more. This young boy tired of turning the other cheek.
That’s when it happened. Something snapped within me. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character . . . I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it—he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again—blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. “Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!” A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them, although nothing compared with what I would, later in my life, read in the Psalms. I said to Garrison, “Say ‘Uncle.’” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out of me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, “Say, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.’”
And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.
[Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 134-136.]
More than a form of coercion, the preaching and life of Jesus boast repentance through judgment and invitation. This kingdom is an invitation to a new way of being human. It is, after all, supposed to be good news.
It is so easy, in our Christian world to talk about Gospel in ways that are more about coercion, manipulation, and power grabs than the genuine invitation of Jesus. This invitation to see the world anew.
Many of the Jews in the first century were essentially asking the same question: What does it mean to be the faithful people of God? What must we do in order for God to send his Messiah to rescue us from the heels of Roman oppression? The answers were all over the map. The Pharisees wanted to clean things up. “Let’s get rid of the homeless, the tax collectors, and the prostitutes.” The Essenes insisted that some must withdrawal for all of Jerusalem was corrupt. “We should isolate ourselves from everyone else and create a pure society; a holy fortress.” The zealots said, “Get your tanks, guns, knives and planes—we’re going to war. Then God will surely intervene.” The Herodians and Samaritans were disillusioned by the whole discussion: “if you can’t beat them, join them. We don’t mind sleeping with the enemy (Rome).”
To all of these people and then some, Jesus judges their beliefs and practices and calls them to something more. He dares them to imagine and to see the world differently. To see the world as the canvas in which God’s intent for the world was being displayed in his very words and actions. Heaven had come from the future to the present in order to begin the renewal of creation. Simply put: The gospel is the announcement and arrival of God in the world.
Jesus. What does the church mean when she says that “salvation is found in Jesus Christ”? When someone leans over, in an intimate moment of honest inquiry, and asks, “Who is Jesus? What’s he mean to you?”—are we going to say: “Jesus is a watered down Plato, handing out fortune cookie sound-bytes to help you deal with life.” “Jesus is the one who teaches us that ethics is about what happens below your waist (abortion and homosexuality).” “Jesus is the one who teaches that throwing money at the problem is nobler than being engaged in the problems of poverty and injustice.” “Jesus is the one who came to ‘increase our territory’, to give us prosperous bank accounts.”
No. We would respond, the way the church has learned to respond. “Jesus is the expression of God who came to serve, not to be served. Jesus is the suffering servant, God’s man, who shows humanity what it means to really experience God, by living his life, and finding the divine in the margins.” It was Jesus himself, after all, who used the words of Isaiah, to describe his identity and his primary activity in the world.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 1, 2; Luke 4:18-19).
One story clearly illustrates what it means to find God working and presence in the margins; which according to Jesus, is the preferred location of his ministry.
In 1990, the Boston Globe ran a story that could have well appeared in Luke’s Gospel. A couple, with very expensive taste, had reserved a space in the downtown Hyatt for their wedding reception. The total bill came to thirteen thousand dollars.
Not too far from the actual wedding date, the groom got the proverbial “cold feet” and backed out of the wedding and lavish party. The bride immediately went to the event manager of the hotel to recuperate her losses. It was too late. She faced two choices: eat the loss with no party, or throw a party despite the awful turn of events.
The would-be bride decided to do something no one could seen coming. Unbeknownst to the hotel workers and managers, this woman had previously lived on the streets of Boston. Philip Yancey in What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 48-49, recounts the story:
[T]en years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honor of the groom,” she said—and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants, and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.
Shane Claiborne says that the real tragedy in our country is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor—but that rich Christians “do not know the poor” (italics mine). Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), is one of the most provocative books I’ve read in 2006.
One day in downtown Detroit, I sat and talk with Jack, who most of us would call “homeless.” I’ll leave some of the lessons I learned for another time, but the one irrefutable truth I learned that day was this: the poor want to be known just as we want to be known; they, like us, are in the crowd following Jesus. And they have faces, names, history’s and stories. The poor have everything to do with the way one understands the Gospel and the way one understands Jesus.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said he could be searched for and found among the poor (Mt. 25).
“The true atheist is the one who fails to see the image of God in the least of these.”—Dorothy Day
Joshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. He is married to Kara (Mead), the real theologian in the family. Reach him at [email@example.com].