Jesus isn’t easy.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said that so I’m just going to say, “ a lot.” Jesus isn’t easy. It can certainly be easy to say “I’m a follower of Jesus” or, even easier, “I’m a Christian,” but living it isn’t easy.
It’s both one of the reasons that churches – and churchgoers – can be so readily accused of hypocritical behaviour and why so many people don’t want to be a follower of Jesus. The first one’s too easy and the second one’s too hard. Let me unpack that a bit, because they’re related.
The legacy of christians behaving badly is astonishing. Yes, it is. So is the legacy of christians truly being Jesus. Thanks, I think we all know that, Captain Obvious.
We’re all human beings on a journey and no one’s perfect in this life (that’s for the next one). We come into this life created in the image of God and then life experience helps make us the human beings we are. Sometimes we grow, sometimes we struggle, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, sometimes we do the right thing, sometimes we don’t. And because we’re human beings preaching good news of the divine, sometimes the behaviour doesn’t reflect the story we want to share. Sometimes we’re sorry and ask forgiveness, sometimes we’re not sorry and need it even more.
That doesn’t make the bad stuff okay. It makes it part of the struggle. Especially when we hold up Jesus as the perfection that we can achieve.
First of all – and don’t stone me for this – Jesus isn’t perfect. If Jesus is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) or “Immanuel, which means God is with us” (Matt. 1:23), if we understand Jesus as the incarnation of the love which we know is God, then Jesus is divine and human. We might not fully understand the divine, but we’re intimately acquainted with the human and all its potential flaws. Even in the stories we have – and remember, we don’t have every moment of Jesus’ life – there are examples of Jesus being very human, indeed.
Secondly, Jesus never asked or expected you or me or anyone else to be perfect, not in this life. That expectation we put on ourselves and then used it as a means to judge failure or to simply not try. It’s no wonder people find it hard to behave the way Jesus teaches.
But that’s just the point. It isn’t about outward behaviour, it’s about inner heart. It can’t just be words, but it also can’t just be action, either. Both must spring from the heart. And that’s where Jesus hopes transformation will happen. Not that we’ll behave right, but that we’ll live right, reflecting the image of God that’s in our heart in our mind and actions also, loving each other because there is love in our hearts.
In Luke, there’s a little vignette that begins Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his eventual death. It begins with the disciples telling Jesus that a Samaritan town wasn’t interested in him coming there. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since Jews and Samaritans were enemies, but two of the disciples ask Jesus if they should “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” (Luke 9:54). Of course Jesus rebukes them. As the journey continues, they meet someone who says they’ll follow Jesus wherever he goes and Jesus replies that, unlike a fox or a bird, he has no home to go to. The next person he asks to follow with them says they have to bury their deceased father first. Jesus says let the dead bury their own, you should proclaim the kingdom of God. And then another says they’ll follow Jesus, but have to say farewell to their family first. Jesus says you can’t blow a straight furrow if you’re looking back.
Ok, what? That all seems rather random and dismissive.
Maybe it is if you think about the behaviour here: the disciples want to punish, even destroy, people who reject Jesus and he says no, but then Jesus seems to challenge the desire and the priorities of those who say they would follow Jesus. Which is it, Jesus?
But I don’t think Jesus was an either/or kind of teacher, I think he was a with/and. What this is all about isn’t behaviour, it’s heart. It’s what’s at the centre of your life. When it’s love, you won’t find anger or fear or retaliation when people disagree with you or are different from you. When it’s love, you’ll be open to wherever this journey takes you and not be afraid, knowing that there’s meaning to the ancient proverb – and modern cliche – home is where the heart is. When it’s love, death is a passing but it’s not the end, and our rituals or even our daily living are only meaningful if they speak to, and from, the heart. When it’s love, the way is always forward, always growing towards the moment when the burdens of this life are let go and there is only what is in our hearts: love.