Presented to the Youth of the Broadway Church of Christ
October 4, 2017
A Living Lord
Jesus is often tamed, no less in our churches. I think, however, that we like it that way. When we relegate Jesus to “the before time”, the “back then” we do not have to worry about him showing up today, right now. When we confine him to stories bound in a book we do not have to worry about him making too many demands. He becomes a static idea that we can manipulate and skirt around by mental and hermeneutic gymnastics. But throughout history Christians have confessed their faith in a short summary called The Apostles Creed. Within that creed there is a confession which reminds one of the most dangerous, terrifying, even rebellious things that we could ever say. After confessing Jesus born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, crucified under Pilate, and buried, we continue with this subversive confession: “On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus is alive. This means that he is active. He still speaks. He still shows up in the world. He still meets us unexpectedly, and that’s a terrifying thought.
It’s terrifying because I can read about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to leave their jobs to follow him and I remain untouched by that command (cf. Lk. 5:1-11). “Jesus spoke to them” we say. And when we get to work interpreting the text we ask, “But what does it mean for us?” as if we are sure it means something different. We transform this radical call to leave one’s livelihood and we dumb it down and tame it. We read this passage and we say, “Well, obviously Jesus is not calling us to leave our jobs. The text only means that we are supposed to have a kind of inner detachment from our work. It is not to be our god.” And so we allow ourselves to remain in our jobs and our lives more or less untouched. That is because we are dealing with a text. We are not dealing with a living Lord. If Jesus were to appear to you and me as he appeared to Peter, James, and John there would be no escape. Sitting in our boats with Jesus upon the shore, our interpretation could not save us. When Jesus issues the command to leave behind our nets and become fishers of men it would do us no good to turn to our companions and say, “Worry not, friends. He doesn’t really mean for us to leave our work. The world needs fishermen too. He only means for us to carry on our work in a new spirit. We are to fish as if we fished not. Our hearts are to be with Jesus while our hands are with our nets.” Who could imagine Peter, James, and John saying such a thing? And so we are comforted when we begin to think that Jesus will never meet us like he met them.
Or perhaps we read about Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in John 4. We read about how Jesus revealed unto her all that she had ever done, and we breathe a sigh of relief that he will never meet us like that. That was “back there”, “back then”, and now Jesus is way away in heaven. We don’t have to worry about him meddling in our business today like he did in hers. But we can only hide when we are hiding behind a text. We can only take that kind of comfort if we forget that we are dealing with a living Lord. If we thought that Jesus might actually appear to us, as he did to this woman, while we went about grocery shopping or going to the post-office, we might feel quite differently. If I really thought that I might meet someone around the next corner who would reveal to me “everything I have ever done” (4:29), I might feel a little more timidity about this Jesus whom we worship. But, thank goodness I’ll never meet him. Or will I?
Very often, I think, we are like those children C.S. Lewis describes in his book Miracles. “There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”1 . We have been playing make believe. All this church stuff is fun, sure. But we never expected to actually meet Jesus. We never meant it to come to that. Why? Because then we might have to actually do something about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that he is exactly the God you have to deal with.
The Present Christ in the Powerful Spirit
Luke writes his gospel to one Theophilus. He says, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4). So we read on and we hear about all the grand things which we applaud and at which we stand amazed. We read about the things which, while they are fantastic, we are a little glad that they are “back there.”
The disciples, however, felt a bit differently about Jesus’ presence being a thing of the past. In his upper room discourse with his disciples they worried that he was going to leave them. So much so that he had to offer them comfort. “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he said (Jn. 14:1). He continues, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” (14:18, 28). Even though Christ was going away, we would not leave them orphans. He would not leave them alone. He would come to them again. In fact, he says, it is even better for him to go away and come again. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit; 14:16, 17] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). After Jesus ascension he returns in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is why he is able to say, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). This is not metaphorical. It isn’t the “pretty talk” of cliché bumper sticker religion. He means it. He will be with us. Literally. Jesus is present with the believer by the Holy Spirit. This is perhaps one of the reasons it was to our advantage that he “go away.” While Jesus was upon earth his presence was confined by the space of his body. When he was with Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Transfiguration he was not with the other nine at the foot of the mountain. But now in the person of the Holy Spirit he is present with all of us.
So as we continue to read we find that the living Lord is active indeed. He’s still “doing stuff.” Luke writes again to Theophilus, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, ESV). Did you catch that? His first book, the Gospel According to Luke, recorded all that Jesus began to do and to teach. That means that he is still doing and teaching. The crucified savior is the risen and ruling Lord. This is what we mean when we confess, “On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” His seat is a throne of authority from which he continues to act. When Peter and John go to the temple and heal a lame man they confess that it was Jesus himself who healed him. “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16). When the retell the story to the authorities they say, “Let it be know to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (4:10). After they are released they then pray to God and say these words, “And now, Lord, look at their hearts, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:29, 30). Still later Peter met a man name Aeneas who had been bedridden for 8 years with paralysis and he says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34). If we were to watch all of these events we would see Peter healing and praying. But if we want to know who is really working we have to look at Peter and see Jesus. Peter doesn’t say to Aeneas , “I heal you” or even simply, “Be healed.” He says, “Jesus Christ heals you.” Jesus is still working in the world and he does it through his people, like he always has.
God With Us
When Jesus was born he was called Immanuel, which means “God With Us” (Mat. 1:23). He is now and has always been that same God. He does not leave us alone. He is not “way away up there.” He is present here and now in the church, his body on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:29, 30). That is our business in the world. We must be Christ for the world. Christ acts through us. “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor. 2:14). Again, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11). The church makes Christ visible to the world. She is the sign that God is still “God With Us.”
The Freedom of Christ and the Hard of Heart
So it is that God is still with us. He never left. We may meet him, in flesh and blood, just as the apostles met him. And he may meet us, just as he met the woman at the well and Zaccheaus. How does this happen? We’ve already hinted at one way–i.e. in the chuch–and there are other ways as well, like prayer and scripture reading. We must first mention a quick caveat.
Insofar as we are dealing with a person, not just a text or an idea, he has a will. He is free. As a person Jesus may choose to appear or not, and that is not up to us.
“If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks. They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away. The initiative lies all on your side. They cannot either help or hinder. But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts. That is a bit different from studying rocks. The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you. Unless you keep very quiet, they will. There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side. Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person. If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him. You have to win his confidence. In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship. When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others–not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”2
Two things should be noted: First, the disciplines which we are about to mention are not magic, nor are they science (which are more related than we like to admit). They are ways of listening. If there is nothing to hear then listening really hard will not help. Spiritual disciplines do not compel God to show up. As such, he may not show up when we want him to. That does not mean, however, that he does not or will not. It only means that he hasn’t yet. We should wait. It is something like what Gandalf says to Frodo when he appears in the Shire. Frodo says to him, “You’re late.” To which he responds, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”3
Second, if we do not meet Jesus, or hear from him, the fault may be our own. Lewis says that light cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror. Jesus says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15). If we have never expected God to show up, we cannot expect to have met him. Likewise, if we have never slowed down to listen, we ought not be surprised if we have not heard. There is a reason we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
We mention here three ways by which we might encounter Jesus. First, in prayer. In prayer we ask for help. We ask for mercy and grace, and that is pictured as approaching the very throne of God. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). When Isaiah approached the throne of God–which is identified as a vision of Christ (Jn. 12:36-41)–his life was changed forever. He saw himself in contrast to God’s holiness and he confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Not only did he see himself as he really is, but he was called to a mission in that same vision. When God asked “Who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; Send me!” (6:8). This is not unlike what happened when Peter came into Jesus presence in Luke 5. He confessed his sin and received a commission to become a fisher of men (5:1-11). So, we should be prepared for what may happen when through prayer we enter into the presence of God and approach the throne of grace. We may find ourselves confessing our sins or called to some far flung corner of the world. We never know what will happen or what Jesus might say. Remember, he is a person. This is a relationship. In relationships each responds to the other. And we should expect no less from Jesus.
We should also expect an answer to our prayers. We should expect God to show up. When David was exiled from Jerusalem because his son Absalom his trusted advisor, Ahithophel, was reported now to be in service of Absalom. David immediately prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31). What happens then is no voice from heaven, nor does Ahithophel become a babbling idiot. Still, what happens is no less an answer from God than a voice from the clouds. “Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and earth on his head. David said to him, ‘If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me. But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, “I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant,” then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel'” (15:32-34). David prays that God would turn Ahithophels counsel into foolishness and immediately God answers. He sends Hushai the Archite to do just that. When we say that we pray to God and we listen for an answer we do not mean that we hear voices from heaven, or voices in our head for that matter. But we do mean that God is present. Jesus is here. And not only does he listen, but he responds.
There is a story told of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network. When things were really getting off the ground with EWTN she wanted to expand things and she ordered an enormous satellite dish. She doesn’t have the money to pay for it but she orders it anyway. When the fellow arrives with the dish he says, “I’m supposed to ask you right away for the money. I’m not going to leave this thing here until we’re paid. It’s $600,000.” She says, “Give me one minute” and goes inside to the chapel and prays to God. She says something like, “Alright Lord, I thought you wanted me to have this things, so I ordered it. You better come through.” She leaves the chapel to go and tell the fellow that she doesn’t have the money. Just as she does one of the young nuns runs up to her and says, “Mother, Mother! There’ someone on the phone who wants to talk to you right away.” On a yacht, in the Bahamas, is some business man who had read some of her books and had admired her for quite some time. He said, “Something told me that I needed to send you $600,000.” To which she responds, “Wire it right away!”4 And so she gets the dish which you can still see to this day. When she prayed, God showed up. She expected an answer, and she got one.
Second, we meet Jesus in the reading of scripture. In the Mishnah it says, “But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. Scripture speaks here of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward? Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.”5 . As we read and study the word of God we enter into the presence of God and he speaks to us.
Remember that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It is so because it comes from the mouth of a living Lord. As such, the words are not static. Whenever we listen to the words of scripture it would be a mistake to think that they mean only one thing and that they mean the same thing to every person. If we all came with the same question to Jesus he would not give us all the same answer. Why? Because we are all different and we all need different things. When we treat the word as if it is dead, as if it means only one thing, then we are forced to interpret it in such a way that is becomes applicable in that same way to everyone, and that is a mistake. Jesus did not call everyone he met to leave all and follow him, but he did call twelve to do just that. He did not call everyone to sell what they have and give to the poor, but he did call the rich young ruler to do just that (cf. Mat. 19:21). He did not call everyone to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he did call Paul to be just that. Can we be sure, when we read scripture, that the words do not apply to us exactly as they are written? It is not for me to say that you must sell all that you have an give to the poor. Neither is it for me to say that you must not. You have to do with Jesus. He is the Lord which issues his command. When St. Anthony went to worship he heard the reading of the gospel which said, “Be not anxious for the morrow” (Mat. 6:34). He immediately got up, left the service, sold all that he had and went to the desert where he would depend solely upon God for tomorrow’s provisions.6 St. Anthony did not ridicule others because they did not follow him to the desert. He did not make the mistake of thinking that the word which Jesus spoke to him in the reading of the gospel was the same word that he spoke to others. But when Jesus’ command came to him he had no choice but to obey, and obey he did. We must allow for the possibility that we may meet Jesus in a similar way. He may gave us similar commands. The word of God is not dead because its author is not dead. What he says he says to each of us individually, if only we are willing to listen.
Finally, we meet Jesus in community. We have seen already how that Jesus is continually active through his body, the church. When the church is what it ought to be, when she is disciplined by the word of God, when she lives in the rhythms of the very life of God and is shaped by her worship, she may speak to us as a spokesman for Jesus.
“One of the most delightful examples comes from ‘the poor little monk of Assisi,’ St. Francis. Francis, it seems, was in ‘great agony of doubt’ about whether he should devote himself only to prayer and meditation, which was a common practice in those days, or whether he should also engage in preaching missions. Wisely, Francis sought out counsel. ‘As the holy humility that was in him did not allow him to trust in himself or in his own prayers, he humbly turned to others in order to know God’s will in this matter.’ He sent to two of his most trusted friends, Sister Clare and Brother Silvester, asking them to meet with one of their ‘purer and more spiritual companions’ and seek the will of God in the matter. Immediately, they gathered to pray and both Sister Clare and Brother Silvester returned wit the same answer. When the messenger returned, St. Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling down before the messenger, St. Francis asked him, ‘What does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?’ The messenger replied that Christ had revealed that ‘He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.’ Receiving the message as the undisputed word of Christ, St. Francis jumped up saying, ‘So let’s go–in the name of the Lord,’ whereupon he immediately embarked on a preaching mission.”7 As Peter and Paul were Christ’s representatives to so many, so the church continues to be Christ’s presence in the world. So it is said, “If you cannot listen to your brother, you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit.”8 Of course, the church, even at her best, can be fallible. So we “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). The frailty of the church does not negate the fact that our brothers and sisters may speak the words of Christ into our lives.
Are You Ready?
Hopefully now it has become clear: there is no escape. Jesus is not someone “back there” and his works are not “back then.” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. He is alive, and he is active. We meet him in a thousand different ways and he continues to speak to us. He calls us, he commands us, because he intends to change us. When we are ready to face Christ in the flesh, as a reality today, we face him as a lion, and so I am reminded of Jill in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. When she first arrives in Narnia she finds herself unbearably thirsty. Happily, she hears a stream near by, but as she approaches she is stopped dead in her tracks. There, just on her side of the stream, is the Lion Aslan. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink” he says. That’s Jesus invitation to us all. Hearing the stories of men and women like David, Deborah, Peter, and Paul, of certain saints like St. Anthony or St. Francis, all make us thirsty, like Jill, thirsty for an encounter with Jesus. At the same time, we are a little afraid of what might happen if we were really to meet him. So, like Jill, we ask him politely to go away. Aslan says, “Are you not thirsty?” to which she responds, “I’m dying of thirst.” “Then drink”, said the Lion. “May I–couldI–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. She wanted satisfaction without the Lion. Like her, we want satisfaction without Jesus. We may even want religion with Jesus. Church and family are fun. They’re full of friends and games, and we like those well enough. But very often, we’d be more pleased if we could have them without Jesus not knowing that even if we could have it, it would not satisfy. Of course, Aslan refused to move. Jill could not drink without drawing near to Aslan, and so we cannot have the life we were made for without Jesus. Of course, even Jesus isn’t so threatening, so long as we can keep him caged up in a book. That was Jill’s thought too. She thought that perhaps she could get close to Aslan by taming him. “Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. Like her we want all of the comfort of Christ with none of the change. We want all of the riches of Christ with none of the responsibility. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. The thing is, we stand before Jesus as we would stand before a lion. We cannot know what might happen if we get too close. But if we give ourselves to Jesus he will do with us what we could never imagine. So follows this final exchange between Jill and Aslan.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occured to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up.”9
We may run from Jesus, but there is no other stream. Only he has the water of life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Oddly enough, the most common way of running from Jesus is by trying to tame him. We want a promise that he isn’t going to do anything to us. But that’s not how things work. He is living, and active. His call and commands meet us sternly in prayer, in scripture, and in the community. When Peter, James, and John were commanded to leave their nets, there was no interpretation that could save them. When Jesus told Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree, there was no illusion that he meant anything other than what he said. Jesus’ living voice remains today. Who knows when we will meet him or what he might say? Who knows how our lives might change? When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy first heard of Aslan they asked if he were safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There is no grander adventure than being a Christian. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. Do not be trouble. Though Jesus be not safe, you can trust that when you meet him you will know that he is good.
©M. Benfield, 2017
1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 150.↩
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.↩
3. Peter Jackson, director, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, (New Line Cinema, 2001). A clip of the scene may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvWCnqY-GWQ .↩
4. As related by Bishop Robert Barron here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDBTT9NL0_Q&t=379s .↩
5. Herbert Danby, trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.2, p.450.↩
6. The story is related here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm .↩
7. As told by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 180.↩
8. Virgil Vogt, as quoted by Richard Foster. Ibid, 187.↩
9. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 21-23.↩