Brian Zahnd, a pastor in St. Joseph, Mo., has a fascinating story. He was once the stereotypical successful church planter, one of those dynamic preachers who started a church that quickly grew to become the large campus that it still is today. But at the height of the growth and vitality, he became convicted that something was missing. His faith and his ministry felt empty and he didn’t know why. He began to read the works of the early church fathers and ancient mystics, and essentially what happened is that he rediscovered Jesus. He realized that what had been missing was the actual teaching and example of Jesus.
So he decided to do an extended sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount. He began to reorganize and re-vision his church to do the things that he felt Jesus would actually be doing (rather than just attending a worship concert once a week and maybe meeting in small groups at home over fatty snacks and lackluster curriculum). He began to challenge his people to rediscover the radical way of Jesus and what this might mean for their own choices and priorities.
That’s when people started to leave. They were challenged in ways they didn’t want to be challenged. They left for safer ground.
Too many pastors can tell you a story of things getting weird when you try to take Jesus seriously. One of my early mentors shared about the day he preached on Jesus’ discussion with the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-23 / Luke 18:18-25). A woman in the congregation, who had always been well off and liked nice things, objected to him talking about giving up money and possessions. When he pointed out that he was just trying to deal honestly with what Jesus said, the woman responded, “I know Jesus said it, but that doesn’t mean you have to say it.”
Christianity and the life of the church have become a lot of different things, but it seems that feathers always get ruffled when you actually start taking seriously the example and teachings of the guy supposedly at the center of it all.
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote, “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of [humans], to that extent denies the faith of the Master.”
Especially when there’s cultural debate around a particular issue, people get trolled, families split apart, and pastors get fired when you start asking how we can take Jesus seriously. Jesus is fine as a name, but if you create an encounter between Jesus and the personal lives or politics of Christians, you might have trouble.
You can read Jesus’ words declaring blessed the “peacemakers,” “the meek,” and “the merciful” (Matt. 5:3-10), and you might get nods of approval, but if you start talking about actually being merciful towards the desperate or peaceful towards the violent, you might be called foolish.
You can read Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) and you won’t be chased out, but if you insert this into real life situations where people want revenge, you might be berated as weak, perhaps even unpatriotic, if you don’t go back to “eye for an eye.”
You can quote Jesus’ approach to our material possessions as “treasures on earth where moths and vermin destroy” (Matt. 6:19-20), or tell the story of the rich man being told to sell all he has (Mark 10:17-22). You can get a wink and a smile as you read Jesus saying that it’s “easier for the camel to go through the eye of a needle” (Luke 18:25). But start talking about actual economic equity, and you might be called a communist.
Surrounded by glimmering Christmas lights and angelic choruses, we read the story of a young Jesus’ family having to flee a violent ruler (Matt. 2:13-18). But bring up that this made Jesus’ family refugees and ask how this should inform our approach to the millions in similar situations today, and you might be told to get your politics out of church.
You can read the passage where Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (Luke 4:18-19), saying that fulfilled in Him is God’s mission to “proclaim good news to the poor … freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” You’re fine as long as you understand these words in a spiritualized, abstract way (Isaiah didn’t). But beware if you start talking about how to seek actual freedom and redemption for the imprisoned, or if you start trying to define who is actually “oppressed” and how to actually set them free. (And have you ever looked into what “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to?)
I’m reminded of those great lines from Wilbur Rees:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Jonathan Martin recently lamented on Twitter: “A 30-minute sermon won’t teach people to love neighbors their cable news teaches them all week to fear or hate. They’ve already been discipled.” He’s probably right, but that’s not the end of the story. That’s why we need more than preaching. We need it in real life and a real movement. To anyone reading this who seeks to take Jesus seriously: stick with it. People may leave — they left Jesus himself (John 6:66). But we must teach and live Jesus. We need it now more than ever.