Late one afternoon my favorite Rabbi rang me up: “Get over here now.” “Why, what’s up?” John tells me a large Christian body has just voted and declared open season on Jews. “What do you mean?” He said, “They want to convert us to your side. A TV news reporter is on the way to interview me. You’ve got to come and say not all Christians are like this.” So, I went to the synagogue. I told the reporter, “Not all Christians believe Jesus sends us to tell Jews or anyone to ‘turn or burn.’ Jesus sends us to love others and reconcile people, not divide and conquer with fear and guilt.” At least that seemed to be the spirit of the Jesus I had come to know.
As a Sunday School kid, we’d get a star for repeating Peter’s answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but saying it seemed to work magic. They said if you say it, you’d go to heaven when you died. In the meantime, you are to tell everyone they have to say it, too. But I wasn’t convinced that’s what Jesus really meant or wanted.
The Jews, including the disciples had inherited ideas about what the Messiah would be and do. They knew of messiahs – like David, men anointed by God. They kept holding out for a special one. They had their expectations: “When Messiah comes, no one will push us around. We’ll have all we need. Messiah will bring us a great life.” But that’s not quite how things worked out with Jesus. And that’s why Peter and others needed time to understand giving the right answer isn’t enough. You can’t speak about him with being in relationship with him on his terms, not created from your thoughts or what we want.
Peter and his friends are not alone. We have inherited ideas of what Messiah does. Some want a Messiah who takes hard times away; cures hangnail or chapped lips on demand; keeps stock values rising; smites enemies – a messiah who gets things done, creates jobs, lowers taxes and balances the budget. Jesus suffers and dies. He’s no savior the world is likely to follow. He doesn’t fit into our plans.
Jesus isn’t here to fit into our wants and plans. He comes to make us fit for God’s reign so we can fix what opposes God’s love for all and for this world. He’s a Messiah who welcomes children; eats with outcasts, sinners; invites all into God’s reign. He brings good news to the afflicted, restores vision to see God’s love and mercy for all. In his wake, nobodies become somebodies and the poor have a place at the table – some even get to the front of the line – ahead of the good religious people. He opposes religion and systems that oppress. He sets us free – not to do our own thing, but for God. He forgives, loves enemies, and to follow him sounds easy until we try it. Yet over time those who stayed close to him begin to understand they were seeing in him the power and love of God in a different way.
My rabbi friend doesn’t mind if I believe Jesus is Messiah. Those who say his name without embodying his spirit scare him. Christians who disrespect, demean, or degrade those they don’t like or with whom they differ, threaten others with fear or damnation won’t win Jesus new friends.
This past week I read in Christian Century that in a recent Public Policy survey the overall approval rating for – now get this, God, is at 50%, and 40% aren’t even sure they know how God is doing.[i] At least God’s doing better in the polls than the President, but not by much. I wonder if low numbers reflect an evaluation of God’s people rather than God. So many people can mistake the shrill voices of a few for God’s people – confronting, judging, condemning and sentencing them in God’s name. People outside us want to heard, listened to, and respected, and that may be what they need before they can hear how much God loves them.
So back to my rabbi friend – Do I talk with him about Jesus? We have. Do I fear for his salvation? No more than he does for mine. We listen to each other, learn from each other, and respect each other. That seems more like the spirit of Messiah whom God raises from death and sends back – forgiving and loving us into a new life and reign.
The late William Sloan Coffin, a Yale chaplain and pastor of Riverside Church in New York said in a talk at Harvard Divinity School: “The answer to bad evangelism is not no evangelism, but good evangelism. Good evangelism is not proselytizing but witnessing, bearing witness to ‘the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,’ bearing witness to the prophet’s cry: ‘Let justice roll down like mighty waters,’ and to the prophetic insight that we all belong to one another, everyone from the pope to the loneliest wino on the planet.”[ii]
God so loves the world, all, everyone – not just those who can say the right things. To follow him gets messy. It means we live the right things – so others might follow, too – because they see in us how much God loves. So let’s worry about our answer, not someone else’s – and what it means to us, and not for someone else. Who do you say he is? To know the right answer is more than saying it. To be in a relationship with the Messiah we trust means to follow him and no other even when we don’t have all the answers.
[i] Christian Century, August 23,2011, p. 9 (from a poll of Americans conducted mid-July by Public Policy Polling.
[ii] Quoted from The Scandalous gospel of Jesus, by Peter Gomes, Harper One, 2007