The theology behind almost every one of our ecclesial disputes is Christological. Simply put, church conflicts cannot be resolved when we make Jesus into an abstract idea, rather than a living, breathing, incarnate reality.
It is my belief that almost every disagreement within the church arises because each of us has created a particular Jesus, one who sees the world much like we do, and in doing so our “own personal Jesus” has become an idea, rather than the embodied presence of God. We love our idea of Jesus, especially because that idea always corresponds to our own way of thinking in the first place.
Why is this a problem? Well, here are a few thoughts:
There is no room for an abstract idea of Jesus to challenge your thinking. The real flesh and blood Jesus challenges human ideas all the time.
There is no way for an abstract idea of Jesus to empathize with suffering. The real flesh and blood Jesus suffers alongside people, meeting pain head-on.
It is not possible for an abstract idea of Jesus to relate to diverse human experiences. The real flesh and blood Jesus can talk with fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, disciples, prostitutes, centurions, children, grown-ups, the rich, the poor, the Jews, the Samaritans … and on and on.
In other words, when we reduce Jesus to an abstract idea, we lose the essence of who he is. When we impoverish our Christology to the point of abstraction, we make Jesus into no more than a weapon to wield against those with whom we disagree. And that’s just not okay.
The dispute du jour in the United Methodist Church is whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to be married and whether or not gay people should be allowed to be ordained. (Yes, for you non-UMC people, we are still debating these questions - *sigh* - What can I say? Navel-gazing amuses us.)
The denomination is polarized over the questions, with one pole saying “You just can’t” and one pole saying “You have to,” and I can’t help but think that the theological gap between their positions is and impoverished Christology. Each has created a version of Jesus that fits their own viewpoint, and appeals to that abstract idea of Jesus in their discussions on the issues.
So each pole cites Scripture, each pole emphasizes the mission of the church, each pole laments becoming a “dead sect” instead of a vital, vibrant church. People from each pole, in other words, have created faith-based frameworks that use very similar language from which to make their case. Each pole has created a Jesus who sees things like they do, and appeal to him as their source of authority.
And now each pole is unable to vary from their positions, lest they be considered unfaithful. There is no compromise for those on the poles, because to do so would be to admit that they might be wrong, which would mean that the Jesus they created might be wrong, which of course we could never say – Jesus can’t be “wrong,” can he?
In the meantime, there are a lot of people in the center of the dispute du jour, who would say “You can but you don’t have to” about marriage and ordination of people who are gay.
In this large “center” of the church there are people who are more ready for the real live Jesus to challenge their perspective and to change their minds. There are people who have experienced how the real live Jesus suffers alongside people instead of callously dismissing them. There are people who are open to how the real live Jesus might relate to people differently in different situations, even situations that are very different from their own.
I honestly do not know what exactly is going to happen over the next year or so in the United Methodist Church. Will the majority of us in the “You can but you don’t have to” center of the denomination be able to fashion a workable compromise? If we do, will the poles then split off and become their own thing? And then if they do that, will the hard work of the compromise prove to be a waste of resources and energy, if they were just going to split off anyway? There is so much speculation and guessing going on in the denomination right now, but the truth is that nobody knows anything for sure.
What I do know for sure is that Jesus is Jesus, and the heart of this dispute (and many others) is our inability or our unwillingness to allow him to be so. Rather, we insist on creating a personal Lord and Savior who sees the world exactly like we do, and then we use that version of Jesus to attack one another.
We’re coming up to Palm Sunday, when we remember how a whole crowd of people created their own personal Jesus, a Jesus who was going to conquer the Romans and drive them out of Israel, a Jesus who saw the world very much as they did. As they marched into Jerusalem with this abstract idea of Jesus, they shouted his praises and waved victorious branches in the air.
But then, Jesus was Jesus. Jesus refused to be an abstract idea. Jesus had no intention of conforming to human expectations. And even though he told them several times that it was going to happen, his followers were nevertheless stunned when he was killed.
This season, what might happen if all of us followers of Jesus who think we know him so well would empty out our Jesus bottles, so to speak, and allow him to do what he does? What might happen if we surrendered our preconceived notions of Jesus, started with a clean slate, and just let Jesus be Jesus?