Click here to view the full sermon video, titled "Love Jesus"
The very first church that I was called to serve belonged, in our Presbyterian way of order, to the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee; a geographic region that reach from the Kentucky border in the north to the Alabama border in the south, smack dab in the center portion that included Nashville. Every new pastor was asked the same question at their first meeting of the Presbytery in front of all their new colleagues and friends. And it came from the same person. Gudger Nichols has once been the pastor to the church I had been called to serve, but the brain injury he suffered from a car accident decades earlier had hastened an early exit from parish ministry. Still, Gudger was faithful to his call in his own way, which included this question he felt compelled to ask every time. “Do you love Jesus?” Even when I knew it was coming, it still took me a little by surprise. We frozen chosen aren’t always super comfortable expressing our faith in that way. It makes me think that there is more than a little truth for all of us in the famous song from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar: We Don’t Know How to Love Him.
Learning to love Jesus, says Scott Black Johnson, our guide to retraining our hearts to love during this season of Lent; learning to love Jesus is like learning to love God. It means doing what we do when we come to love anyone. We pay attention to who they are. We learn to love the things that they love. The difference, of course between the way we talk about loving God and the way we talk about loving Jesus is that Jesus really was, and is, an actual person. But you wouldn’t always know it the way some people talk about him. Much of the talk you hear about Jesus from the folks who appear to know him and love him best has a lot to do with what he’s done for them. Jesus died for your sins, we’re sometimes told in a way that it makes it sound like it would be awfully ungrateful of us not to love him for that too. But as is often the case, that kind of tactic tends to backfire. Nobody likes being guilted into love. And if they are, is that really love? Because it sure sounds like something else. Something kind of gross and manipulative. Neither of which are descriptions that we tend to associate with love. The truth is that it can be hard to actually love anyone if what we really love is what they do for us. This is the sad dynamic behind the famous story that Jesus tells about the lost son, sometimes called the prodigal son. In the story the younger of two sons asks for his share of what he would inherit BEFORE his father dies. Even when he has his change of heart and decides to return to his father’s estate, it has less to do with his father than it does with the fact that he knows that at least as a slave he won’t starve. The other son isn’t much better, even if he thinks he is. Because when his brother returns and the big party gets thrown, his complaint is that the father didn’t do for him what he did for someone who took the money and ran. One of the many tragedies of that story is that while both sons are busy calculating what they have, or haven’t got from their father, neither of them took much interest in the man himself, just what he could do for them. That’s pretty far from love.
So how do we go about loving Jesus for more than what he’s done for us? For some people it’s meant trying to delve into who he was; who he really was. After all, we’re talking about an historic person; the son of a carpenter in Nazareth who at the ripe old age of 30 gathered a following of fisherman, tax collectors and other B-team players of little consequence who traveled the Galilean countryside teaching and healing and eating with all the wrong people. He eventually brought his party to Jerusalem during one of his people’s most important religious festivals only to make a scene in the temple that likely got him executed publicly by the occupying Roman authority for disturbing their peace. This effort to paint the most accurate picture of the man in question is often referred to as the quest for the historical Jesus, after the book by that title authored by Albert Schweitzer at the turn of the 20th century. The thinking behind such a quest is to piece together a picture of the Jesus of history that is more complete than the Christ of faith that we meet in scripture. Certainly, knowing about someone gives us the possibility of loving them more than simply what they can do for us, but most anyone would agree that we are far more than the sum of the facts that can be learned about us.
The truth is that Jesus can look different to us depending on where we’re standing and who’s telling the story. In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren details the different versions of Jesus he’s encountered during his life from the picture book Jesus of his childhood- much like the glow-in-the-dark Good Shepherd statue Scott Black Johnston describes from his own upbringing- to the personal Jesus of the Pentecostal movement to the imminent Jesus in our midst as the second person of the Trinity in Eastern Orthodoxy. One of the things that makes Jesus so compelling to so many people is the promise that as the one who is God with us, tempted in every way as we are, Jesus understands what it means to be us. Jesus knows the human experience from the inside. The danger, of course, is that we take that understanding and interpret it in such a way that Jesus becomes indistinguishable from our experience, just a projection of ourselves with all the rough edges removed and not a poor first-century Palestinian Jewish man from Galilee. Or worse, we make for ourselves a Jesus in our own image who is so entirely safe as to be inconsequential. Johnston reminds us of the great C.S. Lewis’ depiction of the lion Aslan from the Narnia books who chases the character Shasta from The Horse and His Boy out of the desert to where he needs to go. When the Pevensie children from the first book in the series first hear about the great Lion Aslan, Susan asks, “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “Safe?” replies Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he ain’t safe. But he’s good.”
To love Jesus can be risky. To spend any time with him at all is to be changed, challenged. Jesus isn’t afraid to rebuke his friend Peter when Peter suggests the whole thing would be easier if Jesus would stop talking about suffering, rejection and death at the hands of the ruling authorities. He isn’t afraid to free us from the prisons of our own self-absorption and fear, to chase us out of the deserts and wild places where we get lost sometimes. But perhaps riskiest of all is that to accept an invitation from him is almost guaranteed to put us at a table, as the psalmist puts it, in the presence of our enemies. Or if not outright enemies, certainly people with whom we are sure we have nothing in common.
Johnston share his own experience while vacationing with his family at their cabin in northern Minnesota. “One August morning,” he writes, “I opened the local phone book and called the first name under the heading ‘septic tank pumping.’ It was time.” He goes on to relate how he made an appointment with the man who answered the phone, named Steve, who said he’d be out to take care of things the following Monday. He left a check under the welcome mat, but when he returned to the cabin on Tuesday, the check was still there. When he followed up, Steve apologized and explained that he had just been diagnosed with cancer for the third time and got hung up trying to make all the appointments for treatment. When Scott suggested he focus on healing and that he’d call someone else, Steve said, “No, I can use the money. How about I come next Monday.” At 7 AM the next Monday, what Johnston calls “the worst looking septic tank truck I have ever seen,” came rumbling down the cabin’s driveway. Scott went out to meet Steve with the check and found him wearing a red MAGA hat, kneeling and uncoiling some hoses behind the truck. Scott noticed the big green Jesus fish on the back of the truck’s tank and they talked about its meaning. When Scott let it slip that he was a pastor, Steve’s eyes lit up, “Me too! I am an associate pastor at the Independent Gospel Church in town.” Before he could beat a hasty retreat back inside the cabin, Steve said, “thanks for giving me an extra week. I’ve got to admit, I’m sort of worried about this whole cancer thing. The doctors say I’m tough. I’ve beaten it twice. But I have a daughter in college, bills to pay, and I am wondering, could we pray?” And there in the smoke and rain and stink of life, Steve took Scott’s hands, bowed his head, and said, “Precious Lord…” When Scott got back inside, mosquito bitten and wiping more than rain from his eyes, his wife asked, “What took you so long?”
“Jesus,” he answered. “Jesus and his meddling ways.”