Why does the mysterious teacher from Nazareth still call and compel followers after 2,000 years?
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By William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The highway that winds up from the sea to Jerusalem is a rapidly ascending road through picturesque but rugged terrain. The heat is high and the vegetation sparse. Israeli military trucks lumber up the hill, making it slow going to the Holy City. Wrecks of tanks and rusting hulks from military skirmishes of the recent past have been left along the road as memorials to the fallen along this bloody, much disputed thoroughfare. The name Jerusalem means "foundation of peace," though it never lived up to its name. Stuck in fuming traffic, inching along in the heat, I muse, "What a road for God Almighty to walk."
Most people met Jesus on the road. When John the Baptizer introduced Jesus to the world, he quoted the prophet Isaiah, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low ... and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." In Jesus, God worked a highway construction project, making a road straight through the desert to enslaved humanity. Just as in the exodus, when God made a "way" out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land, so Jesus is the "way" to God. How ironic that while we clamored up to God through our intellect, our morality, our architecture, our art, and our institutions (both secular and religious), in Jesus Christ, God slipped in among us. The first name for the church was simply "The Way," not only our way to God but rather God's way to us.
All the gospels present Jesus on a continual road trip—God in motion, urgently making a way to us in defeat of the desert in which we wander. Euthys, the Greek word for "immediately" occurs forty-two times in Mark's Gospel. No sooner does Jesus do something than "immediately" he hits the road to elsewhere. Some of Jesus' best words were spoken on the run. Many have wanted to know more about the early childhood and adolescence of Jesus. Matthew and Luke tell us a little about the circumstances of Jesus' birth, and Luke has one story about his going to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve. In Mark, probably the earliest of the gospels, Jesus just shows up out of nowhere, gets baptized by John, and then the Spirit shoos him out into the wilderness. It is as if the gospels want to say that the action only really gets going when Jesus hits the road.
Jesus cannot be explained simply as the next chapter in the long, gradual, forward advance of humanity; his birth to a virgin named Mary signifies that Jesus is present as the miraculous gift of a gracious God, the God-given goal of all human history. The gospels tell us that knowing where this gift came from, who his people were, isn't going to help us much. If you want to know about Jesus, if you want to know him, you've got to meet him on the road.
What the gospels deem important about Jesus is not his family or his youth but rather his embarkation on his ministry, his forward movement, his mission. Breaking like a wave across dusty Galilee, he thunders forth into a captive land—God at highest momentum, God immediately. Anybody who wants to meet Jesus, to understand or be with Jesus, must be willing to relocate.
The Scriptures of Israel are a long story of how humanity busily attempts to be done with the God we have got. Shortly after God made us in God's own image, we returned the compliment, trying to make God more palatable, someone who looked suspiciously like us. We so want to be gods unto ourselves. (The word Israel means "contend against God.") And yet in those same Scriptures, there is a sort of relentlessness about God's determination, despite our rebellion, to make a way toward Israel, to be God for us as God is, not as we would have God to be.
Aside to Jesus: At my advanced age, your frenetic pace is beginning to show on me. I long to locate, to bed down, settle in, and sit tight on what I already know of you rather than be forced to follow into some unknown destination. I find it remarkable that you have absolutely nothing to say about retirement. Have you found that you are at your best when working with people younger than thirty?
God promised to come in spite of our sad human history. God vowed to be with us, to show us God's glory, power, and love. That all sounded fine until God Almighty dramatically made good on the promise and actually showed up, not as the thoroughly malleable God we wanted but rather as Jesus of Nazareth. Even among Jesus' closest followers, his twelve disciples, there was this strange attraction to him combined with an understandable revulsion from him. "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me," he said. But the things Jesus said and did led many to despise him. On a dark Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, that revulsion became bloody repulsion as we nailed Jesus' hands and feet to a cross and hoisted him up, naked, over a garbage dump outside of town. At last, we had silenced Jesus and the God he presented—or so we thought.
Three times, Jesus hinted that his death might not be the end of the drama, yet the thought that anything in the world could be stronger than death was inconceivable to everyone around Jesus, even as it is inconceivable today. (Folks back then might not have known everything we know today, but they knew that what's dead stays dead.) All of his disciples were quickly resigned to his death. End of story. It was a good campaign while it lasted, but Jesus had not been enthroned as the national Messiah, the Savior of Israel. Caesar won. Rather than cry, "Crown him!" the crowd had screamed, "Crucify!" and stood by gleefully as the Romans nailed Jesus to a cross. Mocking him, the soldiers devised a crown of thorns and shoved it on his head, and they tacked above the cross a snide sign, "KING OF THE JEWS." Some king, reigning from a cross. In about three hours, Jesus died of either suffocation or loss of blood, depending on whom you talk to.
As is so often the case with a true and living God, our sin was not the end of the story. Three days after Jesus had been brutally tortured to death by the government—egged on by a consortium of religious leaders like me, deserted by his disciples, and then entombed—a couple of his followers (women) went out in the predawn darkness to the cemetery. The women went forth, despite the risk, to pay their last respects to the one who had publicly suffered the most ignominious of deaths. ("Where were the men who followed Jesus?" you ask. Let's just say for now that Jesus was never noted for the quality or courage of his male disciples.)
At the cemetery, place of rest and peace for the dead, the earth quaked. The huge stone placed before the tomb entrance (why on earth would the army need a big rock to keep the dead entombed?) was rolled away. An angel, messenger of God, perched impudently upon the rock.
The angel preached the first Easter sermon: "Don't be afraid. You seek Jesus, who was crucified? He is risen! Come, look at where he once lay in the tomb." Then the angel commissioned the women to be Jesus' first preachers: "Go, tell the men that he has already gone back to Galilee. There you will meet him."
It was a typically Jesus sort of moment, with people thinking they were coming close to where Jesus was resting, only to be told to "Go!" somewhere else. Jesus is God in motion, on the road, constantly going elsewhere, often to where he is not invited. Jesus was warned by his disciples not to go to Jerusalem, but Jesus, ever the bold traveler, did not let danger deter him, with predictable results—death on a cross. And now, on the first Easter morning, death doesn't daunt his mission. Jesus is once again on the move. So the angel says to the women, "You're looking for Jesus? Sorry, just missed him. By this time in the day, he's already in Galilee. If you are going to be with Jesus, get moving!"
The women obeyed and—sure enough—out in Galilee the risen Christ encountered them. Why Galilee? All of Jesus' disciples were Galileans. It's the Judean outback, a dusty, rural sort of place. Jesus himself hailed from Galilee, from Nazareth, a cheerless town in a forlorn region that swarmed with Gentiles. It was a notorious hotbed of Jewish resistance to Roman rule. ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asked Nathaniel, before he met Jesus.)
So the risen Christ has returned once again to those who had so miserably forsaken and disappointed Jesus the first time around. It's emblematic of Jesus. Despite his disciples' betrayal, on the first day of his resurrected life, there's Jesus with nothing more pressing to do than immediately return to the ragtag group of Galilean losers who had failed him.
And what does Jesus say to them? Does he say, "You have all had a rough time lately. Settle down and snuggle in here in Galilee among these good country folks with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build a church, and enjoy being a spiritual club"? No, he doesn't say that. This is Jesus, after all, not a Methodist bishop. The risen Christ commands, "Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing, and teaching everything I've commanded you! And don't limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I'll stick with you until the end of time—just to be sure you obey me."
How like peripatetic Jesus not to allow his people to rest, not to encourage them to hunker down with their own kind, but rather to send forth on the most perilous of missions those who had so disappointed him. They were, in Jesus' name, to go and take back the world that belonged to God. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obeying Jesus, venturing with Jesus to "Go! Make disciples!"
By the way, in that time and in that place, the testimony of women was suspect, inadmissible in a court of law, ridiculed as worthless. So why would the early church have staked everything on the testimony of these women at the tomb? You can be sure that if the men (hunkered down in Jerusalem, I remind you) could have told the story of Jesus' resurrection another way, minus the women, they would have—which means that his earliest appearance to the women is exactly how it happened.
One expects the angel to say, "Don't be so sad," which is what we often say to people in grief. But the angel told the women, "Don't be afraid." When the resurrected Jesus met his disciples in Galilee, he said the same thing: "Don't be afraid!" One can understand why the dazzling angel at the empty tomb told the Roman guards not to be afraid. After all, they had just been defeated by the resurrection of Jesus—perhaps it was payback time for Pontius Pilate. You would think the disciples would be glad that Jesus was raised from the dead and back with them. Why would the risen Christ need to command his followers not to fear?
I don't know for sure, but I think it was because it wasn't just, "Jesus is back from the dead!" nor much less (at least, at this point in the story), "Jesus is back from the dead, and we shall all live forever in heaven." Rather, it was, "Jesus has been raised from the dead!" Those who knew Jesus best, his disciples who had followed Jesus along the way from Galilee and who were now being sent by the risen Christ to the farthest reaches of the earth, knew enough about Jesus to realize that the angel's sermon, "He's back!" was not unadulterated good news. Furthermore, the risen Christ had just promised them, in effect, "I only had about three years to work on you and bring you face-to-face with the true God of Israel until the Romans caught up with me, but now I'm raised from the dead; I'm with you always, even to the end of the age! You will never, ever be rid of me!"
Aside to Jesus: I must say that your propensity to work outside officially credentialed channels, to do what you do through people who are often considered to be the wrong age, gender, race, or social class is disturbing—particularly to many people in my gender, age, race, and social class.
And thus were the disciples told, "Don't be afraid." Those who knew Jesus best, and were in turn known best by him, knew that, while friendship with Jesus is sweet, it is also demanding, difficult, and, at times, even fearsome.
As the Bible says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Presumably, it's not fearful to fall into the hands of a dead god, an idol who never shocks or demands anything of you, who is no more than a fake, a godlet, a mere projection of your fondest desires and silliest wishes. Out in Galilee—a dusty, drab, out-of-the-way sort of place, just like where most of us live—the disciples of Jesus were encountered by the living God. That Jesus could not only give death the slip but also be in Galilee suggests that the risen Christ could show up anywhere, anytime. And that's scary.
Here is God, not as a high-sounding principle, a noble ideal, or a set of rock-solid beliefs. Here is God on the move, moving toward us; God defined by God, God ordering us to be on the move into the world with God. And that's a joyful thing—but more than a little scary too. When it dawns on you that the living God is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah we didn't expect, the Savior we didn't want, God in motion—well, fear is a reasonable reaction.
The modern world has many ways of turning us in on ourselves, eventually to worship the dear little god within. Christianity, the religion evoked by Jesus, is a decidedly fierce means of wrenching us outward. We are not left alone peacefully to console ourselves with our sweet bromides, or to snuggle with allegedly beautiful Mother Nature, or even to close our eyes and hug humanity in general. A God whom we couldn't have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God were merely a figment of our imagination—God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. This God scared us to death but also thrilled us to life. Why this mix of fear and joy was elicited by Jesus is one of the questions we'll be tackling in this book.
A few days after Jesus' resurrection, his followers figured out that they were caught up in some of that same death-to-life dynamic as Jesus. Paul told the church at Rome, "Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." And to the Ephesians, "God made us alive together with Christ ... raised us up with him, made us to sit with him in heavenly places." Living into resurrection, giving death the slip, they too were now on the move, just like Jesus. Jesus was, for them, not only the blinding light of the sun but also the fierce wind driving their lives where they would never have gone were they left to their own devices.
The Galilean who made fools of Death and of the Devil was a vagabond in many dimensions. The gospels differ on aspects of Jesus, but they agree that Jesus lived his adult life as a wandering beggar, without visible means of support. He never held a job or had a proper home. Many Jews expected God to come and save them; few expected God to show up as a homeless man, unmarried and unemployed. Constantly, Jesus crossed lines and transgressed boundaries. In clear violation of biblical law and custom, he reached out and touched lepers, insane persons, "unclean" women, corpses. Once, wandering about, he broke the law against plucking grain on the Sabbath, earning him the ire of the religious keepers of propriety. His family thought he was mad. Some biblical authorities of the day attributed his healing powers to demonic possession. He called the rich "fools," saying to them, "woe to you who are rich," and to the despised and neglected poor, he preached liberating "good news." People like me, with advanced study in religion who made their living through interpreting God to less informed people like you, he called "whitewashed tombs," all spic and span outside, rotten inside. Though he never had a cent, he often partied with tax collectors (the hated collaborators with the Roman occupation forces in Judea), and people despised him for it. He praised the much hated Samaritans, making one a hero in a loved story. In all these actions and in people's reactions, we see Jesus on the move, leading away from the status quo and toward some new, rather frightening realm called "the kingdom of God."
Excerpted from Why Jesus? by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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