I‘m definitely a child of my post-modern generation: I tend to recognize multiple valid perspectives on any question; I experience truth as dynamic, changing in its expression depending on context; and I am suspicious of black-and-white, either/or thinking. Yet, I also follow a man who makes some pretty black-and-white truth claims. I have faith in a God who acts in history to uphold a particular truth, a vision of social justice and personal holiness that has clear definition and is anything but relative. Despite my post-modern inclination to embrace nuance, paradox and gray areas, Jesus presents me with a yes or no decision: Will I follow him, or not?
The choice to answer “yes” is a direct challenge to the status quo. All of a sudden, I find that I can’t go along anymore with my culture’s competing truth claims. There so many things claiming to be the answer, from soda pop and luxury automobiles to political regimes and philosophical movements, but now I find myself in relationship to the one who truly is the real thing. Jesus has become not merely one option for my personal growth, nor just a great teacher whose wisdom I can mix and match with other teachers and paths. Instead, I am put in the uncomfortable position of following him as my Lord and my God.
By relating to Jesus as what Paul Tillich would call ultimate concern, I shine a spotlight on the inadequacy of all other, less-than-ultimate concerns. Family, country, community, wealth, peace and progress, all these things are good and necessary for our well-being, but they fall short of ultimacy. In Jesus, I discover that it’s not enough to be happy, healthy and wealthy if I’m not following the ultimate truth.
Rod White, founder of the Circle of Hope community in Philadelphia, recently wrote an excellent post about how much Jesus’ “exclusivity” challenges our wider culture. The very act of claiming sole fidelity to Jesus is deeply offensive to a perspective that says each of us has our own subjective reality, and that the only real truth is to be found in our personal experiences and relationships. Acknowledging Jesus as Lord blows open that whole worldview. It is an act that says, “there is someone far more beautiful, powerful and important than any of us can comprehend, and we must change our lives to follow him!” For a culture that prizes the individual’s freedom to define their own meaning, this is a slap in the face.
Despite how offensive and exclusive Jesus may seem to many, following him is ultimately the most inclusive, loving thing we can do. Rod White expresses this beautifully in his post, where he explains that our culture’s way of creating belonging is through shared affinity – for example, the kind of music we listen to, games we play, work we do, or pets we own. Our culture seeks to create unity through subcultures centered on shared consumption, rather than shared purpose.
These various subcultures – including many religious groups, I might add! – are an extremely exclusive way of forming community. They depend upon a group of people gathered around shared traits or interests. They gather around who we are and what we do rather than who God is and what God is doing.
Jesus does things differently. He draws us into community with people that we would not have chosen ourselves. Rather than coming together primarily out of shared hobbies, life experience or social/class backgrounds, Jesus calls people who are profoundly different. These folks might not even like each other; yet, in Jesus, they discover an irresistible love that unites them.
I’ve seen this play out many times: God draws together a bunch of misfits, folks who no reasonable person would have picked out, but who our unreasonable God designed to cohere in his Spirit. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of: a community that stretches me to love folks I don’t like, to grow beyond the normal bounds of human affinity.
No doubt, many will misunderstand this kind of community. They will perceive it as exclusive to build a spiritual family around such a narrow idea as that of following Jesus, and only Jesus. They may even assume that, because they have not chosen to follow Jesus, they are unwelcome in such a fellowship. While we can’t control the reaction of others, I do hope to be part of a community so radiant with Christ’s inclusive love that even those who are skeptical of our faith will be drawn to us. When we are dwelling in the Spirit, others may perceive that we want to be friends with them – not because we like them, and not because they say the right words or believe the right things, but because Jesus already loves them and accepts them. And as his friends, so do we.