We are a culture that loves the name of Jesus. Say the name, and it sells products. Post the name, and it’s shared widely on Facebook. “Praise the name of Jesus,” we sing. “Blessed be the name!” “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, sweetest name I know!” When I sang these words as a child in the ‘60s, there was only one Jesus, and indeed the name was sweet. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and all my Christian acquaintances sang of one Jesus, and all the Christians I had encountered were a united spiritual family.
Today though we are confused by two Jesuses, and they don’t resemble each other at all. One is the Jesus of our Christian subculture which includes many of our churches, and the other is the Jesus of the Gospels. I fear that unless we find our way back to the Jesus of the Gospels, church as we know it is on its way to irrelevance, and then to oblivion.* Christian friends, please hear me out. We might be fighting for the wrong Jesus.
The first Jesus is a political entertainment figure. We could nickname him “Jesus Beck,” “Jesus O’Reilly,” or “Jesus Limbaugh.” This Jesus teaches his followers that all things Republican are of God, and his two main concerns are abortion and gay rights. This Jesus came into prominence in the 1970s, the brainchild of Jerry Falwell and others who united with him to forge Christian America into a political army.
God, however, is neither Republican nor Democrat, nor even American, and, while abortion and gay rights are important issues worthy of our discourse, Jesus of the Gospels said nothing at all about them, at least to our knowledge, unless we count loving our neighbor and forgiveness.
Then who is the other Jesus, the one we have left behind? We could call this one “Jesus the Christ.” He too has his passions. Love your neighbor. Feed the hungry. Welcome the immigrants. Don’t confuse God and Caesar. Care for the poor. Stand up for the oppressed. Reach out to the marginalized. Show compassion. These are his heart’s cries. These are his passions.
If we continue to listen to the media Jesus (via our chosen media sources or via church and denominational leaders who listen to these sources), we might never hear Jesus the Christ, for he is gentle and speaks in our quietness and our solitude. We prefer to hear the Jesus that speaks in loud angry words. We prefer to judge our neighbor and decide for ourselves whether he is worthy of any compassion. We know who deserves to be helped better than Jesus does. We understand food stamps, prisoners, and immigrants better than Jesus does.
How can we find Jesus again, the Jesus of the Gospels, if we want to? The answer is simple, yet so very difficult because it probably means standing against church and religious culture. We find him in the Gospels. Not in the Church’s interpretation of the Gospels, not in cable news’ take on world events, but in reading the Gospels for ourselves, at home, alone, just like we read the newspaper, just like we read a best-selling novel. And when we finish, we read them again from another translation, and then again from another. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, cover to cover, over and over.
It’s not our fault, Christians, but we have been led astray, tricked, used. I’m going back. I miss Jesus.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.