Lectionary 14 (July 9, 2017)

The Gospel this morning frustrates us, filled as it is with cryptic quotations and apparent non-sequiturs. While it ends with one of the most beloved passages in the New Testament, that, too, seems at best an odd conclusion. For the Gospel to be good news, we have to let Jesus do a couple of things. We have to let Jesus challenge our image of Jesus, and we have let Jesus pull us out of ourselves.

It takes effort for me to envision the Jesus of the New Testament. I grew up with the late 1970s Jesus—basically the standard white North European Jesus (who didn’t exist), but with bushier hair and multicolored disciples. He was always depicted teaching or carrying a lamb over his shoulders. Never once did I see a picture of Jesus emptying a cask of wine with a bunch of tax collectors and hookers. For some reason that never made children’s Bibles. It’s something he does an awful lot, though. He knows what people call him, too: a glutton, a drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners. But he tells them, “Yeah? Well, when John the Baptist was working, you attacked him for being sober and refusing to eat.” It doesn’t matter how the messenger acts, apparently; the people don’t want to hear God. Jesus compares them to children yelling, “We played but you didn’t dance; we cried and you didn’t mourn.” It calls to mind the famous poem from Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a time…a time to mourn and a time to dance.” It’s like the people saw John, and said, “Hey, Mr. Morals: it’s not time to fast; it’s time to party!” Then they saw Jesus and said, “Hey, this is hardly the time to be partying.” Whether it was Jesus or John, the people responded that it was not the right time for what God was saying.

When we say, “It’s not the right time,” often what we mean is we recognize there’s a problem but don’t want to face it. We are where Paul is in Romans 7. “I don’t do what I want to do and instead do what I hate. It’s like my body is at war with my mind.” In this passage, theologian Karl Barth sees Paul expressing the false dualism that turns us inward instead of outward. In his commentary on Romans, Barth notes how most religion, including most Christianity, “breaks people into two halves. One half is the spirit of the inward person…. The other half is the natural world of my members.” Christianity in Barth’s childhood taught him he was a good person and Jesus loved him—which was true—and severed these things from his body. We’ve all heard this. Maybe we’ve said it. “I’m a good person. Those things I’m doing aren’t me.”

Barth watched as his liberal Christian professors and mentors backed German culture, German imperialism, and finally German military aims in World War I. Christianity was deployed to soothe the troubled spirits of middle class Germans. This Christianity declared: In the resurrection, we shall be what we shall be. In the meantime, Jesus loves you. Any pain that results from your actions isn’t really your doing. It isn’t really you. Don’t feel guilty about German economic development producing a class of wasted human beings: Jesus loves you. Don’t feel shame over Germany seizing parts of Poland, Denmark, France, and African kingdoms: you have an inner relationship with Jesus. Don’t feel complicit in a war that seems like one great killing machine: Jesus knows that isn’t the real you. Finally, Barth said, “Yeah, it is us. The war? That’s us. We are really doing that.”

Barth described the Christianity of his day as an exquisitely decorated bomb. Trying to hold spirit and body as separate entities occupying the same space was like trying to hold flame and powder in the same space. Barth writes, “The bomb, which [we have] so carefully decked out with flowers, will sooner or later explode.” There is no spirit/body split. My body is me, and it—I—will wind up doing things I do not intend to do. While we’re busy saying “It’s not the right time to do this,” we are destroying lives. While we are busy saying, “Wait ‘til the resurrection; then we shall be who we shall be,” Barth cries out, “I can’t wait to be who I am! I’m me now. And oh, what a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Barth, like Paul, recognizes that he needs someone to pull him out of himself. He needs Jesus. He needs Jesus to do what Jesus does.

Jesus pulls us out of ourselves by challenging our expectations of Jesus. Jesus says, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” He says it in response to those who say the time isn’t right, and it sounds like a total non-sequitur. Who the heck is he talking about? He is talking about himself. When he says, “Come to me, you who are weary. Take my yoke upon you,” his disciples recognize these as the words of Lady Wisdom from the book of Sirach. By Jesus’ day his people personified God’s wisdom as a woman—the Greek word for wisdom is feminine, and becomes a proper name: Sofia. By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, Christians seem to have had no trouble identifying the man Jesus as the embodiment of Divine Sofia. It raises some interesting questions for us. At the moment, what matters is that when Jesus says, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” he is talking about himself. He is talking about his deeds. The people are crying out, “Now is not the time, Jesus. Wait.” Jesus responds, “I am going to fix it so that Now is the time. No more waiting around to be who you are.”

Jesus acts. All of our sins—the things we do that we claim aren’t really us—Jesus destroys them. He doesn’t stop, though. It’s not one and done, see you in the resurrection. He rises from the dead after only three days. The resurrection, when we will be who we are supposed to be? It’s started. And, as we heard on Trinity Sunday, when the risen Jesus meets his disciples, he tells them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus is in charge. Barth writes, “Christ Jesus claims to be me myself…. In God I am what I am.” We say, “Oh, those sins aren’t me. In the resurrection it’ll get worked out,” and Jesus says, “I’m you; you do what I do.” The Christian life is not asking how Jesus can make you feel okay about what you were going to do already. The Christian life is asking, every day, “All right, Jesus: what are we doing today?”

For his part, Jesus expresses this with the metaphor of Sofia’s yoke. As Sofia says, so does Jesus, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart (unlike Sin, who is a jerk and cruel to you.) My yoke is easy. My burden is light. (Truth be told, I’m doing most of the work, here. You’re basically following.)”

That’s the good news: we’re yoked to Jesus, and not to Sin. Jesus’ yoke is easy. Sin’s yoke is a burden. It is hard work maintaining that mind/body split that Paul and Barth lament. It is hard to go through life pretending that the “real” me doesn’t benefit from gender inequality, or racial discrimination. It is hard to go through life pretending that the “real” me doesn’t have access to so much because it is taken from those who have so little. It is hard to go through life pretending that the “real” me earned the nice things I have, and that others who weren’t as lucky must have something wrong with them. Heck, it’s hard work pretending that the “real” me has his act together, and the one who screws up is some inferior “body” that just didn’t get the memo from my soul that I’m totally a competent adult. Jesus says, “That looks hard. Come. Be yoked to me.”

Yoked to Jesus, we challenge the world’s perceptions of Jesus, just as he challenges our perceptions of him. I mean, all the things I indicated were part of Sin are things many folks assume are tied to Jesus. You don’t have to look far to find someone saying Jesus favors gender or racial discrimination, or that Jesus rewards you at the expense of others, or that if you have the right relationship with Jesus you will have a good, upstanding middle-class life. But we are yoked to a God who seeks out the ones society destroys, and who offers them life. We are yoked to a God who ate and drank with tax collectors and prostitutes, who talked about himself as a woman, who broke taboos faster than you could name them, and who fed people, ultimately with his own body and blood. The world needs that. The world needs its perceptions of Jesus challenged. The world needs pulling out of itself. And we get to do that. Though, truth be told, Jesus is the one doing the work. We’re basically just following.