Many of us who have roots in Evangelical Protestant Christianity as well as Mainline Protestant Christianity are intimately acquainted with John 3:16. Chapter and verse, I’d venture to guess that many of us memorized it at some point or another in our childhood and teen years. Many of us can probably still recite it by heart. If we can’t, there are no shortage of football games, baseball games or televised events where someone will invariably be holding up a John 3:16 sign and reminding us what it says.
John 3:16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Now the context surrounding this verse is actually quite profound. Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to meet with Jesus under cover of darkness, and he begins asking Jesus some questions about what is required for him to be saved. What Jesus is asking of him is to be born again. To have sin exposed. To have his life radically re-ordered, re-prioritized, re-newed, and re-made. In different quarters of the church we disagree about what constitutes sin. The Firebrand preachers of the Puritan era spoke of personal purity, and the Social Gospel movement exposed the sin of corporate, systemic, and structural sin.
But in both Evangelical Christian quarters AND Mainline Protestant circles, we have cut the paws of the Lion of Judah and turned him into into a purring kitten. A purring kitten fashioned and suited to our tastes and palatable to our modern ears. In Evangelical quarters, we have reduced this verse and the surrounding story to a cerebral exercise. A profession of faith. A script. Some magic words that allow us to fly off to heaven at the end of our life. And while Evangelicals have retained some of the personal holiness codes, we only selectively receive and enforce these in Evangelical quarters when we’re not too inconvenienced by them. Specifically, we enforce our purity codes against brown bodies, the poor (who can’t contribute to our coffers in a meaningful way) and various other minorities who do not advance our power of dominion and empire. Pre-marital sex is wrong *wink wink* but being LGBTQ is really wrong. That is more easily observable and enforceable. So we’ll draw the line of orthodoxy there, because we only have to contend with excluding 5-10% of the church and not the 85% who invariably had pre-marital sex and deserve our compassion.
In Mainline Protestant circles we are not much better. We have not succeeded in this Gospel sized life. We have largely stripped away the personal holiness code except around LGBTQ folks and People of Color (where we are largely silent.) But in place of this stripped down purity culture, we have offered a Gospel that doesn’t actually require anything meaningful of our parishioners. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not a scripture that I regularly hear preached in Mainline Protestant churches.
In fact, what I usually hear in “Evangelical” and “Mainline Protestant Churches” alike is something akin to a Gospel which purports, “Jesus is nice, stay for coffee. And if it’s not too much of an imposition, bring a some canned goods for your local food bank.” This will make you feel very good, and it will cost you very little. No actual sacrifice will be necessary to maintain this spiritual practice.
If you cannot confront the events in Charlottesville, VA from your pulpit tomorrow, regardless of which side of the church you serve, you are probably operating in a “Jesus is nice, stay for coffee” environment.
This type of theology is a form of theological masturbation. And here’s what I mean. It’s pleasurable. It makes us feel really good. But as a people of faith, it doesn’t actually require anything from us. It’s a self focused, and solo focused activity. Religion and religious professionals are a commodity that we consume. Like Sunday Brunch. Or TED Talks. Or that 5min YouTube meditation that you watched to give you a “hit” of spirituality. But these things do not break in, break forth, permeate our lives and call us to a more beautiful vision. These things do not call us to “wake up” spiritually, and to immerse and be immersed in a life changing story.
Within reason, theological masturbation is ok. Rejuvenating. Nourishing. Sometimes we’re so broken and battered and bruised that we really do need a simple reminder and a simple message that Jesus is nice. And that’s ok. When you are facing death, deep depression, overwhelming circumstances, “Jesus is nice” is a good word. But the point of faith isn’t to dwell here and it isn’t to stay here. That’s a form of spiritual adolescence. And if that’s all you have, then you don’t have much by way of faith worthy of emulation. That is spiritual junk food rather than a path of true spirituality. That’s not what the Christian life is or what it was meant to be. And frankly, this version of a Christianity is not something I find interesting, it is not worthy of my time. It is not what I signed up for. And it is not something I’m interested in perpetuating through my call to ministry.
This version of “Jesus is nice” Christianity whether it is playing out in Mainline environments or Evangelical environments, is not a substitute for person to person intimacy, or for communal intimacy drawn out and embodied are articulated in a life that looks different, foreign, alien to the society around us. It is not the call to holiness and justice that our faith requires.
The Jesus way—is a way of being in the world that requests and demands your whole life. The Jesus way—is a way of moving and being in the world that costs something of you. The Jesus way–is a way that radically re-orders, re-forms, re-makes, re-prioritizes your life. It is an affront to pride. It is an affront to selfish ends. It is an affront to our lust for power, title, status, oppression. It meets violence with love. It meets convenience with truth. It meets a disordered and messy and violent and bigoted world with a mission to bring the Kingdom of God down to Earth. Here. Now. It makes demands of us. It invites us to live cruciform lives. It invites us to let go of power and lift up the lowly. It invites an in breaking of love, holiness, beauty, selflessness, gentleness, and self control.
In conclusion, Jesus is not nice. Jesus is not tame. Jesus is not packaged with a latte and a worship band. Jesus is not included with brand merchandise. The holy way of Jesus is not found in that sweet new devotional that you just bought on Amazon and that you will discuss with your “small group.” For mainline folks, “silence” is a moral stance. And it’s a dangerous one. Stripping away personal disciplines, and the purity culture/personal holiness code of evangelical faith should not be a point of pride. Have we replaced it with a call to deeper holiness, to pride wrecked and humility gain, to the work of justice, to life re-newed, re-born.
The holy way of Jesus is found when your faith meets the real world. The holy way of Jesus is embodied in real time and all the time. The holy way of Jesus is faith made manifest in action. The holy way of Jesus afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. The holy way of Jesus is active, alive, transformative to us and the world around us. Following the way of Jesus is arduous, long, difficult, and worth it. Worth it for the re-made life you gain. Worth-it for society radically re-ordered. Worth it for the word of life broken into and dwelling in formerly dead places. Worth it for our heart and soul and bone and marrow broken, baptized, and radically re-ordered. Worth it for the quest of making a more beautiful, just, and holy world.
Jesus is not Nice. The way of Jesus is very hard. It will cost you everything. Including your life given over to ideas, to causes, to mission, to ministry, to the work of justice that is so much bigger than you. And if you’re into that, then by all means, stay for coffee.