On one side we like to talk about Jesus’ controversial reputation, but at the same time we like to remain in the more conservative lifestyle that does not offend the religious structures and those who populate them.1
On August 5, 1864, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was leading a fleet of ships into Mobile Bay, Alabama, as part of a Civil War attack on Fort Morgan. Admiral Farragut’s wooden ships had their hulls wrapped in chains to hold them together as the fleet was led by four ironclads that were clearing the way for the more fragile wooden vessels.
As the attack force was making its way into Mobile Bay, one of the ironclads, the Tecumseh, struck a torpedo, what would be known today as a tethered mine. The Tecumseh was destroyed and sunk, causing the wooden ship Brooklyn to slow to a stop, and the remainder of the two columns to drift to a halt in the confusion. In response, Admiral Farragut lashed himself to the top of the mainsail so he could see above the smoke, and it was from this position that he is reputed to have shouted the order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”2
Removing Our Rose-Colored Glasses
There came a time in my walk with Christ when I had to ask why it is that Jesus was consistently at odds with the guardians of orthodoxy of his day, and I am not similarly at odds with those of my day. I find myself in conflict with the powers that be from time to time, but not to the extent that Jesus did. It is not that I am seeking confrontation, but if I am going to bear the image of Christ to my society, then there are certain realities I must acknowledge – and one of those is that Jesus was hated by the religious establishment of his time. In contrast to that, I have been very careful not to ruffle the feathers of that same establishment in my time.
Jesus was controversial, not because he tried to be so, but because the very essence of who he was, and what he represented, did not fit the religious system of his society, and I do not believe it fits the predominant Christian system of today any better. Jesus was outrageously at odds with that system, and it is Jesus, my Lord, and my Master, who said, “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”3 Damn the hatred. Full speed ahead!
The pull quote that opens this blog posting is taken from an article by another controversial figure, contemporary author Mick Mooney, who later in that same article says this:
We love the idea of the wildly-free Jesus, but, in our minds, we quietly hold onto the quiet, submissive Jesus. The wild Jesus, though fun to quote, makes us nervous. He doesn’t just rock the boat of religion, it’s more likely that he sets it on fire and then jumps into the water and swims to shore.4
The decision with which each of us must grapple is that of which Jesus we are trying to follow: the quiet, submissive Jesus with a lamb on his lap, or the Jesus who lights the boat on fire and walks across the water to the shores Am I being conformed into the image of Jesus, or am I constructing a Jesus that conforms to the image of me?
Too many of us (me included) have slid comfortably into meeting on Sundays and Wednesdays, singing repeatedly the same hymns and worship choruses, praying prayers that we may or may not expect to be answered, listening to sermons that we acknowledge were pretty good but that we will likely not implement to any life-changing degree – all the while anxiously awaiting the next revival meeting so that we can regain our confidence and feel better about our faith alignment. This is what I call the Rabbit-Hole Christian, that man or woman who scurries from one safe, Christian stronghold to another, rabbit hole to rabbit hole, rarely risking contact with the uncleanness of the world.
That is not how Jesus lived. Jesus plopped himself down into the middle of life, both the celebration and the sorrow. He rubbed elbows with the human condition, and he was fully engaged in what was happening in the world around him. Jesus went to society’s celebrations. He ate and drank with the sinners, and while enjoying their company challenged their worldview. So common an occurrence this was for Jesus that it stuck to him as his sullied reputation among the religious elite. In one verse of scripture,5 we learn that Jesus did not scorn the comforts and pleasures of life, but rather enjoyed them, and beyond that, he enjoyed them with those the religious society had rejected – the publicans and sinners.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
– Luke 7:33-34, ESV
As a youth, my mother drilled into my head the cliché, “Birds of a feather flock together,” as her way of teaching me to choose my friends carefully. She was wise in this, and correct to teach me that lesson. Others would teach me, “Evil company corrupts good morals.” This is also true.
However, isolation from sinners was not the model of Jesus, and in their irritation with him, the religious elites showed their hypocrisy. “What they had not been able to endure in John, they appeared now to demand in Christ: austere, unbending sternness.”6
As I read through the historical book of Acts and other writings of the New Testament authors, I do see that the Christians met daily in homes, synagogues, and the temple courts. They were very intentional in devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. This is the life of a disciple – a Christ-follower, and it is highly beneficial, particularly for those who are young in their faith.
The devotions of Acts 2:42 are healthy and valuable, and they should not be neglected. We are looking at being the image of Christ, however, and to that end, regardless of which gospel we read, it is abundantly clear that Jesus did not spend the bulk of his time hanging out with the religious people.
The holiness of God is much more than a tamed and moral existence. Jesus was on a mission not to rescue those who were moral but those who were broken and imprisoned by evil … He was destined to reach into dark and sin-infested places to call out and redeem the beautiful image of God found in people who were enslaved by evil. He did not hang out in safe places … This is our Savior. His mission has not been altered or changed in two thousand years, and he bids us to join Him.7
The model for today is no different than the model for Jesus’ ministry. With very few exceptions, the sinners are not coming to the church, just as they were not found in the synagogues in Jesus’ day. This may explain why Jesus transitioned his ministry from the religious facilities where he met with opposition and conflict, to neutral ground where sinners flocked to him in impressive numbers. In a similar fashion, we, as the body of Christ, are going to have to go to where the lost are, because they are not flocking to the religious institutional facilities.
Sinners were drawn to Jesus while the religious community was repulsed by him. Author Bruxy Cavey says:
When sinful, broken, hurting people are pleasantly surprised at how accepting we are, and religious people are outraged at how accepting we are, there is a good chance we’re starting to live like Jesus. 8
Establishing a Jesus Reputation
So controversial is the worldview of Jesus that we can look at what the religious establishment of his day embraced, and bet with near certainty that Jesus will embrace the opposite. The lepers were despised, unclean, and forced to live outside the community of the clean society. People ran from lepers in horror, yet Jesus touched them,9 demonstrating a willingness to contract the defilement that society rejected. Adulterers, whom society shuns and stones, find that Jesus comes to their defense, turning the judgment back upon the angry crowd.10 While the world looks at prostitutes as lowly creatures, barely human, objects to be utilized for male pleasure, Jesus welcomes them, accepts their affection, and validates their humanity.11 The Samaritans, despised as traitorous half-breeds – loathed to such depths that the respectable Jew would add miles to a journey just to avoid walking on Samaritan dirt – find that Jesus speaks with them, speaking even with Samaritan women, even one five times divorced who was shacked up with a man.12
Any man or woman broken by life, upon whom society tramples and wipes its feet, is a man or a woman who can be a friend of Jesus. The difficulty with this scenario is not that Jesus is doing anything sinful. The difficulty, rather, is that he is not living up to the expectations we have imposed upon him. Jesus loves from an uncomfortably close distance, and he is hated because he dares to do what we know we should do, but that which we are afraid to do.
1. Mooney, M., (October 24, 2014). How Jesus ‘the Glutton and the Drunk’ Embraced Life Beyond the Religiously Accepted Limit, retrieved 8/3/2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mick-mooney/how-jesus-the-glutton-and_b_6040778.html
2. Federer, B. (April 28, 2015). American Minute – Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead; Bill Federer recounts masterful faith of 19th-century naval heroes, explorers. Retrieved 08/14/2015 from http://www.wnd.com/2015/04/damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead/#edcJZ9sBLLgZ7Pto.99
3. Mark 13:13, ESV
4. Mooney, M., (October 24, 2014). How Jesus ‘the Glutton and the Drunk’ Embraced Life Beyond the Religiously Accepted Limit, retrieved 8/3/2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mick-mooney/how-jesus-the-glutton-and_b_6040778.html
5. Luke 7:33-34 (ESV) This same quotation is found in Matthew 11:18-19.
6. Lange, J. P., & van Oosterzee, J. J. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Luke. (P. Schaff & C. C. Starbuck, Trans.) (p. 117). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
7. Cole, N., & Helfer, P. (2012). Church Transfusion: Changing Your Church Organically–From the Inside Out. (p. 7). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
8. Cavey, B. (2007) The End of Religion – Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus. (p. 213). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress
9. Matthew 8:3, Mark 1:41
10. John 8:3-11
11. Luke 7:36-50
12. John 4:1-26