By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
After more than 2,000 years, Christians still worship the triumphant Christ of the church and ignore the Jesus of the Gospels. The gospel accounts describe Jesus as a radical Jewish rabbi in the prophetic tradition, but church doctrine transformed Jesus into a divine Christ and made salvation dependent on believing in Jesus Christ as a Trinitarian form of God.
Jesus never claimed to be divine. He called his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God. That would have been blasphemy. Jesus taught the primacy of God’s love over Mosaic Law that was then considered God’s standard of righteousness; and he taught that anyone who did God’s will was his spiritual kin in the family of God.
Jesus warned his disciples that following him was a narrow and unpopular way that few would take, not a broad and popular way. But from its beginning the church put its worldly popularity and power ahead of following Jesus and made salvation dependent on exclusivist belief in Christ as God rather than following the moral teachings of Jesus as the word of God.
The Apostles Creed defines exclusivist Chrisitan beliefs that ignore the universal moral teachings of Jesus. It’s little wonder that the church lost its moral compass when it emphasized mystical beliefs in Christ as the only means of salvation. Thomas Jefferson got it right when he observed that “the teachings of Jesus are the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”
The altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus are summed up in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and has been accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith.
Christianity and Islam represent over half of the world’s population, and both religions promote exclusivist beliefs that condemn unbelievers. God is too big for one religion, and in a world of increasing religious diversity, exclusivist beliefs produce interfaith hostility and violence. Jesus taught that God’s universal love can reconcile all people as children of God.
Satan opposes God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity by seeking to divide and conquer, and Satan is winning the popularity contest by doing a convincing imitation of God in the church and politics. Christians today need to meet Jesus again for the first time and make his altruistic and universal teachings moral imperatives of their faith and politics.
Those who worship Christ should also be moral stewards of democracy and promote a politics of reconciliation with those of other races and religions. To save democracy from its demise, voters must make the universal moral teachings of Jesus a common word of their faith and politics and oppose demagogues who use fear and divisive politics to promote their politics.
The hymn O Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee is in the United Methodist Hymn Book at page 444, but it’s rarely sung, presumably since it emphasizes Jesus as a prophet and not as Jesus Christ, the divine Trinitarian form of God.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen
Jesus taught the primacy of love over law after being criticized by religious leaders for picking grain on the Sabbath, which was in violation of Mosaic Law (see Mark 2:23-27; Exodus 20:8-11; 34:21; and Deuteronomy 5:12-14). He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus later responded to the criticism of Jewish religious leaders that he and his disciples ate with Gentiles without a ceremonial cleansing of their hands. He told a crowd: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)
When the family of Jesus heard that he was preaching to crowds, they went to take charge of him, saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21) When they found him preaching to a crowd and Jesus was told that his family was looking for him, he made it clear that salvation was not limited to those who had exclusivist religious beliefs. He told a crowd: “Who are my brothers and sisters? Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)
On selfless service as the cost of discipleship, “Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’” (Mark 8:34-37)
Jesus likened discipleship to a narrow and unpopular gate in contrast to a wide and popular gate, saying, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Marcus J. Borg presents the Jesus of the Gospels in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time without denigrating the divinity of Jesus as the Christ (HarperSan Francisco, 1995).
The title of Robin R. Meyers book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperOne, 2009).
Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders. Jefferson wrote Henry
Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379.
While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) For Jefferson, being a Christian meant following Jesus as God’s word rather than worshiping him as God’s son. He emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus over the mystical, and in so doing emphasized discipleship over orthodox Christian beliefs.