When I was nine years old, a traveling evangelist – the cowboy evangelist Leonard Eilers – came to town with his “Round Up for God” crusade. I was “rounded up” and came forward to the altar, where one of the deacons, a farmer who had come straight from the fields, asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” With tears in my eyes, I said “yes,” not fully knowing what that meant at the time, and to be honest even today, I am still trying to figure out what accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord truly means.
In small town Baptist America, far from the elites of San Francisco and Boston, accepting Jesus meant going to heaven and escaping hell. God was sovereign, king, and lord, and demanded our allegiance. God would separate the sheep and goats – the saved and unsaved – based on our acceptance of Jesus as Savior. Jesus, we were told, died for our sins, so that God could forgive our sins and grant us eternal life. As one preacher asserted, “This life is the front porch to eternity.” And then asked, “Do you have reservations for heaven?”
By the time I entered college, I had abandoned the faith of my childhood. I had journeyed through the summer of love and had tuned in, turned on, and dropped out of organized religion. I was spiritual but not religious; I sought God but not in church. I found a sense of the holy in meditation and philosophy – in the redwoods and seashore – not the bible.
But, in college, I discovered Jesus again, not at a revival meeting but in getting to know two pastors, who helped me understand that faith was as much about this world as the next. Following Jesus, I learned, meant feeding the hungry, sponsoring Vietnamese refugees, welcoming persons with mental health issues who had been released to the community, and protesting against the war.
In the nearly forty-five years since college, I have sought to reconcile these two aspects of faith, trusting God with eternal life and focusing on this world and its needs. I have sought to be both heavenly minded and earthly good.
This was the issue with Peter. “Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks, and the disciples respond with a smorgasbord of possibilities – Elijah, Moses, Isaiah – until Peter stops the discussion with the confession, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Chosen One.”
A light goes on! The disciples are elated. Their teacher the Messiah who is going to make things right for Israel. He will usher in the kingdom of God and kick the scoundrels out. Rome will be toast, when Jesus comes to town. The only Messiah they could imagine was just like Caesar, but he was our champion and fighter.
Their elation is short-lived and turns to confusion, when Jesus asserts “the Son of Man must suffer and die.” “That can’t be true,” Peter exclaims. “Don’t you know that the Messiah comes as a king and victor!” To which Jesus responds “Listen to me, the way of destruction and violence is the way the Evil One works. You’re thinking about military power – the power that destroys – not God’s power, the power that heals.”
To add insult to injury, Jesus challenges any sense of privilege the disciples might have. They are not immune to suffering, but must be willing to suffer on behalf of his mission of healing and justice. When they realized Jesus was Messiah, they imagined holding special offices in the coming kingdom – becoming sacramental people, priests exempt from the challenges of mortal life, or kings themselves, ruling the territories Jesus assigned them. How startling to hear from the Messiah himself – “”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Surely the disciples and ourselves wonder: “Do you really want to follow Jesus if it means sacrifice, if it means plunging into the maelstrom of life, focusing on what you can give not what you can get?” I want to make a confession to you – I struggle with this passage: I don’t want to lose my way of life; I want to hold onto privilege and possessions. I am grateful for the affluence I have – and I suspect you are too! I want recognition for my work and respect in the broader community, don’t you?
It’s unlikely I will sell my home and take a vow of poverty, but what am I to do? How do I lose my life for God’s way of peace and justice?
I will always be a “guilty bystander,” as Thomas Merton says, knowing that I have a life of comfort and status while others struggle for survival. But, that doesn’t mean I simply go on with business as usual, prospering while others perish.
I may never get there, but I have seen the vision – perhaps you have too – the vision of living more simply so others can simply live, the vision of greater generosity in my personal and public life, the vision of reaching out personally to people experiencing the pain of addiction and homelessness, the vision of advocating for economic safety nets – aiming at a nation where every child is fed, has safe housing and neighborhoods, good schools and health care, working parents, and where we do all we can to ensure the well-being of the planet and its diverse species. I’ve seen the vision of becoming a this-worldly saint, seeing the holiness of every person and treating everyone as God’s beloved child. That’s the Messiah I want to follow – the one who wins by love and not coercion, welcome and not exclusion; the one who accepts friend and foe alike and shows me how to care for myself and my country and care for the world, too.
Who is your Jesus? The answer is as much about heart and hands as head. Doctrine is good but our beliefs need to inspire love. Let me close with Albert Schweitzer’s response to this question:
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.