Which Jesus?

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As young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, I served at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches. We used to have regular meetings of all the Lutheran clergy in the area, both Missouri and ELCA. One of the the guys who was almost always there was Priit Rebane, an older pastor who served the historic ELCA church in downtown St. Pete. I had the greatest respect for Priit.  He was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and to me, simply oozed pastoral wisdom out of very pore of his being. Priit was the kind of pastor I wanted to be some day. At one of our meetings, he told a story. (Priit, if you ever read this, I hope you’ll forgive inaccuracies; it was 25 years ago, and the particulars are a little fuzzy, but this is how I remember it.) He told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination.  He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. By his own estimation, he was a young theological hot shot, headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His grandmother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.”

At our Night Prayer service last night, we read from the Gospel of John about some Greek seekers who asked a couple of Jesus’ followers to introduce them. “We wish to see Jesus.”

For those gathering in devotion this week, it’s easy to see ourselves in those wanting to get more of Jesus than a mere glimpse. In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. So, we want to see Jesus.

But what should we tell one another and the world about Jesus this week? In all the conflicting reports of who Jesus was, what he wanted, and what he was trying to accomplish, it doesn’t appear to be as easy as, “Tell them about Jesus.”  By all estimations, he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, gave his followers an example to follow. Some would argue even that he was a zealot, or a gentle man who inadvertently got caught up in the politics of the times.

In his own words, Jesus invites us to see something different. Last night we read how, as he approached his own impending death, the image he wanted people to behold was his being lifted up, his moment of glory (John 12). He invites us to view the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. He invites us to see his enthronement as king of the universe.

Yet that glorification comes as he ascends the throne of the cross. In that cruel, paradoxical enthronement, we are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity and creation.

“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself.”  That’s the thing. In his death, he was drawing all people, all things, into the restored unity of God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the whole world.

I think that’s pretty important in these days when too many of us who identity ourselves with Jesus are seeking to create divides — between the good and the bad, the sinners and the righteous, those who get it and those who don’t, those who stand for biblical values and those who don’t, those who welcome and those who don’t, those who are racist and those who aren’t, those who are Christian and those who aren’t — to pause for a moment and realize that we’re getting it way wrong. His intention was not to create divides, however well-intentioned we might be. His intention was to draw us to God. All of us. Period.

Maybe that’s the Jesus that Priit’s grandmother was looking for. It’s the image that I hope gets burned into our being this week, the image that gets so seared into our minds and our hearts that it starts to issue in the way we behave. That would really be something.

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