Ken Autry is the former pastor at First United Methodist Church on the lake yard in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. I say, “former” pastor only because he has now moved on to another appointment. Those Methodists won’t let their preachers sit still for long. He once shared a letter with his congregation that I have yet to get out of my mind. The letter, while not written to Rev. Autry, had been written by a parishioner who had become quite disgruntled with her pastor. This is not uncommon.
Sometimes there is the perception that those of the cloth should be absolutely faultless. When failures occur, and they certainly will, the fallout can be crushing. This is too bad. Sure, there are some bad apples in the barrel, but most pastors, priests, and rabbis are doing the best they can to honor their calling and to help others. They make mistakes, but don’t we all. This particular church member gave no quarter for such ministerial blunders. With teeth on edge she poured out a venomous letter to her pastor. She recounted his failures. She demeaned his family. She compared him to other great pastors that had gone before him (always good for your self-esteem), and pretty much read him the riot act. It was the conclusion of the letter that rings in my ears. She wrote, “I pray that you will come to know Jesus as I do, rather than just knowing Jesus like you do.” When we need ammunition against our enemies, any bullet will do. Even Jesus.
Since his incarnation, Christ has taken on the form we require of him. The zealots of his time wanted him to be a revolutionary with sword in hand. The legalists tried so very hard to make him a traditionalist. The anxious masses, and those closest to him, attempted to make him their king. In fact, Jesus’ eventual crucifixion was due largely to the fact that he would not play by the rules. He would not be the kind of Messiah people thought he should be. He would not conform. We continue the tradition. If needed, we will wrap Christ in the red, white, and blue and send him out before our armies waving the flag. We will use his words to strengthen capitalism (or some other “ism”) and justify our greed. We will explain away his hardest sayings in order to get cozy with him or we will drop his name in the right circles if it will garner a few more votes in November.
Yes, it seems we’ve got Jesus right where we want him: Shrink wrapped, canned, freeze dried. In an emergency just add water. The Jesus who walked the Palestinian hills of the first century was a far cry from these things. Certainly he would have shocked us. The calloused hands of a carpenter; the olive skin of the Middle East; the dirty feet, shaggy hair, and tattered clothes of an impoverished wanderer: He is nothing like the white, middle-class, blue-eyed Jesus that appeared on my Sunday school flannel graph board.
I admit I don’t always recognize Jesus. Just when I think I have him figured out, he does something crazy: Like command me to love my enemies; or tell me to do good to those who don’t deserve it; or challenge me to give away my possessions; or instruct me to turn the other cheek; or allow himself to be crucified. In his unconventional, eccentric manner he runs roughshod over my preconceptions. He overturns the established order of my life. He surprises me with his fierce grace. He calls me to himself demanding my soul, my life, my all.
Jesus asked his disciples on his last night on earth, “Do you not yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you?” I am afraid the answer is still an embarrassing, no. But thankfully, we’ll have all of eternity to get to know this wild-eyed Jewish rabbi a little better. Maybe, just maybe, that will be time enough.