Jesus, Church and Life As/Is: Thoughts Beyond The Previous Ones

I think some kind of theme has been emerging out of my last two posts. I’ve been trying to think (mainly for myself) how the church (in my Presbyterian, Northern Irish context) could/can begin to interact with contemporary society in significant and meaningful wayss.

I’m under no illusions I’m probably not saying anything constructive but I’m enjoying this a bit.
Now, with that in mind, let’s move on to something more substantial.
I have a problem with something I said 
In my previous post I concluded with this
“Maybe at this point in time all we can say is that there are only those who live for Jesus and those who live for anything (and perhaps, everything) else.” [1]
Now I stand by this remark (for the time being anyway) and I’ll take a second now to remind us of what’s framing it. The idea is that in either Jesus or anything (and everything) else we invest our prospects for life, hope, meaning, purpose and a whole host of other good things.
This stemmed out of a discussion of what Christians today do and do not mean when they use the word “idolatry”. I think we use the word wrongly and do the 2ndCommandment a huge disservice in the process. A more fitting word for what we see people do today is, in my opinion, “transcendentalize”. This is the act of giving objects, or ideas, value and importance much beyond what they themselves deserve.
However, in this post, after I flesh out the problem I had with what I said, I will take the discussion beyond those bounds into a broader exploration of what my previous post touched on, namely, the nature of life as both Jesus followers and “transcendentalizers” experience it. Following this I will look at how Christian discipleship, specifically, interfaces and interacts with this experience.
So, to return to my statement, why do I have a problem with what I have said? Doesn’t Jesus offer these things (life, meaning etc.)? Doesn’t trying to find them in anything else utterly fail? Fair enough questions and I have a couple of things to say to them which will in turn flesh out the problem I have with what I said.
Christian Triumphalism
This is main problem I have with what I said and while it doesn’t come across overtly in the previous post, or in the statement, it is something that can creep around in the back of our minds and experiences.
Triumphalism is what I would describe as the tendency Christians sometimes have for going through life with the non-negotiable assumption that God is on their side (and consequently against everyone else), all the while declaring that life is/will be hunky dory, full of prosperity and nice things – or is a through way to these things – because
we’ve got God in our pockets
 God’s got us in his pocket.
These assertions may often become attached to overplayed ideas about all kinds of things; such as, Christians “going to heaven when they die” or declaring God will heal people if they just pray often and hard.
However, triumphalism can work in a more subversive way. In a way that, I think, lies (or could lie) behind what I said at the start. In this triumphalism we find ourselves saying (in a slightly kinder way) that ‘living for Jesus over anything else’ has transformed our lives – it was rubbish before and now it’s wonderful. Everything else was just so worthless. We maybe go on about how he’s so amazing and never leaves us. As such we implore people to give up whatever they’re transcendentalizing because it just can’t compare to Jesus.
Now, none of that, strictly speaking, is untrue but I don’t think it goes far enough.
And additionally my main problem with both of these attitudes is that they don’t appreciate, and ultimately shy away from, what life is actually like and as such fail to grasp how the following-Jesus-life interplays with life as it is experienced.
Life for most of us
This leads me to my second point. Thinking briefly about how life functions; mostly within the remit of the above discussion.
I don’t know about you but life seems to oscillate between being not too bad, if not great sometimes, and fairly horrible.
I think we all regularly have an experience of finitude and averageness. Maybe often feeling all too aware that what we’re doing doesn’t have much point. Or worse – that in the long game – what we’re doing isn’t really going to affect anything in any significant way.
Feelings of deep doubt, meaninglessness, worry and unhappiness etc. can be something right at our core but they never get spoken of because – well, no one wants to openly admit to the huge unavoidable elephant in the room. We would feel far too exposed.
Yet is this kind of life experience not openly declared in the Bible? Do we not live relating to the words of the Teacher?
‘“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?”
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”’ [2]
Of course, there are times when life is wonderful. We find great joy with and in our friends and family, doing things we love, seeing and experiencing things we want to invest in… But the elephant in the room is hard to ignore. We begin to be aware of that which we wish to ignore.
Is this not life, to one degree or another, typically speaking? (There is, of course, so much more to be said and much greater nuance needed here but I hope this is enough for us to press on.)
I say all this because it is in this honest experience of life that we choose to live for and with Jesus (maybe with more than a smidge of triumphalism) or anything else (our transcendentalized non-idols).
It’s in facing up to our experience we can see, to some degree, why we might just choose to look at something, anything (Jesus, sex, power, family, friends, whatever) for life, hope, meaning, purpose etc. because life, as Ecclesiastes is not afraid to say, is devoid of them! (Though it arrives at quite different conclusions than the thinking that circulates today.)
We cannot be misunderstood for needing something to keep us going or to distract us. Yet it is more than likely the case that getting through life without facing the problem is no solution at all.
Drawing triumphalism and life together
Transience and entropy, each are defining characteristics of the world we live in and we could say that we have our motivators or distractions (Jesus, power, family etc.) to help us get through life (regardless of – though informed by – our metaphysical outlook, be it atheistic, agnostic, theistic etc.) along with whatever enjoyable and fun things we are fortunate enough to experience along the way.
The triumphalist Christian may rear their head here and ask “Do really just wish to justget through life? Don’t you know this man Jesus? He’s gives hope and meaning and all kinds of things for your experience of life now!” But is this good enough?
The problem with triumphalism is that, I think, it fails to pay proper respect, whether subversively or overtly, to life as we experience it.
It tends toward a proposed way of thinking that sees the life we experience change qualitatively if Jesus is involved. It supposes that the realities and experiences we have can all of a sudden be wholly different, or deemed irrelevant, with Jesus in our lives.
However, talking about people “living for Jesus or anything (and everything) else” is not meant to be a way of demonstrating that those in the latter category are utterly foolish or something like that. It is not an attempt to disparage the decisions of those who make the latter choice.
When we appreciate the above description of life we see that we all are looking for hope and meaning etc.. They are important for making life bearable. We have the autonomy and responsibility to make choices like that; and we find again and again that people stand by those decisions and hold them dearly.
At this point it would be easy to get into a discussion of whether belief in Jesus and who he is, is simply a pragmatic coping mechanism. I do not think that but where I’m trying to go is simply to map out why I think it reasonable that people who are Christians and those who are not, believe the things they do in the way they do given our common experience of life.
In spite of this, I do not think that living for, with and like Jesus falls into line with the rest of the things we have mentioned (i.e. money, power, friends etc.) not least because when we begin to get to bottom of what this actually means we find something that doesn’t attempt to either, motivate us through life to escape to heaven, or distract us from life or anything like that. We find something that makes us face life as it truly is!
The development of this is to realise that the task for Christians in the multitude of freely and responsibly held (though not necessarily harmless) views – through which we attempt to deal with life as it really is – is not to simply (triumphalistically) stateparticular (possibly true) things about (what) Jesus (may or not give you for life – as if that were the point).
The task of the Christian is to actually become the embodiment of our statements in ways that enable us to speak and live in a manner – in this life – that demonstrate how the way of Jesus is the only (true) way of encountering and facing life as it really is. This goes far beyond the (albeit, at times, useful) role of philosophies, theologies and objects for motivation or distraction in our lives.
So… Where does discipleship come into talking about life this way? What does this facing-life-as-it-really-is way of Jesus actually mean and look like? What statements about Jesus might we embody?
Preliminaries on discipleship and life as/is
    Ideas we sometimes get 
Well, the first thing is to say that this facing-life-as-it-really-is way of Jesus has very little in common with the above triumphalistic overtures. The facing-life-as-it-really-is way of Jesus is not found in the overture that associates itself with popular Christian escapist theology which links following Jesus with a holy evacuation order, so we can get “into heaven when we die” where a full life of meaning, happiness, purpose can resume. This a carryover of Greek, Platonist thought into Christianity that is thoroughly unbiblical.
Nor does this facing-life-as-it-really-is way of Jesus resonate with the sound that is found in the tendency to assume that, once you start the journey of discipleship, life somehow changes substance and becomes a great deal easier because God guilds your life with wonderful things.
We see this all the time in various heart warming proof texts such as
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” [3]
“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” [4]
The message: Your life may be hard but God really doesn’t want that for you. Maybe tomorrow, next week, sometime just around the corner, great and good things are being planned you just can’t see them – good things come to those who wait.
Life sits rather uncomfortably with these texts when you read a more accurate translation, put them in context or compare them to other passages (e.g. our examples and their interpretations don’t cope when very well when compared with “Meaningless, meaningless!”)
When views like this become popular their rejection isn’t hard to spot. We need go no further than the recent, tragic death of Christopher Hitchens, who was very vocal about his plans not to compromise his experience of life-as-it-really-is with, what he saw as, pathetic, mindless, platitudinal, religious crutches that shield us from the weight and pain of our existence.
   Maybe something a little bit better
However, what we get when we look to Jesus and what he invites us into is neither of the above! There were no platitudes, no denial of life experiences and hardship. They were and had to be carried in the dying to self and living for Jesus.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” [5]
We are following in our lives the pattern of Jesus in his own. This does not involve avoiding, hiding, ignoring the reality of our lives and insisting it is something it is not; it involves facing it, entering fully into it.
We mirror the incarnation. We mirror and follow the movement of God into participating and identifying with life in the world (John 1 and Phil. 2).
We mirror and accept the crucifixion. We allow the weight of meaningless and death to swallow us up – because they will. The incarnation always meant God was going to face death and He did this, in Jesus, in the most horrifying way it could be done. On the cross Jesus suffers what has been described as an “existential atheism”. All the things he could use to motivate him through, and distract him from death are done away with and the fully horror exposed.
He is abandoned by friends, family, society, politics, religion… and his God. The nihilistic nature of life overtakes him. Here Jesus faces life as it really is and in discipleship Jesus invites us here, into this, into what we try to avoid every way we can, with proof texts or sex and money (even religion) and whatever else. In mirroring the crucifixion we allow ourselves to lose it all, or rather, face the fact that we were already losing it all anyway.
We live out of (the promise of) the resurrection.
de profundis, ‘out of the depths’ (Ps. 130:1), springs light” [6]
Out of the depths of death, despair and hopelessness, out of the void God works death backwards. ‘Light’ bursts forth and declares the potential for life and hope. The resurrection of Jesus signals the future promise of the resurrection and renewal of all things. It announces that change and hope in the present are possible (though always partial) and sends us back into the full, unadulterated, experience of life to embody the presence of this living power that has been unveiled in the midst of death.
Bonhoeffer captures the commission of resurrection here.
“The [resurrection] sends a man back into the world in a wholly new way. The Christian has no last line of escape from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ, he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ.” [7]
Having our lives mirror the resurrection now does not deny life as/is – it fully participates in it. The resurrection plots God’s initiative to re-alter the hopeless and despairing state of our lives, and our world, in significant ways now; and declares that one day they shall be fully eradicated.
It is in following Jesus through these pivotal moments of his life, we can see them as the genesis and vindication of what he had spent his short career establishing and we in turn are to realise that we are charged with mirroring and participating in continuing this same work.
These events call and point us to mirroring and embodying the in breaking of the Kingdom of God.
When we fully immerse ourselves in life (incarnation) and allow ourselves to experience the reality of it (crucifixion), we are opened up to the promise of (the future) resurrection and are charged with letting the new creation power of the Kingdom penetrate the world around us – through us.
The Kingdom of God, which disciples of Jesus are ‘citizens’ of, so to speak, is an insurrection – powered by the resurrection. It is an insurrection fuelled by a radically different way of living (Matt. 5-7) which subverts, through the powerlessness of those who are servants of all, the institutions and houses of power of the world which bring, inflict and exacerbate pain, death, poverty and hopelessness in the chasing of whatever ideas or objects that have transcendentalized.
This is the Jesus we follow. This is what discipleship calls us into. Living for, through or with Jesus is not a code word for anything less than the above. Following Jesus goes does not take us away from life but into it, it does not balk, it does not run. It stands bare and empty, with arms out stretched, at the weight of life and refuses to be distracted or motivated by anything.
Crucifixion takes us to that place in life we try to avoid and the resurrection keeps us there; and it is only in entering this place, where Jesus himself once went, that we may begin to realise that
“The risen Christ is and remains the crucified Christ” [8]
   Who We Follow
We follow the Jesus who invites us to follow in his footsteps in an insurrectionary life that has the potential to radically change this world for the better as we follow the one who
“having disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” [9]
We follow the Jesus who is now King of the world; by embracing the unavoidable fact of death as it was the ultimate threat ‘the powers’ of securing their authority ( which they used too great effect).
We follow the Jesus who offers life, meaning and purpose in the invitation to pick up your cross and follow him. It is then this we are brought face to face with the horror of life we try to disguise and the fact of death and in doing this we surprisingly find the hope we had wanted all along – in the very midst of despair.
We follow the Jesus who says “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” This commissions us to bring a Kingdom, a different kind of Kingdom; that occupies this world in the lives of Jesus’ followers, one that has the possibility of transforming the world from within (and this is done first and foremost through changing how we face the world itself).
Wrapping up
‘Living for Jesus’ is not a just get through it philosophy. This is not a just an ignore it or wait until heaven theology. This goes beyond cheap distractions and motivations in transcendentalized objects. Christianity offers a profoundly problem facing way to life. It does not deny life’s meaninglessness it leads you to both look upon and walk through it, with, and towards, Christ who has went that way already.
Maybe the church needs to work through how it approaches this world. Is it triumphalisitc? Is it ignorant of reality? Are we Christians being enabled to understand that in living life with, for, in and through Jesus we are opened up to face life as it is in its raw reality – thus robbing it of its power – and in doing so are opened up to the promise of future bodily resurrection? Do we recognise that in doing this we are awakened to the idea that we become the de profundis? We are to be the light coming out of depths. Do we know that in our finding life, meaning, hope and purpose in following Jesus – into facing the reality of life – we actually become those who give and radiate life, purpose and hope into the world!?
This is what I saw lurking behind my conclusion (or maybe I just like to talk a lot). We need acceptable and substantial ways of rooting out triumphalism and other life denying outlooks and letting a more fully developed outlook of world-affirming-and-transforming discipleship grow up out of it.
The presentation of a dichotomy between “living for Jesus or anything (and everything) else” is not some code for disparaging another’s life choice; it arises from my attempt to express that, I think, the truest expression of how we can fully affirm and face life is found in discipleship – nothing more, nothing less.
“Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” [10]
[2] Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 (NIV2011)
[3] Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV2011)
[4] Philippians 4:13 (NIV1984)
[5] Mark 8:34-35 (NIV2011)
[6] Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 133
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 335-336
[8] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 158
[9] Colossians 2:15 (NIV2011)
[10] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 40