The 1999 film Dogma is a movie that Christians either love or hate. Its irreverent treatment of Catholicism sparked both indignation and delight in believers and non-believers alike when it hit theaters. I happy to love this movie, and I particularly love one silly scene from the beginning.
In it, a church leader is preparing to unveil a new symbol of Catholicism as part of a re-branding effort designed to make the Catholic Church more accessible. Cardinal Glick, played by comedian George Carlin, says that the crucifix is a “highly recognizable yet wholly depressing image” and needs to be updated. The result: Buddy Christ.
“Christ didn’t come to earth to give us the willies,” the cardinal says, “He came to help us out!” The implication is that while the image of the crucified Christ might make us feel sad or guilty, the Buddy Christ is supposed to make us feel good, to give us a boost.
Whether we realize it or not, this is how many of us look at Jesus. Tom Waits wasn’t as far off as it might seem—too often, Christians treat Jesus like chocolate, something to “make me feel good inside.” We turn to God when things go badly, when we are hurting or angry or confused, and we are comforted by the image of a doe-eyed, beautifully coiffed Jesus telling us that he is here to make everything all right.
Now, Jesus did come to comfort, to heal, and to lift up, but we often make the mistake of believing that on an incredibly superficial level. Jesus did not come to earth to help you find a good parking spot or to make your favorite football team win a game or to take your side in a fight with someone who is wrong about gay marriage or the Confederate flag. Jesus did not come to earth to give a thumbs-up and a wink to whatever you have going on. And Jesus did not come to earth to make us feel good inside.
I love that old saying that was originally about journalism but has been used in reference to religion: it is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is more the kind of thing Jesus came to earth to be about. The book of Acts is considered a sort of sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and in Luke chapter 4, Jesus reads from the Hebrew prophets to tell us exactly what he came to earth for:
“to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Our Scripture reading for tonight starts by referring back to the Gospel of Luke, essentially saying, “OK, remember all of that? Here’s what came next.” And this is where we find a phrase that I just love. In some translations of Acts 1, we hear about “all that Jesus began to do.”
Mind you, this was written after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The author did not talk about “all that Jesus began to do” in the year 30 AD. He did so after Jesus was already gone.
We tend to think about what Jesus did, the big stuff at least, as having happened in those 3 years he was preaching and teaching in ancient Palestine. He died, rose again, and ascended into heaven. That was pretty cool. But it’s over now, and what’s left are little tricks like asking Jesus to be with the Panthers in the next NFL season. (But seriously, Jesus, they could use your help.)
But this business of “all that Jesus began to do” is really, really important. Because it tells us that we have a role to play. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he was passing on the work of the kingdom to his disciples. They didn’t get it—they wanted him to fix everything, to overthrow the oppressive Roman government, to restore the Israelite monarchy, to put them back at the top of the pecking order.
But that was not the work of Jesus—the work of Jesus was “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” And if that was the work that Jesus started, it is the work that we are to continue.
Teresa of Avila was a Spanish mystic who lived in the 16th century, and she wrote a poem that beautifully captures the meaning of the ascension:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Jesus came to earth, not to make us feel good inside, but to start the work of the kingdom and then to pass it on to us.
We get confused about who Jesus was and is and where to find him today, and understandably so. Christian doctrine tells us that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. That doesn’t make sense, and yet it does—in Jesus, God became fully human, to draw closer to us, to draw us closer to God, to call us to participate in God’s work by being God’s hands and feet in this world.
The other part that I love from this passage from Acts comes at the end. After Jesus ascends, two men appear and ask the disciples, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?”
Many a doubter has looked up to the sky and asked, “Are you up there?” But a better question might be, “Are you down here?”
And, in Jesus, and in us, the body of Christ, God is indeed down here. When we forget that, we can miss seeing Jesus even while we look for him. I love the cheesy story about the man who gets stuck on the roof of his house in a flood and prays for God to help him. As he prays, someone floats by in a canoe and offers to give the man a ride, but he says, “No, no, I’m waiting for God to save me.” The waters rise higher, and later a motorboat passes and the people inside call out for him to jump in. “No, no, I’m waiting for God to save me.” The rain continues to fall and soon the water is lapping at the man’s feet, and a helicopter flies overhead as the pilot tosses him a ladder. “No thank you! I’m waiting for God to save me.” The man drowns, and when he gets to heaven, he asks God angrily, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “Good grief, man, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat, and a helicopter—what more did you want from me?”
We look for God and Jesus to act in impressive, supernatural ways, but we forget that the incarntion itself was deeply natural. Jesus was not plopped down on earth, 30 years old and ready to wrangle disciples. Jesus was nurtured in the water of a womb and born of a human woman. He was a baby who probably cried and spit up and kept his parents awake all night. When we emphasize the divinity of Jesus too much, we forget the humanity of Jesus and miss opportunities to see and respond to Christ in the people around us.
And the Bible tells us where we meet Christ—Matthew 25, the passage we sat with all through Lent, tells us that Jesus is in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner. We meet Jesus in prayer and worship, yes; we meet Jesus in Scripture, yes; but Jesus came not as a divine hologram beamed from on high but as flesh and bone, as one wanting to engage and involve us in the very work of God.
Henri Nouwen tells a story that struck me in thinking about where we see and recognize Jesus:
One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill everyone in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do.
The minister, torn between handing over the man to the enemy and having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.”
Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the fugitive was hidden. And after the soldiers led the young man away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people.
But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. And the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”
Have you ever noticed that The Apostles’ Creed does not say, “I believe in the Bible”? The creed tells the story of Scripture and distills it down, but the Bible itself is not an object of faith. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The Bible reveals God to us, but the Bible itself is not God. The truest and most direct representation of God that has ever been was the person of Jesus.
I love how our Wesleyan heritage calls us to look first to Scripture but never to stop there—we believe that we meet God also through reason, tradition, and experience. To find the fullness of God in Jesus, we must look up from our Bibles and hymnals and United Methodist Books of Discipline and look into the eyes of the fugitive, the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. It is by looking there, not by looking into heaven, that we will see and know Jesus.
And when we do see him, the idea of the Buddy Christ slapping us on the back will seem as laughable as it is meant to be. For when we see him, we will understand that “all that he began to do” is so much bigger and deeper than making us feel good inside. And we will know the awesome truth that we are called to continue what he began, to be the hands and the feet and the body of Christ today.
Sarah S. Howell