The Real Jesus

For the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring various incarnations of Jesus I see traipsing about our culture.  And several people have asked, with all these Jesus filling our churches, if I think the real Jesus is even accessible.  The short answer is “Yes”.  The challenge is the reality of the plurality of Jesuses available to us.  Even if we restrict ourselves only to the Jesuses we find within the Church, so many assail us it’s easy to lose hope that the Jesus who walked among us, healed and redeemed us is truly available to us in a meaningful way.

But I have begun to wonder if it’s not precisely in the mess that we experience the real Jesus.

I think this is an actual photograph from that experience. True story.What if I assume that my picture of Jesus is incomplete?  And what if I also assume that your picture of Jesus is just as incomplete, but no in quite the same way?  What if I can learn to see Jesus better through my friendship with you?

If that’s true, then authentic Biblical fellowship is vital to a healthy relationship with Jesus.  It would mean that I experience the real, physical presence of Jesus when I am among the Church.  This is what Paul means when he talks about the Church as the Body of Christ.  This is why we have real, physical sacraments like baptism and the Eucharist (Communion meal).

In these practices, we experience the same Jesus as the early church (check out Luke 24:30-31).

And to many of you who read my blog, I want to say thank you.  Because I have met the real Jesus through my friendships with you, through worshiping alongside you and I’m grateful for that.  You’ve taught me to be more graceful, kind and gentle.  I’ve learned joy and peace from you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

What about you?  How have your friendships helped you to see Jesus better?

Holy Jesus

Also known as Jesus H. Christ (the 'H' stands for 'hallowed').

Last week, we looked at Homeboy Jesus – the Jesus who wants to be your friend but never challenges you.  Now meet his equally-evil twin, Holy Jesus (a.k.a. Holier Than Thou Jesus or, according to Homeboy Jesus, ‘Can’t Touch This’ Jesus).

Holy Jesus is really holy.  He always has been.  And it goes without saying that He’s way more holy than you will ever be.  And since ‘holy’ means ‘set apart’, don’t think for a minute that Holy Jesus will ever actually want to touch you.  Look at Him.

No, really.  Look.  Just for a second (if you look too long, Holy Jesus will burn out your retinas. See Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Did you catch how white His robe was?  Man, that thing is CLEAN.  That’s why you can’t get near Him.  Because you’re a dirty, wicked sinner that Holy Jesus doesn’t really want anything to do with.

Remember that one time He came down and died for your sins?  Yeah.  Good enough.  Now you can come to Heaven and live in a mansion He’ll build for you (which will obviously be a LONG way from His place).

Whatever you do, please just don’t talk to Him.  Or think about Him.  He’s too demanding anyway – He has so many rules and regulations you’ll never measure up.  Just accept that He died for you and trust that’s good enough.

What’s truly sad about Holy Jesus is that he won’t change you any more than Homeboy Jesus will.

Yes, this is what Holy Jesus thinks of you. You STINK!This Jesus is so distant and aloof that he can’t engage our lives in a meaningful way.  And it’s not the Jesus we meet in the Scriptures.  Jesus’ holiness was not a detachment from the people around him.  Jesus’ interactions with the unholy didn’t contaminate him, didn’t make him unclean.  Rather, his holiness was contagious.  He touched the unclean and made them clean, whole.

I know I am often tempted to follow this Jesus.  I don’t pray, don’t study because I don’t need to.  Holy Jesus isn’t interested in any sort of intimacy with me.  So my ‘relationship with Him is easy (even if it also involves a healthy amount of self-loathing).

I’m ready for a Jesus who transcends both Homeboy and Holy.

I want a Jesus who is my friend, but who calls me to be better.  Who is rooting for me, wants me to succeed and empowers me to overcome.

What about you?

Homeboy Jesus

FYI, Homeboy Jesus is blasting Public Enemy. Because he loves to stick it to the Man.

In these next two posts, I again want to explore two Jesuses who are really poles of a spectrum along which we relate to the real Jesus.  So please welcome among us Homeboy Jesus (a.k.a. Jesus H. Christ).

Homeboy Jesus loves you, but he just wants to be your friend.  He’s chill, he’s laid back.  Homeboy Jesus used to think you were rad, back when rad was cool.  But Homeboy Jesus doesn’t say ‘rad’ anymore because, bro, he’s not behind the times – he’s hip!  He’s with it!  He pretty much came up with Urban Dictionary.

Homeboy Jesus loves you just like you are.  You can wear his shirts and jewelry whether or not you live like him.  You can be associated with him just because you want to be.

Because, hey, Homeboy Jesus is your friend.  He wouldn’t do anything to upset you – certainly nothing as extreme as judging you for not living the way he wants you to.  Because Homeboy Jesus is




for anything as wack as that.

Maybe the problem with Homeboy Jesus is really a problem with what we think friendship is.

Jesus is My HomeboyWe’ve watered being friends down to yes-man-ship.  Our friends are supposed to think we’re the best thing since sliced bread.  To agree that we are clever and beautiful and hilarious.  And right.  Basically that we’re Jesus 2.0.  Modern friendship certainly contains no element of accountability, not impetus to grow.  No wonder our friendships tend to be shallow (if they have any meaning at all).

This is unfortunate, because a true friendship is meant to better us, to spur us on, to sharpen us (like iron).

We like Homeboy Jesus because following him is easy – it doesn’t require any sacrifice or change on our part.  We can be down with him without ever once being uncomfortable.  If Homeboy Jesus doesn’t like what we’re doing, he’ll just leave, and we’ll be fine with it.

Unfortunately, following this sort of Jesus doesn’t transform us, because we’re really just following ourselves.

Our first clue probably should’ve been how Homeboy Jesus always agrees with us.

We need a better Jesus than this.  And we need better friends than this.  For our own sakes, if nothing else.

Sacrificial Lamb Jesus

Last week I took a look at Hippy, Left-Wing Jesus so I thought I should work towards the other extreme this week.  You know, to keep things balanced.  So may I present to you Sacrificial Lamb Jesus (a.k.a. “Scapegoat Jesus”, “Passion of the Christ” Jesus:

Fun fact: SL Jesus prefers colder climates, because all that wool gets VERY itchy in the heat. And a sweaty Jesus is a stinky Jesus. Sacrificial Lamb Jesus came to die for your sins.

And that’s all.

His whole purpose in becoming human was to come here and die in your place so that you can go to Heaven and be with God.  He didn’t die until he was in his early 30s, and he came as a baby, but no one is really sure what he was doing the rest of the time.  I heard he taught some stuff and did some miracles (which are NOT devil magic like Harry Potter), but that was all sort of like A1.  Some people think it makes the steak taste better and some don’t, but either way, it’s not the main course.

No, the main course was his horrible, terrible death on the cross.

See, every time you talk about how SL Jesus died, you have to use as much gruesome detail as you possibly can.  Your listeners need to know every painful, awful detail of crucifixion so that they understand exactly how awful, wicked and sinful they are.  Because, after all, when you talk about SL Jesus, you have to make sure everyone knows that he died in their place.  This was his only purpose.  If they don’t understand this, then they miss Jesus entirely.

The problem with this view of Jesus is that it’s too narrow; it ignores too much of his story.*

Evangelicals are (in)famous for focusing on the Cross nearly to the exclusivity of anything else, and here we’ve made a misstep.  At the Cross, Jesus defeated Death and Sin, but these were not ends to themselves.  Jesus’ story starts before the beginning of time, according to John.  And his mission was not to defeat Sin and Death, but rather to reconcile all things to himself – everything that had been lost in the Fall.  Sin and Death were standing between Jesus and his goal, but they were not the end of his journey.

Jesus’ ultimate goal was to restore the world to its original purpose – to be the place where God lives with all creation (including us).  Something in humanity is broken – that’s evident if you look at what we do to ourselves, each other and our world.  When Jesus came, he came not only to heal us, but to show us what a fully human person looks like.  That person is concerned with neighbors and creation.  Not because it’s hip or trendy, but because Jesus is all about shalom, the whole world existing as it was created to be.

That’s why we have to pay as much attention to Hippy Jesus as we do to SL Jesus.  We need them both.  We need his life and his death.

What do you think would happen if we stopped looking at the wounds of the crucifixion only as our source of healing but also as Jesus’ means of identifying with the brokenness in our world?  How might that change what we think it means to follow Jesus?

*If you just thought to yourself, “I like to be narrow.  Jesus said the road to Heaven is narrow,” then please follow these instructions: Place your hand on the desk in front of you.  Take a pencil in your other hand, and jam it as hard as you can into the desk-hand.  Have you done that?  Good.  The pain you are now feeling is nothing in comparison to the pain SL Jesus felt on the cross for the sin you just committed of taking Scripture so grossly out of context.  Lesson learned!

Hippy Left-Wing Jesus

The fish is jumping out of the implied water. Because animals LOVE Hippy Jesus.  He's like a Disney Princess (R) in that way. Poor Hippy Jesus.  He’s all about Peace and Love, but for some reason everyone just loves to pick on him.  He was born all the waaaaaaaaaaay back in the early 1900s (if you can even imagine such a ludicrous time) when a group of Western intellectuals decided they should apply Christian ethics to contemporary social ills.  Where they’d get such a radical idea is beyond me, seeing as the real Jesus never mentioned anything about caring for the poor.*

Hippy Jesus really grew to maturity towards the late 1970s, after the sexual revolution and the polarization of the American political spectrum.  The Church was not exempt from that polarization, and it was during this time that Evangelicalism became a force to be reckoned with, thanks to the likes of the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family and Petra.

Christians quickly found it very important to know whether a person was ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, with both sides demonizing the other.  Hippy Jesus got lumped in with all the left-winger because he thinks we should care about poor people and the environment and tends towards pacifism, among other things.

These days, Hippy Jesus is just as divisive as he’s ever been.

He’s hip and cool, has all the latest gadgets and is very socially conscious.  He’s usually sporting TOMs Shoes and loves American Apparel t-shirts (either that or TWLOHA).  And he has his fair share of enemies.  You might here a pastor rant about other pastors who are too metrosexual or people who are all caught up in the ‘Social Gospel’ at the expense of the ‘Real Gospel’.  Sometimes the debate gets downright ugly, and surprisingly Hippy Jesus doesn’t seem to mind.  For all his talk of love and acceptance, he can actually be pretty exclusive.  He does well with those he’s supposed to care about (you know, the poor and people like that), but when it comes to Christians who disagree with him, he tends to get a little bit…

…well, judgmental.  Condescending.  When he’s just with friends, he can be downright mean (in a hilarious way, and besides, the real Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious people of his day, so it’s totally cool).**

It’s really easy for Hippy Jesus to get caught up in causes, to ignore Jesus’ death and resurrection (which are, after all, pretty violent).  But we have to remember that without the empty tomb, all our efforts to improve the world are in vain.  Without God’s final and decisive victory over sin and evil, the world would still be doomed.

Hippy Jesus would also do well to remember that the Gospel really is for everyone and that includes his enemies.  After all, if he’s really going to be a pacifist, he has to make sure that his grace extends to them too.

Have you encountered Hippy Jesus?  What are your thoughts about him?

* A person can only believe this statement if s/he has never actually read more than about four words Jesus says.

** Yes, if there was any doubt in your brain, this is another of my personal favorite Jesuses.

CEO Jesus

Since last week I took on a Jesus I’m not too big on, I figured I’d balance everything out by exploring a Jesus who is nearer and dearer to my heart than I really enjoy admitting.  So without any further ado, may I present to you

CEO Jesus (a.k.a. Corporate Jesus, Business Model Jesus)

CEO Jesus loves to ADMINSTER sacraments. Or ordinances.  Whichever you prefer.  He'll take a poll and get back to you on what we're going to call them.

This is a Jesus who’s been growing in popularity in the Church since the 1970s, and we can probably attribute both the seeker movement and the megachurch to his activity.  It was around that time leaders in the church really began to look to corporate America for guidance and inspiration.  So we began to see churches with Mission Statements (and later Vision and Process and a host of other flavors of statements) and Core Values.  We began to hire according to skill sets, even creating positions like Administrative Pastor.  Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin have joined Max Lucado and Rick Warren as must-reads for any church leader (and when the heck is Mitch Joel going to get on that list?  Come on, people!).

This hasn’t been all bad; indeed, it may have been inevitable.  Given that our culture is so shaped by the culture of Corporate America, we should have expected some degree of syncretism.  And leaders like Bill Hybles and Andy Stanley are shining examples of faithful incarnation of the Gospel in corporate culture.

But Corporate Jesus is really all about making you a better person.  He has worship services and encourages us to church shop until we find a place that meets our needs.  He wants us to worry about whether or not we like the music or how well the sermon feeds us.  This body of CEO Christ creates rockstar senior pastors and pop-perfect worship bands.

A good friend of mine recently interviewed at such a church, and during their Sunday gathering, his wife commented that he probably wasn’t cool enough to be a part of their leadership.  She was only partially joking.

The CEO Jesus is slowly working his way down the corporate church ladder: more and more churches are embracing strengths-based ministry, in which a person is profiled and then invited to serve where their unique combination of gifts and talents will best benefit both them and the larger church corporation ::ahem:: excuse me, larger church body.

Here’s my problem with CEO Jesus: I love him.

I love this model of church.  The reason we borrow so heavily from business is because their models work. Really well.  I have become a much better minister thanks to Marcus Buckingham and Tim Sanders’ mentoring.  Made to Stick and Communicating for a Change pretty much revolutionized my preaching.

And I really do believe that we love God best when we are good stewards of all the gifts we’ve been given, including our strengths and talents.

But what about the fact that the Gospel is not primarily about me?  What about the fact that I’m called to die with Jesus, not promote myself or my company (dang it, I mean church!)?  What about the fact that his strength is enough for me, that his strength is made perfect in my weakness, not my top 5? (that’s a Strengthsfinder reference for the uninitiated)

This is a tension the Body of Christ must take seriously.

Right. There's a limit. I get it.
Right. There’s a limit. I get it.

We walk a tight rope and falling to either side is deadly.  On one hand, we have the consumer church culture and rockstar, too-cool-for-school church leaders.  We run the danger of becoming a cheap, plastic generic Church made not in China (maybe we’d be better off taking a lead from Chinese churches?) but in focus groups and opinion polls.  On the other side, however, we run the risk of becoming ineffective.  I know that word is unpopular; we’re not supposed to measure God’s work because it’s somehow unfaithful.

In response to this problem Andy Stanley once said,

One time Jesus fed 5,000 men plus women and children.  How did they know how many people there were?  They counted them!

We should always be asking ourselves if we’re doing the most we can with the resources and energies we have.  If our vision is really God’s vision.  If it’s a BHAG (pronounced bee-hag, from Jim CollinsBig Hairy Audacious Goal).  If it’s something we can do on our own – the way CEO Jesus would want us to, or if we’re actually going to have to step out in faith and trust the real Jesus, who promised that we’d do even greater things than he, who promised never to leave us or forsake us and in whose name we will not rest until the whole world has been reconciled.

How much have you interacted with the CEO Jesus?  Do you see corporate culture in your church?  Do you like it or not?

American Jesus!

Jesus 1

A couple of good friends of mine picked up this magnetic dress-up Jesus. I can’t tell you how fortunate I feel that when my friends see this, they think of me and buy this for me.  I am going to use dress-up Jesus over the next several weeks to explore the various types of Jesus we settle for rather than the real Jesus we meet in the Scriptures.

A disclaimer: these images of Jesus are supposed to be funny, so before you get up in arms about them, sit back, count to ten and think about what I’m saying.  Just for a minute or two.  Then go ahead and get mad and burn me in the comments section 🙂

Without any further ado, may I present today’s subject of interest, especially appropriate given that yesterday was July 4.

Ladies and gentlemen, behold American Jesus.

Jesus - American JesusDoesn’t He look ready for some BBQ and Apple Pie?  Maybe a baseball game a little later and then some fireworks?  His shirt, in case you can’t read it, says “God, Guns and Guts Made America Free.”  This is all too often the way we think about Jesus’ relationship to those of us who follow Him here in America.  Jesus died for our sins – was sacrificed for them.  The word ‘sacrifice’ is a religious term – it means to make something sacred or special by giving it to a deity.  Sacrifice is a powerful word, with powerful connections.

So it’s not especially surprising that we try to co-opt the word, to apply it to so many other scenarios, including when a soldier gives up his or her life.  In fact, many within the Church commemorate the service and death of soldiers by proclaiming them to be ‘sacrifices’ (consider this book from a Christian publishing house).

But is this a sacrifice?  The soldier is giving up his or her life for the defense of American interests.  Are these interests always Jesus’ interests?  Uncritically, we immediately answer, Yes, of course!  God is always on our side, after all.

But if we stop to think for a moment, we can recognize that America has not always been on God’s side – we recognize that the genocide of Native American peoples was a great evil, as was the institution of slavery.  And yet both of those movements were resolutely defended by persons who claimed to follow Jesus.

So how can we be so sure today that Jesus is on our side?

Such a question should at minimum cause us to pause and consider.  Here’s what Rob Bell had to say about the matter:

On the news are sound bites form a speech by the president of the United States.  He’s on the deck of an aircraft carrier, proclaiming victory in a recent military effort.  Not only was the mission accomplished, according to the leader of the world’s only superpower, but American forces are now occupying this Middle Eastern country until peace can be fully realized within its borders.  This puts a Christian in an awkward place.  Because Jesus was a Middle Eastern man who lived in an occupied country and was killed by the superpower of his day. – from Jesus Wants to Save Christians, p 17.

Is Jesus on our side?  That’s probably the wrong question to ask.

It certainly was for Joshua when he encountered the Angel of the Lord in Joshua 5:13-14.  Even though Israel was God’s chosen nation, God did not side with Israel.  Joshua should’ve been asking how he could be sure he was on God’s side, not vice versa.

And there, I think, is the fallacy of the American Jesus.  We assume that Jesus is just like us, and so Jesus can’t challenge us.  And we end up sacrificing to America, our jobs, our families, or any number of other false gods we fashion for ourselves.

And we forget the words the author of Hebrews spoke to us:

Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” – Hebrews 10:11-13

The only sacrifice we have left to make is of ourselves to God.

Not to America or anything or anyone else.  Jesus did that for us.  He won the victory, and the day is coming soon when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. (This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about soldiers as brave, courageous or honorable; I have several friends who are stationed in the Middle East right now and they are certainly these and more.  I only want to caution us against the misuse of religious language both in the military and in our own lives.)

So the question is: Are you on God’s side?

BONUS: Here’s a preview of what’s to come

Jesus 2

Book Review: The Jesus Manifesto

This book’s intention is to make you uncomfortable. In that sense, the authors – Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola – succeed admirably, but probably not in the way they’d hoped, at least not for me.

Of the two Leonard Sweet books I’ve read so far (this one and The Gospel According to Starbucks), Manifesto is much more in-your-face. Of the two Viola books I’ve read so far (this one and Pagan Christianity), Manifesto is probably equally cruel. This leads me to believe that Frank Viola is a very angry man who dragged Dr. Sweet along for the ride. I don’t know either of the authors though. so to the book!

What’s in the Book

Jesus Manifesto is a relatively quick (under 200 pages) attack on what – according to the authors – is the most serious problem in contemporary American Christianity: a lack of focus on Jesus. Viola and Sweet load both barrels and blast away at pretty much anyone that’s not them: Christianity has become about self-improvement. Or maybe it’s about social justice. No, it’s about doing the right things! Whatever the nature of the established institution, they will deconstruct it. And I don’t necessarily disagree with many of their critiques of the modern Church.


Sweet and Viola never bother to construct anything. They don’t offer answers to the critiques they levy so handily. "The question is not ‘What would Jesus do?’ but ‘What does Jesus want to do now through us?’" Okay. so how do we teach people the difference? "The essence of Jesus’ being is not His; he is continually receiving it from the Father. Could it be that those who are remade in Christ’s image live in a similar fashion?"
What? So we just ask "WWGD" instead? How is that significantly different?

Elsewhere, the authors claim that Jesus is not a social agenda. Okay, so does the Kingdom of God have political implications? Yes, apparently. er. maybe not. um. Jesus! Look at what Jesus did, but don’t imitate it! Or maybe you do.

The book does make great points. Lots of them, in fact. But just when you’re about to underline something helpful, the authors backpedal. The only word you’re really safe underlining in the book, in fact, is "Jesus". And while this may have been Sweet & Viola’s point, it’s not done in a clever enough way to be helpful. It ends up being more maddening and confusing.

And in the end, while I have my issues with the contemporary Church, maybe I’m just not ready to throw the Baby out with the manger hay.

The verdict? The book stands on Jesus, but the explanation of that stand is too confusing to be very helpful.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”