“As a former Christian who has converted to Judaism, how do you now see Jesus?” I asked a speaker in our Sunday school class.
The speaker grew up as Southern Baptist. After studying comparative religions in college, she converted to Judaism. She openly and humbly shared her journey from a faithful and devout Christian to an equally devout Reformed Jew. It was a long process of discernment through study, conversations, and involvement in both Jewish and Christian practices.
She grew up affirming Jesus as the Son of God, her personal Savior and Lord. She was baptized and received into church membership. Now, she no longer affirmed the creedal affirmations of her childhood and youth.
“I see Jesus as a reformer,” she replied to my question. She elaborated that much of Judaism of Jesus time had become rigid, focused on rules, and controlled by religious elites. Jesus, however, sought reform based on the vision of the prophets and God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses. His focus was on the spirit of the law rather than the letter.
There followed a discussion of the relationship between what Jews celebrate in the Exodus and Christians celebrate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a rich and informative discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation.
I wonder if we Christians have jumped too quickly to lofty creedal affirmations about Jesus and missed the radical nature of his reformation. Is it possible that the contemporary church in North America resembles the leadership elitism, rigidity, and legalistic focus of the speaker’s assessment of first century Judaism?
Without diminishing the importance of our creedal declarations about Jesus, viewing Jesus as Reformer has merit, especially in this era of institutional preoccupation and reliance on legislation and judicial processes.
Danger exists in the emphasis on Jesus as personal savior and relegating him to a theological or doctrinal category. The invitation to “accept Jesus as your personal savior” can be an appeal to selfishness! The focus is on what Jesus does for me! He can become my personal possession and the champion of my individual needs or desires that masquerade as needs. Salvation becomes my personal ticket to heaven when I die.
Or, Jesus Christ can easily become an abstract theological/doctrinal affirmation, locked in a creed and rationally defended against “heresy.” We can praise him with our lips while he is far from our hearts and actions.
The first disciples began their journey with Jesus in response to the simple invitation, “Follow me.” They accepted him first as Lord, master, teacher, and reformer! In following him, believing what he said, going where he went, welcoming those whom he welcomed Jesus became their Savior.
One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that many who believe the right things about Jesus fail to be reformed by him. For example, Frederick Douglas reports that his slave master became even more cruel once he was converted! Affirming Jesus as personal savior and treating others as less that children of God falls woefully short of Christian discipleship.
Focus on getting to heaven while ignoring the hell in which people currently live misses the mark of what it means to accept Jesus. A more faithful response is that of Moses, so concerned about the people that he prayed, “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32).
What would it mean if the contemporary church in North America looked to Jesus as Reformer, as well as Savior and Lord? I offer a few modest suggestions and invite your own reflection.
- Focus on the present and coming reign of God’s justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality and joy rather than institutional survival and triumphalism. God’s preoccupation is the healing and transformation of the world, not the statistical growth of the institutional church.
- Shift the margins so that the poor, imprisoned, the weak, the outcasts, the sick and vulnerable are at the center of the church’s fellowship, ministry, and worship rather than being mere objects of charity at best and despised at worst.
- Turn away from legislation and judicial processes as primary means of dealing with conflicts and differences and practice reconciliation, forgiveness, and hospitality.
- Give priority to the formational role of doctrine whereby the test of orthodoxy is orthopraxis; that is, let’s focus on doctrine’s role in shaping persons and communities who reflect God’s reign as brought near in Jesus the Christ rather than using doctrine to determine who is in and who is out.
Yes, I affirm Jesus as my Lord and Savior! But he’s also the radical Reformer of the status quo in church and society!