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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Where is Jesus?

I love the somewhat dated story about a little girl who goes to the pediatrician. The doctor plays a game with the four year old girl to try to alleviate any nervousness about the stethoscope. So as she listens to the girl's stomach, she says, "I think I hear Bugs Bunny in there!" When she listens to the girl's lungs she says, "I hear Dora in there!" When she listens to the girl's heart, she says, "I hear Barney in there!" The girl becomes very serious and looks the doctor in the eye. "Doctor," she says, "Barney is on my underwear. Jesus is in my heart."

Where is Jesus? This is a question the church has to deal with. We often speak and act as if Jesus is gone, departed, out of the picture. We find ourselves much like the confused disciples in Acts 1, staring up into the heavens wondering where Jesus went.

Many of our quasi-theological statements make the assertion that Jesus is out of the picture. For example, it is not uncommon to read theological books about worship, usually from high church or mainline traditions (think Episcopal or liturgical Lutheran among others) that talk about the pastor or priest presiding at the altar "in Christ's stead." The presider -- this usually refers to the one who oversees the preparation of the bread and wine for communion and speaks the "words of institution" ("in the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread ..."). If we mean what we say in these statements, that the pastor or priest presides "in Christ's stead," we are saying that we have to do this because Jesus isn't there, or isn't there in such a way that he can actually get things done.

I submit this is a very dangerous way to think.

If Jesus is not really present, our whole theology of Communion, usually summed up in liturgical traditions with words like "the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine" is bankrupt. Is Jesus present or isn't he? If the priest functions in Christ's stead, then Jesus is not present. But this is exactly the theological corner into which liturgical traditions often paint themselves. We don't believe or act as if Jesus is truly present, so we create a church that becomes some combination of a theological club, a social club, a social service organization, a readers' group, and a historical society. These churches, that exist all across North America, tend to be middle or upper middle class institutions that ask little of their constituents and make little difference in the world. You can tell just by listening that they don't really think Jesus showed up for worship that day, because their prayers are scripted, flowery, generalized, and low-impact. They may take daring social stands on issues, but nobody really pays attention because this church doesn't have any oomph.

Other churches, however, maintain that Jesus is truly present. They talk to him as if he is right there. They expect him to heal people, to bless people, to lead and guide those who want to follow him. When Jesus says, "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" in Matthew 28, these churches take him seriously. And they also take him seriously when he says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" in John 20. So they get out into the world and try to make a difference. They make a ton of mistakes along the way and offend some people, but they also feed the hungry, clothe the naked, start prison ministries and travel all over the world to build houses and orphanages, dig wells and care for people struggling with malaria or HIV.

Which church would you rather be a part of?

One of the reasons I get so worked up about this is that when I was in western North Dakota, I used to go round and round with the local bishop about who was authorized to preside at communion and who wasn't. There were dozens of small rural congregations that struggled to find the services of an ordained pastor.

There are sincere people, and (let me be careful to say) people who know Jesus in both kinds of churches. And both churches contain hypocrites. No question. But -- and this is why this is so important -- one of these kinds of churches takes God's word seriously. When the Bible says something, they believe it's true. It may be uncomfortable truth, but it's truth. You may need to understand the historical context to get at the depth and nuance of what it means, but by and large you can trust that the Bible means pretty much what it says.

The other kind of church holds these words in the Bible loosely and assumes that Jesus may have said something like that, historically speaking, but you have to interpret, because that really doesn't apply in the same way today. The Bible says a lot of things we don't take seriously, so let's just figure out what makes sense and act on that. We are not children -- we know good from evil. It's up to us to make justice and peace a reality.

To repeat myself, I submit that our theology -- our way of speaking about Jesus -- makes a huge difference.

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