Yesterday I completed (I use the word loosely), a manuscript I am sending to my nominated editor, Trevor Cooling, for eventual publication in the Grove series of books. It has nearly been two years since I first met Trevor and responded to his suggestion that Grove might be a place to publish what I was wanting to write. During that two years, whilst my fundamental belief system has not shifted at all, I have found it ever more clear that as soon as we (Christian people to begin with, but then everyone!) depart from the action of Jesus in our lives and in the world, we are in a mess. In trying to come up with a decent title for the manuscript, I suggested “Let’s make Jesus real in our schools – and here is a way to do it” which is not pithy or very Grove-like, but it is exactly what I want the book to say.
So when I took some time last week to re-read Carl Medearis’ excellent book Speaking of Jesus (I have now read it four times, and will doubtless read it again) I was confirmed somehow in my belief that the gospels really do show us what God is like. Jesus really is just like God, reflecting the character and wisdom and beauty of the Father into the world. The things he said and did are the things that God says and does in our lives and we are nuts to relegate the gospels as some sort of preamble to the heavy duty stuff of atonement, propitiation and salvation. The latter are not unimportant, but they do not help us know that much about how to live and what God would be like if He was sitting in a room with us. It is a day-to-day consideration of the gospels that does that, and which teach us, in Dallas Willard’s words, how to live our lives as if Jesus were living them instead of us.
As church school leaders, we have a duty to find ways to allow the life of Jesus into our schools. We need to see Him released into everything from curriculum to management of pupil conduct, to assessment, to how we use the buildings – as well as inviting him into the heart of the worship and teaching that we bring to our children. We have to imagine Jesus better. We have, first of all, to imagine him with the poor and the outcast. The wonderful thing about Medearis’ book is somehow he finds a way of de-churching, “de-Christianizing” the gospel so that we find that Jesus is the whole gospel. There is no gospel without him, and any presentation of truth without Him misses the point. Medearis’ great skill is to show that it is possible to be a follower of Jesus and not yet a card-carrying, self-identifying Christian. I find this really helpful, as do many in the Muslim world, who love Isa/Jesus and want to know more about Him, but without all the religious garbage that gets in the way. It raises the question, which I have loved since I heard a fantastic story from Watchman Nee 30 years ago – is it possible to love and follow Jesus and still not be a “Christian”? And does it matter? And if someone decides to follow Jesus, as He commanded, and yet never gets to the 4 spiritual laws, never gets to read Romans, is he “saved”? Just writing that question shows how ridiculous it is. We are not the judge, in case we hadn’t noticed. By one version of an evangelical theology, I am “saved” – but until my life reflects my discipleship of Jesus, I am certainly not Christian. It is those who follow Jesus, who build on the rock of His calling and love, that he accepts and gives life to.
Don’t get me wrong about religious garbage, by the way. I love liturgy for the way that it helps me, or us, corporately, bring content to our worship. The psalms are like that – liturgies of experience that help us gaze fully at God’s desire for us. But they are not the gospel. The gospel is simply the person, work and teaching – the good news – of Jesus. God became human and showed us how to live to please him, and gave us (more importantly) the power to do so. In the church I attend, we sometimes are enjoined to worship God “so that the Holy Spirit has freedom to move among us”. I am a charismatic evangelical by background, so I get the language. I just am less sure that it helps us to think of Jesus clearly. If we think of him as a disembodied spirit rather than a thoroughly embodied Jew, we create trouble for ourselves. If he is spirit, that is because he dwells with our spirit, in us, to reflect the glory of the Father.
For those of us for whom the established church of all stripes is more of a barrier to faith than a help to it (and I have been in that place for about 10 years now), it is very exciting to see myself, as Medearis also sees himself, as “someone who is trying to follow Jesus,” rather than as a Christian. This should help us a lot, I think. If we introduce Jesus as a person who is for people, for our friends, for our enemies, for the children and adults we work with in schools, then whether we are a “church school” or not, we carry around the life of Jesus in order to help people get to know him. As Medearis points out in his book, it is far more likely that Jesus would want to spend time with those who can’t believe that He cares about them, than with us, who believe it but struggle to live it (most of the time!).
This is harder than just “being a Christian” or “leading a church school”. But then, the rewards are better.