Have you ever discovered someone whom you thought you knew well, wasn’t really who you thought they were? I don’t mean they were living under an assumed identity and false name but that something happened that revealed them to be a very different type of person from the one you had thought them to b?. You know the kind of thing, projecting one image in public but acting in completely the opposite way in private. It’s happened to me a few times and has always been a deeply disappointing and hurtful experience.
FLANNEL GRAPH JESUS
Recently I have been thinking about my understanding of another person of whom I now believe I have had a false understanding and this time the warped perspective is all my fault. You see I was brought up on a Sunday school diet of the flannelgraph Jesus. The “Flannelgraph Jesus” was a one dimensional cut out character who looked a bit like a Hollywood B list actor. As the stories about the Flannelgraph Jesus developed and as more and more bits of coloured material were stuck to the board (if you were born after 1980 you have no idea what I am talking about) he generally did a few good things before getting down to his real work in life which was dying on the cross. It was the same basic story in “big church.” Now I have to admit I maybe wasn’t that attentive a child but I don’t remember hearing too many sermons about what Jesus actually taught, except that we needed to be born again.
Later on in life I encountered another picture of Jesus in church which I’ll call the Ikea Jesus. I once heard the founder of Ikea (BTW is it a sinster plot to take over the world, sitting room by sitting room?) who said that Ikea was not about furniture, it was about “life enhancement.” Ikea according to him existed to enhance the life of its customers. In the same way the Ikea Jesus exists to enhance our lives. I have heard sermons on how Jesus can make our marriages better, make us more successful at work, help us build better relationships and become more financially astute. Now let me clarify something, I do believe that Jesus makes our lives betters, in fact academics have a name for it, “redemption and lift.” I see this in my own family, my father was a shipyard worker who had few real opportunities in life, many (most?) shipyard workers of his generation lived for drinking and gambling. My dad embraced Christ and lived as best as he could for him and the result is that within a generation his family is filled with, doctors, nurses, lawyers. teachers, pastors, engineers. My dad got redeemed and we as a family got lifted! No doubt about Jesus enhanced the Petticrew family!
My problem with the Ikea Jesus is one of emphasis. The way its preached makes it sound like the Ikea Jesus exists for us. He exists to make our lives better which turns Jesus into little more that a 1st century lifestyle guru, like the kind of person Oprah would have as a guest. Confession time, I have preached the Ikea Jesus. I have said in effect “come to Jesus and life will be better”. Now that wasn’t untrue but it was only half true. The problem I now see is that whenever we preach the Ikea Jesus we become selective about what we let Jesus say. We create a toned down, tame Jesus who wants to make us comfortable and secure, successful and safe.
THE REVOLUTIONARY JESUS
Yet when I read the Gospels I have the same experience I have had with some people, I see someone in a whole new light. The real Jesus is anything but tame, he is dangerous! The Romans and religious authorities had him killed for God sake. (and yes I meant to say that) He doesn’t offer a few words of comfort and a few helpful principles to improve our life, the real Jesus confronts our sin, offers us a new way of living for which he warns us we may well have to give our lives! He constantly tells us that we must count the cost of following Him and that conflict and suffering could come to us through our commitment to Him. He challenges some of our deepest preferences and won’t allow us to be selfishly indifferent to others.
No wonder Erwin McManus constantly attacks the “safest place to be is the centre of God’s will” platitude that gets trotted out in Christian circles. Try telling that to Philip as the rocks start raining down on him, or Paul as he gets beaten senseless again, or Peter as he is being executed or Christians today in North Korea or Iran or Saudi Arabia. The centre of God’s will may be an exciting place, a fulfilling and rewarding place, but there are no guarantees it is a safe place. That is because the real radical Jesus, as opposed to the Ikea Jesus, is not committed to enhancing our lives. His agenda cannot be reduced to making life more pleasant and palatable for us and generally keeping us healthy and away from danger. The problem is that our churches are filled with people who think that is exactly what Jesus promises and become disillusioned when he doesn’t deliver on what they think he has promised them.
In contrast the revolutionary Jesus we encounter in the Gospels does not call us to follow him to improve our lives but to give our lives. The authentic Jesus calls on us to give our lives for a purpose greater than our selves, to give our lives to advance the Kingdom of God, just as he did. I do wonder if the people in our churches are hearing from this Jesus? My conclusion, and I confess my part in this, is that they are not. I think the truth is that recently we have been preaching a diminished Jesus who has a diminished message and the result has been a diminished impact on our culture.
Paradoxically I wonder if many people find the Ikea Jesus by and large a bit of a bore and find the lifestyle gurus on Oprah more convincing and so ignore the message of Christianity. I am recommitting myself to knowing the real Jesus and so allowing his revolutionary message to challenge me again to see my mission in life as being to serve Him, rather than his mission being to serve me. What about you?