The Critical Risen Christ
Jesus was no mealy-mouthed preacher. He did not become so in Resurrection. Revelation chapters 2 and 3 verify that Jesus in heaven is not uncritical of his churches, his people. His strictures are replete with buts, yets and neverthelesses!
To the church in Ephesus Jesus speaks thus ‘Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen. Repent and do the things you did at first. If you will not repent I will come and remove your lampstand from its place.’ (2 : 4 & 5) To the church in Smyrna Jesus says ‘I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!.. Be faithful, even to the point of death.’ (9 &10) To the church in Pergamum Jesus says ‘Nevertheless, I have a few things against you….Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.’ (14 – 16)
To the church in Thyatira Jesus says, ‘Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet...….Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.’ (20 – 23) To the church in Sardis Jesus says, ‘Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.’ (3 : 22 &3) To the church in Philadelphia Jesus says, ‘Hold on to what you have, so that no-one will take your crown’. (11)
To the church in Laodicea Jesus says, ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.’ 15 - 18).
This is not the liberal Christ of today’s churches. Jesus would not get on the BBC. His words are not like the postulations of church leaders in Britain. Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) the Danish radical Christian thinker was critical of the comfortable Christianity practised in the Copenhagen of his day. He wrote, “The greatest danger to Christianity is, I contend, not heresies, heterodoxies, not atheists, not profane secularism – no, but the kind of orthodoxy which is cordial drivel, mediocrity served up sweet.” (Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard) For Kierkegaard ‘Being a Christian is neither more nor less, without a doubt neither more nor less, than being a martyr; every Christian, that is, every true Christian, is a martyr...But I hear one of those shabby pastors (by shabby I mean one of those who is shabby enough to accept two or three hundred thousand rix-dollars a year, prestige with decorations, etc. — in order to betray Christianity) say: But, of course, we cannot all be martyrs. To this God would reply: Stupid man, do you not think I know how I have arranged the world. Fear only that it will never happen that all become Christians, that only 1/10, only 1/1000 become Christians’ (Journals and Papers of Søren Kierkegaard, IX a 51).
There is a direct line between the Jesus of the Gospels and Revelation 2 and 3. Jesus showed symptoms of what might today be critically called egotism and demagogy. This aspect of Jesus' personality was portrayed in Paolo Pasolini's neo-realist 1964 film 'The Gospel according to St Matthew' in which Jesus is demanding and uncompromising. We know that Jesus changed the names of his followers. ‘He (Andrew) brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter)’ (John 1 : 42) The new Covenant, the new purpose, the new creation required a new identity. Mark 3:17 tells us that Jesus gave nicknames to ‘James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder’. Today Muslims who become Christians take Christian names. African Christians have family, tribal and Christian names. Popes take on different names. John Paul II was Karol Wojtyla and Francis is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Moderators of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland ‘haud tae their ain names’.
Jesus was a demanding leader. ‘Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”’. (Matthew 8 : 19 – 22). Famously, Jesus rebuked Peter with the words ‘Get behind me Satan’ (Mark 8 : 33, Matthew 16 : 23). He countered Peter’s false loyalty with the words. ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will disown me three times’. And the Risen Jesus annoyed and hurt Peter by asking him 3 times if he loved him (John 21 : 15 -17). We might amplify ‘Do you love me sufficiently – for the tasks ahead’.
Jesus had harsh words for some. ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness’. (Matthew 23 : 27) And worse, ‘Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?’ (33) And he even cursed a fig tree to death! Why? ‘Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’’ (Matthew 21 : 18 – 22, Mark 11 : 12 – 14 and 20 – 25). Commentators suggest that this was a dramatic parable acted out by Jesus signifying the fruitlessness of the Old Covenant. Today’s tree huggers would not be impressed. Jesus normally did not do destructive. Matthew says that he was hungry and then disappointed and angry. Mark explains that it was not the season for fruit in any case. Jesus explains that he is negatively illustrating the power of prayer.
Jesus wrecked the tables of the traders in the Temple. Jesus stood in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. There was much criticism, judgement and condemnation, unremittingly so in the case of Jeremiah. ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am about to turn against you the weapons of war that are in your hands, which you are using to fight the king of Babylon and the Babylonians who are outside the wall besieging you. And I will gather them inside this city. I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm in furious anger and in great wrath’ (21 : 4 – 5). ‘Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers” (Matthew 21 : 12 – 13). Jesus’ inbreaking of the Kingdom of God was not a domestic or social event. It was what is called eschatological. It had stresses and strains which contrasted with settled life. Paul in comparison made Jesus Christ available to ongoing social and family life. This is the Christianity the churches inherited.
We rely on the kind and pleasant Jesus, meek and mild, forgiving and loving or else we are lost. But we cannot ignore the possibility of judgement either. Are we useful to Jesus? Fruitful? Helpful? Spiritually profitable? Are we faithful witnesses and good servants of the Living Lord? We are not fooling him, that is for sure. It is clear that he is still involved in the life of his church. What criticisms would he make of us today? Where would he stop? Would he scan the chequered history of the Christianity of our own inheritance? Would he show us where we went terribly wrong? Would he recount our own failures to us? No. He himself said ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (John 3 : 16 - 17). Paul wrote ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.’ (2 Corinthians 5 : 19)
Jesus’ criticisms in Revelation 2 and 3 were corrective and redemptive in nature. Hebrews 4 : 12 says ‘For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’. Jesus was not like Sir Alex Ferguson with his ‘hair dryer’ treatment of lazy footballers. If they were not performing to standard at his half time talks he stood so close to them while he shouted at them that his warm breath lifted the hair on their foreheads. He wanted the best for them, himself the club and its supporters. However, the idea that Jesus is accepting of our feeble witness in this day and age is mistaken.
Jesus criticised people for their lack of faith. After stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee Jesus said to his disciples ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4 : 40). Faced with indifference in his home town of Nazareth, Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith (Mark 6 : 6). Jesus rebuked his disciples for not healing an epileptic boy. 'You really are an unbelieving and difficult people,' replied Jesus. “How long must I be with you, how long must I put up with you?' (Luke 9 : 41). Jesus denounced some of those who publicly opposed him. He said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.’ (John 8 : 43 – 47) He brought finality down upon some who mocked and despised his healing work...‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’. (Matthew 12 : 32).
Where does this leave current Christian preaching in the land? The sort of public arguments and discourses that Jesus had would not be allowed in our society. They would be regarded as disorder and possibly as hate crime. There used to be an open pulpit for disputation on Hyde Park Corner. The famous Methodist minister Donald Soper was a regular speaker there and he enjoyed arguing with hecklers. Christian truth is not really discussed publicly anywhere. Church leaders do not do so. The internet, of course, is awash with opinion, controversy and keyboard mayhem. It is chaotic and disordered. From Q Anon to BLM and from flat earthers to apocalyptic protesters, every view and interpretation of human existence is presented. Anonymity allows extreme expression. The dark web is reputed to be much, much worse. Christian communication takes place in controlled environments, preaching largely to the converted. Conventional church going Christians are not willing to take the risk, suffer abuse or be charged with breaking the law for the sake of the Gospel. There are many Christian internet ministries of varying quality and content. They also operate under broadcasting laws. The British regulator Ofcom recently fined Loveworld Television Network £125,000 after it breached the rules by airing ‘inaccurate and potentially harmful claims about coronavirus’.
Jesus was critical but that was not all that he was. Far from it. Proportionately, Jesus was the Good Shepherd, the teacher, the compassionate healer, the friend, the non-violent exemplar, the sacrificial Lamb of God. He was no demagogue. His ‘I sayings’ (e.g., I am the resurrection and the life) were not egotism but explanation of who he was and is. Jesus was no cult leader. In Jonestown Guyana in 1978 the cult leader James Jones took 918 of his followers including 304 children to their deaths by cyanide poisoning. In 1973 the cult leader David Koresh died with 79 of his followers including 21 children at Waco in Texas. Jesus was no cult leader. His followers said that they were willing to share his fate. Peter declared, "Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you." And all the other disciples said the same’ (Matthew 26 : 35). Jesus refused the offer which he knew was well intentioned but spurious. Nor was it God’s redemptive plan that they should die with him. He laid down his own life for his sheep. He laid down no-one else’s. He affirmed ‘I have not lost one of those you gave me’. (John 18 : 9) Arguably, Jesus’ criticisms led to his death. But much more was happening in the plan of salvation that necessitated transforming from the Old to the New Covenant. The incarnation is not just about Christmas though. The Jesus who grew up was the ultimate outsider who took on the world and triumphed over it through voluntary sacrificial death and resurrection. The risen ascended Jesus loves his people still. But he was not in life on earth and is not now a pushover.