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I Like Your Christ – Br. Mark Brown

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Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Cor. 1:18-31; John 12:20-36

Tuesday in Holy Week is a kind of non-event.  But we’re here anyway, because this is what we do every Tuesday at 5:30 (and today being a first Tuesday of the month, we have soup following the service).  Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week are like the eye of the hurricane: a return to calm after the traumatic events of Palm Sunday and before the drama that begins to unfold on Maundy Thursday. We’re in pause, with two days distance from the visceral events of Sunday, and two days distance from the earth-shaking events that begin to unfold on Thursday–so perhaps this evening we can ponder things in a more reflective way.

The scriptures we hear this evening strike a note of universalism. Universalism in the sense that God is concerned with all of humanity, not just certain tribes.  “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” [Isaiah 49:6]  In 1 Corinthians, Paul proclaims Christ crucified to all people: Jews, Greeks and all the other Gentiles.  And Jesus himself in John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  As Christians, our understanding of how the people of God will be a light to all the nations and how salvation is to reach to the ends of the earth is through Jesus Christ.  Through Jesus Christ himself.   Notice his choice of words. In the same sentence Jesus has referred to himself three times. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

This spells out for us, I think, our primary vocation as the Body of Christ: to lift up Christ himself.  He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion; he was lifted up from the earth in his resurrection and ascension.  We lift him up in our hearts and in our witness, in our proclamation. This is our primary vocation as Christians. I put the emphasis on “primary” here to clarify what follows.  Our primary vocation as the church is to lift up the person of Jesus Christ himself—not Christianity, not Anglicanism, not Episcopalianism, not monasticism or any other -ism. Not a social agenda.  Not a political platform. Not even good behavior. Not even good theology. Not even good liturgy.

All these things are vital and an integral part of our being the Body of Christ, but they are not our primary vocation.  Once Christ is lifted up in our own hearts, much follows that has a bearing on how we live our lives, our beliefs, our prayer, our theology, our liturgy, our ethics–of course.

How can we, how shall we lift up Christ in our hearts and in the world? I think this is done most compellingly by keeping the focus on the person of Jesus himself.  For example: as Christians we claim what we might call ethics of compassion.  The way we live is given shape by love for others and compassion for their suffering and concern for their welfare.  But most of the world’s great religions do the same.  What is distinctive about Christian ethics of compassion is the person of Jesus Christ. Our love and compassion and concern for others are grounded in the person of Jesus Christ. We understand our love and compassion for others to have its source in the person of Christ himself—Jesus present and active within us. We embody or incarnate love, which has its source in Christ himself.

But there’s more: it is Jesus himself in the suffering we serve and the stranger we welcome. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing…” [Mt. 25: 35-36] “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” We serve Christ in one another—and we serve as Christ to one another, animated by the Christ who abides in us.  Either way it is the person of Jesus Christ that is primary: the person of Jesus Christ within us, within others and at the same time so beyond us.

Jesus prophesies that all people will be drawn to him when he is lifted up from the earth.  I wonder if we have too limited an understanding of what Jesus means by this.  Does it mean that all people will eventually become card-carrying, Bible-believing, baptized Christians, as we understand the term?  Might there be other ways that Jesus draws all people to himself?

I was intrigued a few years ago by George Steiner.  Steiner is a Renaissance man with intellectual competencies across a wide spectrum—a polyglot and polymath.  He is a prolific writer; his books are usually found in the literary criticism section of bookstores.  Because of his enormous intellect and grasp of so many things he can be difficult to understand. His ethnicity is Jewish, but he is not religious in a conventional sense. A few years ago he gave a series of lectures on the subject of teaching.  His springboard was two individuals he considered to be the greatest teachers of all time: Socrates and Jesus.  For sheer impact on history, of course, it’s hard to beat Jesus.  And, as Steiner pointed out, Jesus did what he did without ever writing down a word.  He was also fascinated by the sheer inexhaustibility of many of Jesus’ sayings. “Before Abraham was, I am”.

So Steiner, a secular Jew, is drawn to Jesus of Nazareth.  He is not drawn, it seems, to the Christian religion, but he is drawn to the person of Jesus as the greatest of teachers.  This may strike us as not enough. But I wonder how it strikes Jesus. If, as Jesus said, all people will be drawn to him when he is lifted up, are we to say what this will look like? Are we to dictate the terms by which someone may be drawn to Jesus? Well, I don’t think we’re in a position to dictate any terms to Jesus, either when all people will be drawn to him or how. Jesus’ relationship with George Steiner is their business.

We could say the same about countless others who may feel drawn to Jesus in some way, but, for whatever reason, don’t meet our criteria as “Christians”.  Muslims, of course, honor Jesus because he’s called a prophet in the Koran.  Buddhists and Hindus are drawn to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi once said: “I like your Christ”.  He went on with words of tough love: “I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” So Gandhi was drawn to Christ, if not to his followers… Jesus’ relationship to Gandhi and the peoples of the world is his and their business.

Our business is, first and foremost, to lift him up. We get so distracted by secondary concerns.  But our calling is to lift up Jesus Christ as a light to the nations, to the ends of the earth. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” We may have our druthers about how this should look.  But our druthers may not be the divine druthers. Better, I think, to do our part and leave the rest up to Jesus. He knows what he’s doing.

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19 Comments

  1. David Cranmer on February 9, 2017 at 11:28

    Thank you, Br Mark and others, for your insights into Gandhi’s attitude towards and Jesus and the Church. I do think there is some merit in recognizing that we Christians are flawed humans, attempting to live as Jesus taught us but not always as faithful as we want.

  2. Janice on February 9, 2017 at 09:09

    A wonderful sermon. Thank you. I needed to hear this message.

  3. Janet on February 8, 2017 at 08:19

    What a marvelous sermon! I love to hear Truth taken out of the religious box. Jesus is for everyone in whatever form they can experience His love and universal, all-inclusive teachings. I pray that I may lift Him up in such a way that others will be drawn to him. Amen!

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  5. Lloyd on July 30, 2015 at 10:34

    “We may have our druthers about how this should look. But our druthers may not be the divine druthers.”

    Delightful, playful, but very much to the point, Brother Mark! This phrase is a sermon in itself, and a good one at that.

    Thank you!

  6. John David Spangler on February 3, 2015 at 12:10

    My sincere compliments to Br. Mark for this sermon and particularly for the title which he has given it, “I like your Christ”. Both reminded me of this quote; “To Jesus Christ. What a splendid chap!”. Sir Alec Guinness in Blessings In Disguise wrote: “Such times as I visited him [Sir Ralph Richardson] in his dressing-room he always poured me half a pint of champagne into a silver tankard; he appeared to knock back half a pint of gin himself with just a splash of water. On one occasion he rose to his feet, stood at attention, and raised his beaker in a military-style toast. ‘To Jesus Christ. What a splendid chap!’ — and gulped it down.”. Sir Ralph may have been a bit tipsy but he spoke the truth. I must add — I may not be grown up, being 86 and still growing especially when reading “A Word” — that I cannot agree with Mr. Coates’ conclusion. “Jesus would never have been known as such without the church. Those who make these infantile distinctions between the good Jesus and the bad church ought to be told to grow- up; and we ought not to let them off the hook.”. I do not ask to be left off the hook.

    • Sarah Acland on March 31, 2015 at 06:58

      I agree. And I really enjoyed the sermon, I think it will be very valuable. It made me think of universalism in a somewhat different way.
      I was once told that in the speaker’s opinion any bad Christian you could name was better than the best Hindu. I absolutely reject this view. Many Christians struggle to express Christ in a truly Christlike way, and might deserve Gandhi’s not liking them, but those of all religions aspire to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless. We are blessed that Christ lifts up all people

  7. anders on February 3, 2015 at 11:46

    Thank you. Growing up evangelical, I was often confused why the Pharisees were “bad” when their attitudes reflected those around me. I wondered how the Sermon on the Mount could be infallible when it wasn’t rational, and I was confused by how secularists appeared to live their values without hypocrisy. Similarly, I am not clear on Jesus’ passive voice of being lifted up from the earth. Who’s doing the lifting? How do I do my part? Perhaps it’s enough for me to be drawn to him and present to the flow of his questions and answers. Sometimes they feed and clothe, other times they leave me feeling hungry and naked or disarmed and alarmed. Maybe it’s not about changing the world with heavy lifting. For now, seeking the presence to let questions and answers come is enough.

    • David Cranmer on February 9, 2017 at 11:24

      What great questions!

  8. Christina on February 3, 2015 at 09:40

    There are not many mornings when I don’t read The Word, but I seem to have missed out on earlier years. But, while we are not quite into Lent I am so grateful for this wonderful sermon. Thank you Br. Mark.
    My friend, who lives quite a long way from me, and I both read the morning offerings, and often talk about our thoughts. This one will give us much to ponder over, and talk about.
    Again. Thank you so much for this great sermon.
    Christina

  9. Susie Williams on February 3, 2015 at 07:26

    I am so glad to be receiving your sermons again. I have been praying that all was well during the snow storm in Boston. I pray that your monastery did not receive too much damage. I feel very blessed every morning when I read your sermons. In Christ, Susie

  10. Sally S. Hicks on April 30, 2014 at 03:30

    One piece of my Lenten discipline this year was to read “The Last Week” – Marcus Borg and John Crassian…….what a blessed choice that was. I was amazed at how full-up, busy Tuesday of Holy Week was in Jesus’ last week on earth physcially.
    I would highly recommend this book for Lent – or anytiime you’d like to learn some church history rather painlesslly.

    • Maureen on August 1, 2015 at 10:58

      I too thought of Borg as I read this sermon. Church can be truly in the compassionate Christ, or it can be from elsewhere. But the insistent magnetism (not in the sense of celebrities, but as a strong, eliciting force) of our Jesus draws us into his lifestyle of unconditional love.
      What a wonderful reinforcer this is. Thank you, Mark.

  11. A Gordon on April 29, 2014 at 23:48

    A jewel of a sermon that deserves as wide a dissemination as possible congratulations you have encapsulated so much you make my heart sing.

  12. Bonnie McNamara on April 29, 2014 at 12:14

    Is there a book entitled Evangelizing for Episcopalians?
    Thanks,
    Bonnie

  13. William Coats on April 29, 2014 at 09:43

    Br. Mark,
    This is not a bad take on the so-called question of universalism. And to note how Steiner and Gandhi were drawn to Jesus as a teacher is, I suppose, a good opening gambit. But let’s get real here. This business of the good Jesus and the bad church is nonsense and we should try to put a halt to it. Yes the church is flawed, imperfect and at times fails horribly. Heck, human nature is what it is. But Gandhi, much of whose career was helped by an Anglican priest, ought to know better. And we too in quoting him (who was not always the saint we hold him up to be) ought to man-up here. Jesus would never have been known as such without the church. Those who make these infantile distinctions between the good Jesus and the bad church ought to be told to grow- up; and we ought not to let them off the hook.

  14. Ray Gaebler on April 29, 2014 at 09:31

    Perhaps if we were to stop trying to dictate the terms of what a relationship with Jesus should look like we could find peace in this world. Thanks for your message.

  15. Peter D. Kinder on April 6, 2012 at 15:41

    What a marvelous sermon! It reads as well as it sounded. I especially liked the third-to-last paragraph. I was/am deeply moved. Thank you, Br. Mark.

  16. Susan Charle on April 4, 2012 at 12:00

    Dear Br. Mark:
    Wow, what a good sermon! I could not agree more! Thank you. I have felt like this for years but somehow have felt reluctant to voice such a view. You took the words right out of my mouth and my thinking. You might be interested to know that this week’s Newsweek has an article by Andrew Sullivan that says something along the line of focusing onJesus Himself-not the Church. I haven’t read the article yet but I suspect it may be abit similar to what you have said.
    Also, I appreciated the term “druthers” Such a lovely midwestern term. I am from the midwest myself and I can tell you since I have moved out East, I have never heard it used. I used to hear it alot growing up. So, again thank you for your eloquent words. It makes me feel a little better about my faith.
    -Susan Charle

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