“Birds of a feather flock together,” people say scornfully. “A man is known by the company he keeps,” scorn echoes.
And as he [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
(Matthew 9:10-11 NRSV)
Those who seek to be holy risk developing a fear of contamination, just as those who enjoy high status in a society refrain from improperly friendly association with people beneath their social station lest they be toppled by class opinion from their elevated standing. Jesus obviously harbors no such fear. He neither avoids people regarded as sinful nor turns away in disgust from people suffering debasement.
Once, when he [Jesus] was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him.
(Luke 5:12-13 NRSV)
Jesus clearly does not fear social or religious impropriety, either. In his society, men did not associate with women outside their families, not even proper, upstanding women, let alone those of bad reputation. For a teacher of the Torah of Israel to allow himself to be touched in public by a woman was scandalous; he should not even be teaching women or allowing them to speak when he is teaching men. During my second pastorate, I was told by a woman who recently had begun attending our worship services and adult forums that her previous church did not allow women to teach men or, if they did attend adult classes that included men, to ask questions. In the company of men, a wife was to keep silent about her questions of faith, and when she and her husband returned home to ask him to instruct her. Yes, such were the rules of her former church even in the late 20th Century and early 21st.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him [Jesus] saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.”
(Luke 7:39 NRSV)
True, the story’s Pharisee lacks even rudimentary understanding of what a prophet is sent by God to do. The great prophets of Israel and Judah were not sent to predict the future, let alone to keep themselves holy by standing above and apart from the sinful people. Rather, they were sent to represent the pathos – the anger, grief, compassion, or longing – of God for the people and, at the same time and in the same body, to represent the perhaps unexpressed or even unrecognized need of the people for God. In that true sense, Jesus came as a prophet and, his followers believe, more than a prophet.
Christian theologians, teachers, and preachers have long realized and insisted that Jesus came, taught, lived, suffered, and died FOR US. That prepositional phrase, for us, became standard in theology and rightly so. It has been maintained in the Western church’s Latin: pro nobis. Jesus was sent by God “for us and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). It is crucial to Christian faith and thought that we believe the Christ came for us and that he suffered, died, and was resurrected for us – to restore our true relationship with God and our rightful relatedness with each other and all creation.
But I am contending today that “for us” by itself is not enough of the truth. Through our skill at corrupting truth, “for us” can be made aloof and condescending, the benevolence of charity (which once upon a time meant love but no longer) and philanthropy. It can become the way of punitive authority: “I’m only doing it (to you) for you, for your own good.”
With the help of thinkers such as Abraham Heschel and Jürgen Moltmann, we have begun to realize that Jesus the Christ of God stands “with us” in our human condition with all its humiliations, corruptions, griefs, disappointments, and crying needs. He stands “with us” also in our joys, hopes, affections, and dreams. He is one of us and one with us, before his critics and before God. He is, so to speak, the bird of our feather and our many different feathers by which we distinguish among ourselves and spurn each other.
During the centuries of Christendom and throughout the waning Christian cultural establishment in the United States (despite its evangelical surges), we Christians have been much more willing to be “for” people outside our churches (or hidden in secrecy within them) than to be “with” them – to stand with them and be identified with them. We have been tempted to keep ourselves clean while reaching down to them with aid for which, like the ancient benefactors, we have expected their gratitude to us as their superiors. True, we have said often, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but that very declaration of our common human vulnerabilities and foibles confirms our sense of distance from the people who do go that way. It is as though we are praying as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14), “We thank you, God, that (by your grace) we are not as they are!”
Jesus does not look at the sinners and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He walks with them. No, he doesn’t do all the things they do, but he associates himself with them and so gets sullied with their dirt and smeared with their shame. He doesn’t tell them to clean up their acts and make themselves presentable before God. He enters into solidarity with them, and on the cross he experiences their sense of abandonment by God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I believe that rethinking and re-learning Christian faith will require us to see ourselves differently in relation to our society’s people and the world’s people. Established Christianity makes non-believers outsiders. Belligerent Christianity and Christian partisanship make outsiders who refuse to accept subordinate status into enemies. To follow our Christ faithfully, we are going to have to turn our backs on Christian privilege and societal power, we are going to have to stand with people we have viewed as outsiders. It will not be enough to do bits of benevolent good “for” them; we will need, in Douglas John Hall’s terms, to immerse ourselves as Christ’s church in the world. We need to turn away from theologies that call upon us to leave the world behind and continue on as though we alone could be Christ’s redeemed without all the unbelievers and sinners left in this world. No, we must refuse to see ourselves that way, just as Moses refuses, after the golden calf idolatry, to leave the people of Israel behind in the wilderness and go on by himself with God to become the inheritor of the promised land (Exodus 32:9-14). It was the children of Israel God chose to love and not just Moses. It is the world God loves and not just the Christians. Those called out from the world are then sent by God back into the world to stand with and for it, to care and to serve. We shall need to care less about our own purity or even the church’s purity and much more about God’s love for the world and its people.
We must, surely, work out continuously the specifics of our immersion in our society and in the world as individual believers and as congregations of the church of Jesus Christ. The world itself is not our guide, neither its values nor its self-measured successes or failures, but God’s redemptive love for the world must be our guide all along the way.
Cultural establishment has hindered and sometimes corrupted our mission and service. The churches have enjoyed privilege, prestige, and power our Christ did not. Automatic, presumed Christianity has made being Christian a norm rather than a calling to mission and service, and the churches have become ends in themselves, tempted to imagine that their own prosperity and increase are the measures of their fidelity. The day of automatically self-propagating Christianity is passing, and for the traditional Protestant churches has passed already. One generation of Christians will no longer follow another in step to the old tune as though the grand march would never end. Being Christian can no longer be presumed but will require committed response and acceptance of responsibility to follow and unite with Jesus the Christ in his representation of God’s redemptive love in the world and, also, in his standing before God with the world in all its messiness and self-contradictory humanity. We shall continue to be charged by Christ to serve God’s redemptive love for this world, but we’ll no longer be in charge.