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We shouldn’t be surprised by Good Friday.

After all, we are familiar with the events of the day. Not just in the historical sense, but because we have lived them. No, not exactly as they happened, but we have bloodied our knuckles on something similar.

We celebrate that God in flesh understands what it means to be human, and identifies with us as one who has had his feet covered in dust. We find comfort in his knowing what we know.

What do you know?

You know that it is the proximity to the heart that makes betrayal sting like an 8 gauge needle. You are cautious, only allowing those who have earned a place, to come close; which makes the surprise exit hurt worse than the stabbing.

You have limped after cruel words, sticks and stones, have injured flesh and soul. You are bruised. You have bruised.

You’ve wept at the loss of loved ones, and objected to God about the early removal of people you love from the world.

Nothing about Good Friday should surprise us. Nothing about it should catch us off guard. The events that unfolded that day are horrendous, brutal, painful, and sad. But they are not surprising.

Perhaps it is that the events happen to an innocent man that bewilder us. The betrayal and brutality do not surprise us, but the suffering of an innocent that takes our breath away. We can imagine the events of Good Friday happening, but not to someone who is without guilt. But even that shouldn’t surprise us. No one gets out of the world with unscathed. If we are surprised that Jesus experienced the ruthlessness of the world despite his innocence, then I don’t think we have been paying attention.

The danger is to pretend that we are somehow above the various players in the Good Friday story. We would stay awake all night. We wouldn’t be quick to deny our relationship to Jesus. We wouldn’t cry for blood, despite the fact that we are often joyous spectators of violent games. Forgetting our own willingness to point fingers full of accusations, we fabricate righteous indignation at events that, while magnified, are ordinary. Nothing happened on Good Friday that doesn’t happen with outstanding and despairing regularity.

Good Friday reveals the truth of the world, highlighting the brokenness of our hearts. In this moment, we hear the guttural groans of creation longing for the coming new creation.

If we are surprised, it is only in noticing, perhaps for the first time, that God is groaning too.

 

 

 

Jesus taught us two commands that sum up the law and the prophets: Love God and love your neighbor. Seems simple enough, until you try and do it. I’m constantly falling short of how I am to love others. My thoughts, predispositions, prejudices, fears and anxieties begin to show themselves when I try to love people. I only love those I’m naturally inclined to love. Or loving people becomes a competition. Or a means to an end – a good sermon illustration to tuck into my back pocket for later.

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Or, rather than failing at loving people, I turn it into a philosophical discussion about who exactly my neighbor is. That’s what the expert in the law did when Jesus told him to love his neighbor. I don’t think I am different in this. I think this is what we do. Not because we are horrible people looking to get out of loving others. Just the opposite. I think we are genuinely good people who feel guilty about how poorly we do at loving people and so we seek to lower the bar to feel good about ourselves. Either way, we fall short of the command and seek to justify ourselves.

For some, the question isn’t, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather the question is, “What is loving?”  Is it loving to bake a cake or tell the truth? Is it loving to stop financially supporting this organization or keep supporting it? Is it loving speak up or stay quiet? Is it loving to….?

For as simple as the command is, loving your neighbor is ridiculously complex. In fact, I can’t help but think it is more likely that Christians disagree on what it means to love our neighbors than we do on who our neighbor is.

Recently, I saw a conversation on Facebook that my friend was having. In it, someone proposed this idea: What if the problem we have with loving people is because we are taught is not how to love, but how to judge.

Here’s how he illustrated this thought:

Picture a dry erase board with the word “LOVE” written at the top. Then imagine there is a line drawn down the middle and on the left side is all of the things that ARE love and on the right side is all of the things that are NOT love. This teaches people how to judge the world as being loving or not loving. The subject is “love,” but the skill being taught is judgment.

I couldn’t help but wonder, is this what we are doing in our churches? Put the word “TRUTH” at the top of the board. Do the exercise. Have we taught truth, or just the judgement of truth? Judging truth isn’t all bad. It is, at times, necessary. But more important than judging truth is living truth. After all, Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments (read “live”), then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” So the way in which we know truth is when we live truth.

For all the talk of love in our churches, have we made love the subject while secretly teaching judgement? Have we, rather than helping people embody the characteristics of grace, truth, and love, them the subjects of our judgement? Have we written the word LOVE on the top of the white board and, rather than learning how to love, honed our skill of judging by describing what we should love and what we shouldn’t love?

Maybe the church isn’t teaching us to judge. That’s probably not something we need to be taught. But I have to wonder, is the church teaching us to love as we have been loved?

No doubt this is where the objections will come in. “We are to judge! Paul clearly told us to judge the moral behavior of other Christians in 1 Corinthians 5. How will we affirm and what is right and good without judging?” And I’ll concede, that’s all true. We are to judge. Christians are to be people of truth, beauty, and goodness and who point their finger so that others might see the in breaking of the new creation around them. And to point at something and say, “That is beauty!” is to imply that what we did not point at is not beauty. In other words, to proclaim good we have to judge.

There is a distinction between judging ideas and behaviors and judging people. The question we must consider is, “Can we love and judge at the same time?” I really wonder about this. Because so often, when we hear people talking about radically loving our neighbors, we immediately jump to judgment. What if they do this? What if they do that? What if they identify as such? What if they have done this? We stand before the white board, LOVE written across the top, and we make our list. To the left of the line are the things we love, and to the right, the things we don’t and we get so caught up in getting that list right, that we neglect actually loving people.

Judgment is a more natural response than love. You are probably judging right now. Do I like this post or not? Do I agree or not? How should I comment to prove him wrong? All those are judgments. And they are go-to response.

When I was in high school I played soccer all four years. During our game, there were two referees who ran up and down the field, following the ball wherever it went. Sometimes, they accidentally got in the way of the ball…or players. They blew their whistles when the ball went out of bounds. They handed out yellow cards when players played too aggressively. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They made judgments. And the did so to make sure the game abided by the rules.

But you know what those refs never did? Play the game.

Judging keeps us out of the game. Sure, we may be on the field with people playing all around us, but we aren’t playing. You can’t be a referee and play the game at the same time. Maybe this is why Jesus cautioned us by saying, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” Or why he told us to pay attention to the plank in our eye before we start worrying about someone else’s speck. Or why James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgement.”

The whiteboard and the skill of judging can be helpful in keeping people at a distance. It can provide assurance that we are loving the right people and doing exactly what we are supposed to do. The truth of the matter is, that when you look at who Jesus told us to love, there really isn’t anyone we get to cross off our list. We can try, but any objections we might have to calling someone or treating someone as a neighbor would simply be met with “love your enemy.” We are to love our brother, sister, neighbor, enemy – that pretty much encapsulates anyone we would ever meet.

What would it look like to begin to learn the skill of loving our neighbor? I think it begins by starting the exercise over. Write LOVE at the top of the board, and then start writing names. Dave, James, Bob, Heather, Hilary, Kim, Steve, Jessica, Ben, etc. Practice writing the names of people without judging whether or not they should be on the list. Then maybe move on to people groups. Liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, homosexuals, Baptists (couldn’t resist), Muslims, etc.

Just write them without judgment.

I know. It’s scary. Because we are beginning to see just how bad we are at loving.

At least that’s what’s true for me.

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In chapter 17 of John’s gospel we find Jesus last prayer while on earth. There he prays that his followers would be one. Unified so that “the world would know you sent me and have loved them.”

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that it is likely we Christians will never be unified when it comes to the Bible and how to interpret it.

You see, I have friends who are Reformed, baptist, Mennonite, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Catholic, Wesleyan, and Pentacostal. I have friends who baptize their babies, and friends who dedicate their babies. I have friends who cross themselves as they pray, and friends who pray with their eyes open. I have friends who will not set foot in a Christian bookstore, and friends who read every book in the Left Behind series.

And they read the same Bible.

I have friends who love penal substitutionary atonement theory, and friends who abhor the picture of a wrathful God exacting brutal punishment on his beloved Son. I have friends who believe the gifts of the Spirit are alive and well, and friends who have never heard someone speak in tongues. I have friends who are egalitarians, and I have friends who are complementarians. I have friends who believe in predestination, and friends who believe in open theism.

And they read the same Bible.

I have friends who abhor guns, and I have friends who regularly carry guns. These friends differ in their politics, voting for the different parties with passion and conviction. They stands on opposite sides of major social issues: health care, immigration, abortion, and homosexuality.

And they read the same Bible.

I have friends who supported World Vision in their decision to hire those in a same-sex marriage, and friends who were relieved when they reversed their decision. I have friends who will not see Noah, and friends who will see Noah. I have friends who drink alcohol, and friends who don’t. I have friends who only listen to Christian music, and friends who never listen to Christian music.

And they read the same Bible.

The Bible isn’t bringing a lot of unity.

Our disunity doesn’t exist because some value the Bible more than others. That’s the great fallacy. No, the disunity comes because we read and interpret the Bible differently. Everyone – everyone – picks and chooses which parts they will emphasize. Which means that differing interpretations will always exist.

I’m learning that’s okay. We can’t force everyone to use the same method of interpretation. Nor do we want to. That would stifle creativity and learning and diversity and expression. And I’m not sure that’s what Jesus was after when he prayed for unity. Jesus prays specifically that we would be brought to “complete unity.” I think that unity, complete unity, only comes when we are mature enough to stay relationally connected with others in the midst of our disagreement. Complete unity is when we can be together and not be forced to think like each other. Christian unity is not a massive exercise in groupthink. Christian unity is Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, progressive and conservative coming together around the one thing that reconciles us and unites us.

Jesus.

There is one thing we have to agree on, and that is Jesus and the role his life, death, and resurrection plays as it assumes the center place in God’s work to reconcile and restore. Jesus is the Word of God that unites us. Christians have never, and will never be united around how to rightly interpret the scriptures. But Christians can be united around the person of Jesus. Because that’s what he came to do. To reconcile. And he gave each one of his followers the ministry of reconciliation. Unity among the body of Christ should exists simply because each one of us has the responsibility to attend to the ministry of reconciliation. When we see division or when we cause to division, we should work to reconcile.

Unfortunately, what we see is a lot of taking sides. And I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

Let me for just a moment loop back around to the Bible. I don’t want you to hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important. I’m saying the Bible, that double-edged sword, does exactly what a sword does – it separates and divides. This is why the Bible is secondary to, and must be interpreted by looking at the Word made flesh. “All scripture is God-breathed” and “makes us wise” to our need for salvation. “All scriptures is God-breathed” and “equips us for every good work.” But we are never told we will be united in or around scripture. Unity is realized in Christ who reconciles us to himself, and to each other.

Will reconciliation always be possible? Probably not. We may have to part ways like Paul and Barnabas. But that doesn’t mean we part ways in conflict. But we can break bread, share a meal together, and agree to disagree and part ways so that our conflict does not disrupt the unity Christ desired.

In this day of the internet and hyper-connectivity, walking away is harder. But we have to learn to. While we are learning to do that, we also need to learn how to have the conversation differently.

I’m also wondering why we fight these battles? Why do we draw such deep trenches between ancillary issues, cutting ourselves off from one another? It makes me wonder two things. One, are we that bored? Do we have nothing better to do than battle over ancillary issues like how Jesus saves us? Let’s agree, Jesus saves and the world needs him. Which leads me to a second question. Are we so isolated from the real needs of real people in the real world that we believe a theory (notice that word) of atonement matters to them? For some people, it does matter. But let’s be honest about who those “some people” are. Us. That’s a coffee-conversation for us. Most of the things that we battle about on the interwebs is for us.

All that matters to a world groaning under the weight of brokenness is that Jesus saves.

Or as my three year-old once said, “Jesus makes things that are enemies to be friends.” That’s the gospel. And that is what the world so desperately needs.

So whether you are a reformbapticostal or a Weslipocalanabaptist, if you love Jesus, pull up a chair. He invites you to his table and so I invite you to mine.

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As I a pastor, I have sat next to many people who, despite their many years of sitting in church, feel as though God is distant and far off.. They share with me the loneliness they feel as they look around on a Sunday morning and wonder if they are the only one who is missing it. The only one who isn’t being fulfilled. The only one who wonders if Jesus and the church and all the stuff that goes with them matters.

For these, Jonathan Merritt’s new book Jesus is Better than You Imagined offers hope. From the very beginning of the book he makes it clear that he is going to be honest about his faith as he invites us to sit next to him in a church. Sadly, this brutal honesty is rare in church. As we sit next to him, he shares with us how empty he feels, how cynicism is choking out his faith, and how dry it all feels. With pastoral kindness and story Jonathan says the one in the middle of the dark night, “Me too.”

Too often it seems that, when we are in the midst of a dark night of the soul, where we question and wrestle and doubt, we feel isolated and fearful of sharing our thoughts with other Christians. Sure, we can share them once we get through it and the story has a nice tidy bow on it. But in the moment – the grind-it-out, grit-your-teeth moment of hanging on to your faith – well, that seems to make others uncomfortable.

That’s why I so deeply enjoyed Jonathan Merritt’s new book Jesus is Better than You Imagined. Jonathan gives the reader permission to ask the questions and wrestle it out by sharing his journey in the midst of doubts, frustrations, and cynicism. The courage he musters up to talk about abuse, and the effect that abuse had on him, is down-right disarming. I resonated with Jonathan because I share much of his story. Sure, the details differ. But the essence is the same. I have wondered if God has left me. I have questioned whether I was called into ministry. And in the midst of it all, Jesus is better than I imagined.

For all the things Jonathan could point us to, he points to the one thing that matters: Jesus. By using his experience to reawaken his love of old scriptures, and using scriptures to make sense of his experience he reminds us that all of us points us to Jesus. I disdain books that use story to reduce our experiences to bullet points and axioms. That never happens. Rather, Jonathan just keeps pointing and inviting us to try it on. Try on solitude and see if Jesus meets you there. Try on a re-exploration of the scriptures and see if you don’t see Jesus differently. Try on looking for Jesus all around you and see if he hasn’t been waiting for you the whole time.

One passage spoke personally to me as I am learning to embrace mystery. Jonathan writes:

When I’m in the wilderness of life wandering in search of my personal promised land, I face a choice. Either I will run from God because of His elusiveness or I will praise Him because of it. Will I reject the paradoxes and seeming absurdity of life or will I choose to exercise faith, clinging to God in the absence of answers? When I operate in certainty, I hold tightly to myself and my ability to reason well, but when I embrace mystery, I’m forced to tie myself to the ship mast of God’s presence and hold fast even as life’s storms rage.

This is me. This is where we will all be. No one gets through life without encountering the storm. The truth behind the parable of the man who built is house on the sand and the man who built is house on the rock is that both men encountered storm. No one gets through life without some wind and rain beating the up. And we can either shake our fists at God in the storm or we can “tie [ourselves] to the ship mast of God’s presence.” I’m learning to do the latter.

Don’t be fooled though, the book isn’t just about doubts and frustrations, but also has these high moments of excitement that read like an action novel. Surprising? Yes. Reading about nearly being kidnapped by armed bandits in Haiti isn’t an everyday occurrence in the Christian non-fiction genre.

Jonathan will be a breath of fresh air for those who have grown cynical about their faith. It isn’t an argument to keep the faith, rather it is an invitation to fall in love with Jesus again. It gives the reader permission to leave behind pat answers and pretense, and experience anew that Jesus is better than we imagine.

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Jesus rarely did what was expected of him.

Matthew and Mark record a fascinating little story about Jesus. On the Sabbath, Jesus goes into a synagogue and encounters a man with a crippled hand. Mark actually says it was “shriveled,” so we get the sense this was not the result of an accident, but it was something he was born with. How the man’s hand came to be shriveled doesn’t really matter, what is interesting is that Jesus heals this man. On the Sabbath. In front of a bunch of religious authorities who were intently watching to see if Jesus would in fact break down the gate they thought he might.

And Jesus chose, deliberately, to heal a man on the Sabbath. Which raises all sorts of questions. Why didn’t Jesus wait until the next day? After all, this wasn’t a life-threatening condition for the man. He could survive a day or two. Jesus must have known that it would cause a stir among those watching. Sabbath wasn’t an ancillary practice, but it was a primary religious routine rooted in the rhythms of creation. It’s importance was affirmed at Sinai. It became one of the marks of a people, separating Jewish from Gentile, God-fearing from pagan. Sabbath mattered deeply.

Which why Jesus’ seemingly flippant treatment of the holy day appalled the religious authorities.

We talk a lot about truth and defending the truth and speaking the truth in love and even, and this one seems to be popular today, that speaking the truth even if it is difficult to hear is a loving act.

I wonder if the pharisees thought that? Couldn’t you hear them saying, “Jesus, we understand your desire to heal, but healing on the Sabbath is to deny the truth. Isn’t it more loving to tell the truth about sabbath and holiness than healing someone and causing them to desecrate the holy day? After all, this rooted in creation! This marks us as a people! If we compromise on this, than how can we be called a people of the covenant?”

To which Jesus says, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4)

Rarely did Jesus do what was expected of him. Let’s correct that.

Rarely does Jesus do what we expect of him.

Because we have boxes that we put Jesus in and say, “Jesus would do this.” Let’s be honest. We don’t know that Jesus would do X or Y or Z. We only know what Jesus has done. Included in what we know about what Jesus has done is how Jesus consistently and purposefully wrecked the expectations of the religious.

To a Roman soldier, “When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10)

Sitting with a Samaritan woman at a well in Samaria. Dining with sinners. Going to the house of Zaccheaus. Letting a prostitute clean his feet with her hair. Surrounding himself with uneducated fisherman. Bringing the Gentiles to himself. Eating on the Sabbath. No, Jesus could not and cannot be boxed in. Sometimes he is going to purposefully mess with our religious boundaries – even if they seem vitally important to us.

Even the ones that seem most central to who we are as a people. I’m not saying he will eradicate them. Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath, but he reoriented it back to its original design.

I wonder what we love that is perhaps good, but not as good as it could be if it were aligned with its design?

Which is why he, Jesus, is all that I am certain of. I am certain of his place at the center of the story of all that is. I am certain that the Bible matters because Jesus embodied, and thus validated, its authority. I am certain of his death and resurrection and the new order coming with his kingdom. I am certain that I, you, we get to taste that now when we orient ourselves around the commands of Jesus in this present life. I am certain of my hope in the day in which mourning and tears and sickness and death end and beauty and love are all that we know.

But how we get there, I do not know.

And I’m not sure we are supposed to.

I think we are supposed to stumble around trying to figure out how to hold the delicate tension that arises when we seek to love the Holy God and love our neighbor who bears the image of the Creator. Easy answers are not right answers, and often fail to consider the complexity of the already-but-not-yet.

Which means we have to ruthlessly work to rest in the one other thing I am certain of: Grace.

Nobody does life perfectly.

Nobody gets it right the first time out.

Which is a deep shame because, well, we only get one shot. So the one shot we have is a shot that will be marked by mistakes and missteps. We’ll try to avoid adding to the shit around us, but inevitably we will add to it, pile it on, and step in it.

And then we’ll probably put our foot in our mouth.

Which means we need to learn grace. It needs to permeate our interactions and expectations. Perfection is an impossibility, and yet, despite our recognition of our inability to attain it, we crush ourselves with the weight of getting it right. Grace is a long way off, possible for others, but distant for us.

It would be less frustrating if it were simply a distant object we never got to touch. But grace, and the respite it offers the weary perfectionist, is often tangibly frustrating. Sometimes graces feels like holding water. It’s cooling qualities fall in into our hands so we cup our fingers and let the cool water run over the ridges and crevices of our palms. Ever so slowly we close our hands around the refreshing, life giving water hoping we can save a little more for when we are again thirsty. But open our hands, and we don’t just drop the water that was there, but found that it was never there to begin with.

We cannot hold water and and we cannot hold grace. Holding grace would be to control grace, and we cannot control grace. Grace gives itself to who it wants on its terms alone.

But come here, because there is a dirty little secret that you need to know. I understand that you want to wrap your fingers around grace and hold on to it, maybe even put it in your pocket, because you know that one day you’ll need it. The world around us is finite, and we have grown accustomed to saving things for a rainy day. But, and I hope you are listening closely, the fountain from which grace flows never stops. It is the manna offered us each day. Just a little more to strengthen and sustain us on the long road of obedience before us.

Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he says if we drink his water we will never be thirsty again. It isn’t because our need for grace is quenched in one glassful of a fresh water, but that the well continues to bubble up. We don’t need to bottle it up or put it in our pocket because the fountain is always flowing and always waiting for us to drink from it.

We just have to come drink. Deeply and often. And unlike the things of this world, the fountain will never dry out.

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WVSQU-private“You are the light of the world.” If those words are true, then in the midst of the darkness, we can be seen. In fact, we might be all that is seen. Even when we cannot see people watching us, even when we do not feel the eyes of others on us, we are visible. More so than we would probably like to be.

But maybe we step in front of our own light, casting a long shadow over the good news of the Gospel.

World Vision recently announced a change to their employee handbook so that those who are in a same-sex marriage can be hired by the organization. Predictably, people took sides. Some tweeted out “Farewell, World Vision,” and began to blame World Vision and the decision for future suffering of children as people pull their support. Others celebrated the decision of World Vision, while still others rushed to encourage people not to stop supporting the children who so desperately need help.

I’ve talked about my position on same-sex marriage before, but this time I am more deeply concerned about how the world sees us. We are in danger of making children pawns in a theological and doctrinal dispute. Whether you agree with World Vision’s decision or not, let us all agree that helping a child who is hungry, who needs clean water, who needs education, who needs healthcare is not a theological question. Religion that is pure helps those who cannot help themselves – especially children. And when we threaten to withhold charity from those children because an organization changes its policy on same-sex marriage, the world looks at us and sees a group of people who are willing to sacrifice children on the altar of doctrine. It doesn’t matter if you blame World Vision for making the change or conservative Christians for making such a big deal about it. We can point fingers and displace blame while arguing about fault or truth that is at stake, but to a world who does not share our theological views, they see people fighting about who can help hungry children.

So I ask, is that what we want them to see? Are we stepping in front of our own light? Is that the best use of any capital of trust we have with society? I’m not sure that it is…

The world is quickly changing around evangelicalism and, if we do not figure out a new way of being the world, it will quickly become ineffective. With so many people threatening to pull their support from World Vision we can clearly see how evangelicalism thinks about being in the world: We work with those who think and believe like us. If that is true, and I think it is hard to argue otherwise, evangelicals will quickly sequester themselves from the world by only working with themselves, effectively diminishing their ability to impact the world around them with the light of the gospel.

Change is coming, so we must learn how to change.

That is the story of the church. The church has never arrived, but is always arriving. We always had to wrestle with how to be in the world and not of the world. The Jewish church of Acts 15 had to figure it out once Gentiles began to live in light of the gospel. The church had to continually figure out how believers who believed differently about Sabbath and food sacrificed to idols would relate to one another. And in all those struggles, never once did Paul write, “Farewell, Corinthian Church.” We have to learn to let our light shine as we disagree with one another.

It is possible.

Let us not forget, in the midst of our passionate conversations, that while we may speak theoretically – there is little theoretical about this. People are involved. Real children need real support to survive in the world. World Vision is hiring real people married to other real people. We may not see the faces of those people in our discussions, but they have faces and they do not deserve to be pawns.

In the end, Christendom is dying. Quickly. The values of evangelicals will be shared by less and less people of the surrounding culture. Within the evangelical tribe itself, diversity of thought will grow until evangelicalism is either shattered into a million pieces, or it learns how to find unity in diversity. But my guess is, our current model of how to be in the world is losing its effectiveness and, in order for it to be raised to new life in a more effective model, it may have to die.

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I remember when the phrase “What would Jesus do?” took our high school youth group by storm. We branded ourselves with bracelets identifying us as radical Jesus followers seeking to mimic his actions in the world. WWJD became the answer to all our pressing questions. “Should I go to a party?” What would Jesus do? “Should I share my lunch money?” What would Jesus do? “Should I make out with my girlfriend?” What would Jesus do? “All my friends are going to see Pulp Fiction, should I?” What would Jesus do?

On one level this question was extremely helpful. As a high school student it helped me to stop and think critically about how to live as a Christian in the world. For a 16 or 17 year old young man, WWJD was a concrete concept helping me to follow Jesus.

But lately I’ve been wondering about helpful it actually is.

Over the last week, the Christian corner of the internet has been passionately discussing whether or not Jesus would hang out with unrepentant sinner who are sinning. In other words, it has become a internet youth group talking about what would Jesus do?

But a I’m beginning to rethink the helpfulness of this hypothetical question. It seems, at least to me, that I am in no position to decide what Jesus would or would not do. So many contemporaries of Jesus missed out on who he was, they missed God with them in the flesh because they had determined what the Messiah would or would not do. There were expectations about what he would look like, what he would do, and who would do it with him. And when Jesus did not do what they thought the Messiah should do, they rejected him.

When we determine what Jesus would do and who he would hang out with and what he would say, we run the risk of setting ourselves up to miss Jesus.

And we miss the point because we are asking the wrong question.

The question isn’t “What would Jesus do?” but “How do I love my neighbor?” Spending all our time figuring out what Jesus would do is a really effective way of avoiding the more difficult question of how do I love my neighbor. That question is more difficult to answer because it demands me to actually do something difficult. Only paying lip service to loving our neighbors is to be a resounding gong. So rather than engaging our neighbor and focusing on those relationships, we avoid them by triangling Jesus into the conversation and talking about what he would or would not do.

Here’s what I mean by that. Loving our neighbor means we may end up called to love people who are difficult. Who make us uncomfortable. Who have differing beliefs than us. Who do things that we disagree with. Who we don’t want to be associated with. All that makes us anxious, so rather than obediently loving the lepers who make us uncomfortable, we bring Jesus into the conversation, philosophizing about what he would do, in hopes of getting Jesus on our side.

“Jesus wouldn’t hang out with them.”

“Jesus wouldn’t condone that.”

We take ourselves off the hook of discerning how to love our neighbors, and relieve any anxiety we feel about loving sinful people, by focusing on what Jesus might do.

I wonder if, with all our discussions about what Jesus would do, if Jesus wouldn’t say to us the same words he said to his mother at the wedding. “Dear people, why do involve me?” And then, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Please do not hear me saying something I am not saying. The life of Jesus is vitally important for those of us who follow Jesus. We need to study his life and know what he did in effort to imitate his life. And that’s the point. We cannot know with any certainty what Jesus would or would not do. All we really know is what he did. Jesus befriended sinners and reconciled them to God.

This means three things. First, Jesus befriended sinners. Talking about whether or not Jesus would go this event, or go that event, or be present in the midst of that is pointless outside of the context of friendship. Jesus was friends with sinners and we should be too. At that point, in the midst of friendship, Christians must determine what the boundaries of what that friendship will look like through discernment, community, and conscience. Placing prescriptive demands on all Christians is not helpful.

Second, by befriending sinners Jesus brought scandal on himself. He made enemies. He was known as a drunkard and a glutton. Jesus was completely comfortable by the scandalous nature of his relationships with those on the margins of religious life.

But let us not forgot that Jesus was comfortable with the scandal of demanding more and calling people into a better life.

Which lead to the third point. Jesus’ friendship and reconciling work with sinners means we will invite our friends into the fully human, fully alive life of Christ. Now, that invitation may look different for everyone based upon the relationship. For some the invitation will come through a conversation. For others it will comes through modeling life in Christ. If we truly believe that people will know Christ by our love, then our love for our friends will be a witness and invitation to know Jesus.

I wonder about that invitation though. Just what are we inviting people to? Are we simply inviting people to give up their sin because it is so bad (which it is), or are we inviting people into life with Christ because it is so good? I think that distinction is important. Jesus describes the kingdom as a treasure, as a beautiful pearl, as a mansion, as a feast, as a wedding celebration, as shalom. Calling people into repentance isn’t just a turning away from that which is bad, it an invitation to that which is better. That’s love and grace. Love befriends people and hopes for the best for them. Love does not let people live a life that is less than human. Less than fully alive. Less than better.

That’s the life I want. And that’s the life I want to invite my neighbors into as I love them.

But I have to befriend them to do that.