In one of the lectionary cycles, there’s a long stretch when we’re asked to plow through some of Jesus’ interminable discourses in the gospel of John. Jesus talks non-stop from the middle of July straight through August. After a few weeks of this stuff your start to wonder if John’s Jesus ever does anything but talk.
I know a pastor in a lectionary tradition who gets really cranky when the she’s confronted with preaching on these long speeches. She thinks John’s Jesus is way too into himself. It reminds her of an old cartoon in which a man on a first date blathers on and on about himself to his dinner companion. Finally he remembers he’s not alone. “Well, enough about me,” he says. “Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” If John’s Jesus is that self-absorbed, he is not the Jesus she wants.
I like John’s Jesus just fine; but I confess that I like him best not when he’s making long cryptic speeches, but when he’s making one of those impossibly tender gestures for which John’s gospel is also known, such building a fire on the beach and making breakfast for his sad and exhausted disciples. Now, that’s the Jesus I want.
Well, that’s the Jesus I want today. I’ve wanted him otherwise.
At one time or another I’ve wanted a Che Guevara Jesus, a flower child Jesus, a Galilean sage Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet Jesus, a divine savior Jesus, a judging Jesus, a warm inclusive Jesus, a cosmic bellhop Jesus, a finder of parking spaces in Harvard Square Jesus, a homeless Jesus, a crucified Jesus, a risen Jesus, a Jesus in you, a Jesus in me, a feminist Jesus, an historical Jesus.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of trying to follow him over the years, it’s that you can’t pick your Jesus. You can’t always have him your way. Because it turns out that he’s never just the Jesus you want. He’s not even just the Jesus you need, or the Jesus you think you need. He’s always, as an old mentor of mine once put it, “the Jesus you’re damn well going to get.”
Take that speech we call ‘The Bread of Life Discourse” in John 6. Jesus addresses it to a crowd that for months has wandered the countryside with him, drawn by his healings, transfixed by his teachings. But the crowd’s mood turns fretful when he starts making some big claims about who he is. They begin to murmur, and if you do any kind of public speaking, you know that’s not a good sign.
They murmur because Jesus suggests that he is greater than Moses; not the deliverer, but Delivery itself. He suggests that he is more than a sage, he is Wisdom itself, that mysterious being described in the Bible as playing in God’s presence, privy to God’s secrets before the foundation of the world; a mother calling her children to eat and drink a great feast without having to foot the bill or earn their keep.
This is perplexing. Troubling. Maybe even blasphemous. And it’s not this Jesus they want.
The Jesus who turned water to wine? Fine. The one who healed the sick and multiplied bread and fish? Swell. The Jesus who walked on water? Awesome. Wonder-worker, story-teller, that’s a good Jesus. A Jesus you want.
Up to this point in the story, John’s Jesus has glided from triumph to triumph, glory to glory, and it’s been visible for all to see. But now he asks for more than enthusiasm about wise preaching and merciful miracles. Now he asks for a relationship so close that to get at it, John has to use images of eating, which (along with sex) is the most intimate of all shared human experiences. Now he’s asking for a friendship so intertwined and interdependent that elsewhere John can only speak of vines and branches. Now John is saying that Jesus is no open book, that he must not be taken for granted, that he is in a sense unknowable and unreachable unless God reveals him to you. Now he is claiming that he can show us the character of God.
In John’s rendition of Jesus, this god-like, life-giving, sovereign and inscrutable man is also asking people to decide, to decide whether to accept his claims about himself and his claim upon them. Some followers won’t, or can’t. “We know who his parents are!” they say. “We know where he comes from!” Do they think Jesus is an overachieving small town boy who’s letting all the attention go to his head? He would, it seems, be closer to the savior they want if he were more modest; if only he would put forward lesser claims. Or if he would just let them remain agnostic about the whole thing.
But he won’t. All of a sudden he is the Jesus they are damn well going to get. And so they start drifting away. The circle around Jesus continues to contract for the rest of his short career as more people find him bewildering. First these, then a few more, even some of his intimates, until at the end only three women and John stand at the foot of his cross.
Here’s what I think: No matter which Jesus you want now or have ever wanted, there is a Jesus you are always damn well going to get; and in this case it is the Jesus who, in whatever guise, will always try to be intimate with you; will always want to lay a claim upon your whole life; will always wait for you freely to decide for him.
Following Jesus’ teachings and emulating his tender gestures towards people in need and proclaiming a just and merciful kingdom against the enemies of life are what a true disciple does; but they do not exhaust John’s definition of a disciple. John, after all, is called the “beloved disciple,” and his community, “the beloved community.” His purpose is to face you with the Fierce Belovedness he identifies so intimately with this man, Jesus.
You don’t need to be a follower of John’s divine-ish Jesus to do works of mercy and justice. People of all faiths and no faith do them too, often better than those who bear the name of Jesus. You don’t need his example to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, testify at a Senate hearing on behalf of research for breast cancer. You don’t need faith in Jesus to give an at-risk kid a job, visit a prison, comfort the dying, or be kind to animals.
Although many of us do find the full motivation for our various ministries in Jesus’ example and teaching, we can’t say for sure that we would never have acted selflessly without them. We might have found some other wisdom in which to root a humane and caring life. Ethical and exemplary human beings arise from a thousand sources that are not Jesus.
Christian discipleship is not just a matter of selfless behaviors, even if the gospel of Matthew reminds us that loving service of our neighbor will be the basis of our judgment on the last day. For John, the distinctive of the disciple is not only merciful deeds; it is also intimate friendship with Jesus—the capacity and willingness to relate deeply to this person who is able to pour the wine of gladness for us and sing in us the new song of God’s delight and pull back for us the veil that covers the character of God. This friendship is what makes disciples brave and persistent; for when disciples become Christ’s friends and receive his joy, everything changes. Life and ministry become more wonder than competence, more surrender than skill, more beauty than plans, more imagination than programs, more gratitude and praise than committees and votes, more celebration than obligation, more grace than guilt, more tryst than task.
This inestimable gift rarely comes from the Jesus we want. It is most often the gift of the Jesus we are damned well going to get. The saddest thing is that around this Jesus the crowds are thin. At the feet of this Jesus not every hand is upturned and open. In his presence only a few delight. If you wanted to be there with him, there’d be room for you. If you wanted to be his friend, you would not have to wait in line.