Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Embarrassed by Jesus

I wonder if Jesus’ disciples were ever tempted to buy an “I’m with Stupid” T-shirt.

The following conversation occurred after his famous temple-clearing episode (John 2:13-17): “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’” (2:18-20).

So if the violent spectacle wasn’t enough to make Jesus embarrassing, he followed the ordeal up by insisting he could build a new temple in three days--apparently by himself (“I will raise it up”). 

Granted, in verse 21, John clarifies that Jesus was talking about his own body, but this was written many decades after the fact as a way to clarify that Jesus had been speaking metaphorically about his death and resurrection. In other words, the people who heard Jesus’ metaphor must have thought he was either a lunatic or a comedian, since, at the time, they had no conception of the bigger picture. 

I wonder what his disciples thought? Would they not have had some doubt concerning the mental state of their Master? If they were out of the loop on the bigger picture on other occasions (Matt. 15:15-16; 16:5-12; Mark 8:31-33; John 13:6-9; 15:15), could this spectacle at the temple have been another example?

Raise the temple in three days? Really, Jesus?

I can hear John now: “Hey, James, does the Jerusalem market sell an ‘I’m with Stupid’ T-shirt?”

If Jesus didn’t want to be ambiguous, why didn’t he just speak plainly? “I will raise my body up in three days.” What’s so hard about that? It’s as if Jesus wanted to be embarrassing. He concealed his divine agenda under the cloak of provocative metaphors, but for what purpose? Why couldn’t he just use sensible, Sunday-School-savvy metaphors? Perhaps there’s more to meets the eye; perhaps there’s a bigger picture.

In John 6, we find one of Christ’s most provocative metaphors, which illuminates the Jews’ complete inability to see the bigger picture: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54-56).

Makes us wonder: who is this guy?

In the 21st Century, we can sift Christ’s words through the lens of over 1,980 years of church history, so we understand his metaphors, but, as we read through the Gospels, we must get in the habit of imagining what it was like to hear Jesus in person. 

The effect he had on his hearers was unparalleled. His metaphors were quite shocking. Immediately after the “flesh/blood” discourse (6:22-59), in verses 60-61, we find Jesus’ disciples expressing their confusion: “When many of his disciples heard [his words], they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this?’” 

What about us? Are there times when we take offense at Christ? 

Embarrassed, even?

As society increasingly turns its dark eye to the Church, believers must dig their heels into the Word and not cower away when those fingers of mockery and disapproval are directed at us and our beliefs. Still, the fingers that seem to dig deepest are the ones that point out the more embarrassing tenets of our faith. These tenets are often the hardest to defend.

It’s encouraging, though, to remember that many people throughout history scoffed at many scientific theories before they became hard facts. We can likewise view the embarrassing convictions that Christians hold in the same light: ask anyone on Earth, and he/she will say that the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Trinity are all embarrassing suppositions; but ask anyone in Heaven and he/she will say they’re hard facts. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We must cling to the conviction that God, being on a completely higher existential plane than us, has a perspective that makes sense of what presently embarrasses us (Isa. 55:9; John 6:63).  One day we will look at these embarrassments in retrospect and scoff--not at the beliefs themselves, but at our own ignorance about the bigger picture. 

Perhaps those “I’m with Stupid” T-shirts weren’t meant for the disciples to wear after all...nor were they meant for us.