PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “AFTER-CHRISTS…IN TEN THOUSAND PLACES!”
When Jesus breathed His last breath, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nichodemus claimed His body and buried it in that borrowed tomb everyone-followers and enemies thought that was the tragic end. The Jewish leaders thought they had squashed the crisis that was the greatest threat to Judaism, as they knew and loved it. The Romans were glad that they had quelled what might have been the greatest of all rebellions against Imperial Rome. The disciples were devastated. They expected Jesus’ ministry to conclude in an overthrow of the Romans, Him ascending the throne of His father David, and two of the twelve, still undecided, would sit at His right and left hands in this new invincible Kingdom. But those expectations had been crushed on a Black Friday afternoon, that later would be desginated Good Friday. It wasn’t very “Good” in their eyes at that time. You can read of their devastation and disillusionment in the narrative of the two disciples who encountered the risen Christ, on the road to Emmaus. When the unknown Stranger quizzed them on their sad demeanor, they honestly responded, that they were sad because Jesus of Nazareth had been delivered by the rulers, and had been crucified. Then they said, “We had hoped that He would have been the one to redeem Israel. i.e. The Messiah” (Luke 24:21). Philip Yancey, in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, wrote about what might have happened if Jesus had never been raised from the dead. He wrote, “Sometimes I think about how different the world would be had Jesus not been resurrected from the dead. Although the disciples would not risk their lives trumpeting a new faith in the streets of Jerusalem, neither would they forget Him! They had given three years to Jesus. He may not have been the Messiah, (if He had not risen), but He had impressed them as the wisest teacher ever and had demonstrated powers that no one would explain. After time, emotional wounds began to heal, and the disciples would seek some way to memorialize Jesus. Perhaps writing His sayings down in written form, akin to one of our Gospels…or build a monument to Jesus’ life. Then we who live in modern times could visit that monument and learn about the carpenter/philosopher from Nazareth. We could sift through His sayings, taking and leaving what we liked. World-wide Jesus would be esteemed in the same way Confucius or Socrates is esteemed”.
But that is not what happened. John Masefield’s play “The Trial of Jesus” has Longinus, the Roman Centurian, come back to report to Pilate. Pilate’s wife, Procula, asks, “Do you think He’s really dead?” The centurion replies, “No, my lady, I do not!” “Where do you think He is?” she asks. He replies-“Let loose on the world, my lady, where no one will ever stop His truth”.We have no historical record of Longinus, or anyone saying that, nor even thinking that! Not even His disciples! But Masefield gave a good description of what actually did follow. Jesus was still alive, and through the Holy Spirit, incarnated and invigorated His disciples to take His message and minstry throughout the entire Roman world in one generation! Frederick Buechner says that is the real message of Easter- “we can never nail Him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail Him to is a cross!” Walter Wink, in Naming the Powers, says, “Killing Jesus was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed by blowing on it!” St. Augustine, in describing the Ascension, said, “You ascended from before our eyes, we turned back grieving, only to find you in our hearts!”. What Augustine was describing was more than a metaphor. It was a real incarnational transforming of those who would carry on the ministry of Christ in the world-as His body-the Church! The great author and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his writings saw Christians as a seconding of the kenotic incarnation of the living Christ. He coined the phrases “After-Christs”. In his poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame, He wrote:
“for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
lovely in eyes, and lovely in limbs not his,
To the Father, through the features of men’s faces”
Jesus had promised His disciples that after He left, that He would still be with them by the Presence and Power of the Holy Spirit. He told them it would be even better for them because they would do “even greater things than He did!” (John 1412). We know the early Church saw the fruition of that promise. But overall how has that worked out for the Church? Frederick Beuchner points out this has not always worked out for the best. He writes, “The Church at Corinth were in fact Christ’s body, as Paul wrote to them one of his most enduring metaphors-Christ’s eyes, ears, and hands. But the way they were carrying on, that could only leave Christ blood-shot, ass-eared, and all thumbs to carry on God’s work in a fallen world”. (The Magnificent Defeat). Philip Yancey speaks to that failure of the Church to successfully function as the body of Christ, in the fallen world, when he writes quite eloquently, “I could fill several pages with colorful quotations, all of which underscore the risk involved in entrusting God’s own reputation to the likes of us. Unlike Jesus, we do lnot perfectly express the Word. We speak in garbled syntax, stuttering, mixing languages together, putting accent marks in the wrong places. When the world looks for Christ it sees, like the cave-dwellers Plato wrote about in one of his allegories, only shadows created by the light, not the light itself!”
Flannery O’Connor, in his book The Habit of Being, answered a critic of the Church by explaining that the critic did not understand the role that sin plays in the failure of the Church. He wrote, “All your dissatisfaction with the Church comes from an incomplete understanding of sin. What you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the Kingdom of Heaven on earth right now, that the Holy Ghost be translated into into all human flesh. The Holy Spirit rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking man to return at once, to the state God originally created him in. You are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time…The Church is founded on Peter, who denied Christ three times, and couldn’t walk on water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful…to have the Church be what you want it to be would require continous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs!” Before you and I use O’Connor’s words to excuse our failures, let me tell you the New Testament emphasizes that such miraculous meddling of God in human affairs is exactly what God has done by sending His Spirit to empower us to live as Christ’s body in the world. Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, but not I Christ liveth in me!” (Gal. 2:20).
Robert Frost wrote a poem describing this process…he wrote in Kitty Hawk:
“But God’s Own Descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration…
Spirit enters flesh, and for all it’s worth,
Charges into earth, and in birth after birth,
Ever fresh, Ever Fresh”
Malcomb Muggeridge wrote, in Jesus the Man Who Lives, “Future historians are likely to conclude that the more we knew about Jesus the less we knew Him, and the more precisely His words were translated the less we understood and heeded them”. He may be right. The goal is not to understand Jesus and imitate Him, (something we do not have the power to do). The goal is to know Him experientially by the power, presence, and performance of the Holy Spirit and incarnate Him in our lives, as His body. That is miraculous meddling in the affairs of men. That is exactly what God wants to do through us-His Church!