A sermon preached at the induction of the Rev. Greg Davidson into pastoral ministry in the congregation of Briarwood Presbyterian Church. References to Kierkegaard are from his Practice in Christianity.
An open letter to Jesus.
February 8th, 2009
It’s me again – no doubt you’re more than familiar with my handwriting by now. I only hope that it hasn’t gotten to the point that you groan in discovering yet another missive from yours truly as you thumb through the morning mail. And yes Jesus, I know, I don’t have to write to you – my ancestors in the faith did well to teach me that I can speak with you directly (the temple curtain is torn in two – gone are the priestly vestments). But somehow it’s easier for me to put things in writing, to put pen to paper in sorting through my thoughts, in sorting out questions of faith. No doubt this predilection for the pen and paper also comes from my ancestors in faith. I beg your patience, then, Jesus, as I once again spill out my thoughts and frustrations and questions to you.
This week I was thinking about those early days of ministry – of your ministry – when John the baptizer was still in prison. I sometimes wonder whether it frustrated you that the holy man clothed in camel-hair didn’t know that you were the one for whom he prepared the way – he’d heard about what you were doing, but still wasn’t sure you were the chosen one. But that’s a question for another day.
It’s really your words to baptizer’s disciples that struck me as I read that part of the narrative passed on by Matthew.
So John the Baptizer sends his followers to you to find out if you’re the one – and you reply by doing what you do best – you quote scripture at them. Now the Old Testament isn’t my strong suit, Jesus (come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon from the Old Testament), but anyway, someone pointed out to me that the words you quote are actually from Isaiah. Yes, from Isaiah chapter 35 – or maybe I should say from 1st Isaiah – this is an open letter, after all Jesus, and I wouldn’t want to offend any Isaiah scholars who happen upon it.
So, Isaiah says “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
And you quote him almost verbatim, adding the bits about the dead being raised and the poor having good news brought to them. Well, they’re important bits, but you know what I mean.
But I should clarify, Jesus, that it’s also not the words you quoted from Isaiah that are giving me trouble – well, at least not directly. It’s what you added in afterwards that complicates things for me. After quoting the prophet with reference to your own life and actions, you said: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”
Your words about taking offence actually leave me a bit bemused. I’m not quite sure how to put this, Jesus, but the truth is that these days I find it hard to take offence at things. I’m a middle class Christian living in the prosperous west, and the truth is that people like me have been well trained not to take offence at the things that matter to us. You might say that in progressive western societies it is the height of offence for Christians to take offence at anything.
For example, when someone says something harsh about you, Jesus, or portrays you in some work of art in a demeaning way – we’re supposed to just suck it up. Or when our young teenagers are taught that sexual activity is normal at their stage of life – we’re supposed to just get with the times. Or when we’re told that you have nothing to do with politics, Jesus, we’ve just learned to go along with it and leave you at the door.
I guess I’d ask, then, Jesus, that you be patient with me. Taking offence at things that matter doesn’t come naturally to me. But you seem to assume that I will take offence at what you say and do – actually, if I’m reading Matthew right, you seem to think it likely that I’ll take offence at what you’ve said about the lame walking, the dead rising, and the poor having good news brought to them.
Which leads nicely into my next question. The truth is, I’m not sure what it is about your words that is supposed to offend me. I’ve wrestled with this question a bit over the past week and actually went to get some help from a Danish friend who offered some thoughtful comments. He thought of a couple of ways I might be offended at you. The first way of being offended is what he called the offence of lowliness.
The offence of lowliness, he said, is when we take offence that the great God of the universe, the creator of all things, would become such a lowly person and would associate with such lowly people. The point seems to be, Jesus, that you are so exalted and mighty (you’re God after all) that we might think that you shouldn’t look so lowly and, put more bluntly, so pathetic – the idea is that I might take offence that you spend so much of your time and energy on those who are blind, lame, deaf, and dead for that matter. I’m supposed to be offended that you aren’t spending time in more exalted company.
Well, it sounds reasonable enough – but what my friend doesn’t seem to realize is that I’m a mainline, twenty-first century Protestant, and all of this is old hat for me. It’s almost the essence of the gospel for us mainliners that God is at work, that you are at work Jesus, among the poor, the lame, the marginalized. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that my Danish friend actually lived almost two hundred years ago, so he’s kind of old fashioned – I hope he’s not there reading over your shoulder. Maybe in his day the church had a problem with lowliness and all that, but it’s the order of the day for us.
Well, maybe not exactly the order of the day – but lowly and marginalized is what we preach best.
Since I’m not getting that offended feeling, Jesus, maybe I should try to imagine how you would respond to my lack of offence at your lowliness. Maybe you’d respond with one of your sayings from the Sermon on the Mount – that would likely raise the offence level.
Come to think of it, my Danish friend Søren does seem to have a more radical view of your lowliness than I do. He put some of this down in writing, so I’ll repeat what he said: “To be a Christian certainly doesn’t mean to be Christ (what blasphemy!) but means to be his imitator, yet not a kind of prinked-up, nice-looking successor who makes use of the firm and leaves Christ’s sufferings many years in the past; no, to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as is possible for a human life to have.”
Okay, maybe I’m starting to get a little offended. Sure, maybe I’m a little more comfortable than you have in mind, Jesus. I live in a pretty nice neighbourhood, got a pretty good job, my kids go to a half-decent school, I’ve got some money saved up in ethical mutual funds. Hey, I’m just trying to be prudent – just trying to be a good manager of what you’ve given me. It’s not like my kids should have to suffer because I’m following you – it’s not like I should be putting my retirement savings at risk – I mean, this business about serving the poor and the lame and the blind – you can only take that so far…
Jesus, maybe I should move on to something else. I, I don’t want this discussion of lowliness to come between us, you know. It might affect our relationship.
So, I said that my Danish friend mentioned two kinds of offence – if the first is the offence of lowliness, he called the second the offence of loftiness. This has to do with the fact that I’m expected to believe that you, a human being, are God.
The deaf hear – and we’re to believe that you unblocked their ears.
The blind see – and we’re supposed to believe that you opened their eyes.
The dead are raised – and we’re supposed to believe you are the one who raised them.
Speaking of resurrection, we’re supposed to believe that you yourself are risen from the dead and sit even now at the right hand of the Father.
Jesus, I must say that all of this is the height of offence to most who live around me. A form of scientific rationalism is rampant – it assumes that anything worth knowing must be confirmed through our senses, or verified through scientific research. Religious faith, miracles, the resurrection of dead people – that’s the height of naiveté. It’s offensive.
I know our society is supposed to have gotten over all of this – we’re supposed to be comfortable with the impossible – we’re supposed to be all postmodern – but isn’t that a laugh. As you probably know, Jesus, the old, insistent, scientific rationalism dies hard.
But as I think about this, I guess my real worry is that the perspectives and convictions of the culture have infiltrated my heart and mind – have infiltrated the church. Our society is offended at your loftiness Jesus, and I guess we have allowed ourselves to become offended at your loftiness – at the idea that you, a simple human being, were, are God. Doubt has crept into our minds and into our sermons and into our prayers. I hear your words “Blessed are those who are not offended at me.” But I do experience the offence – are you really there, really the source of salvation, really God. Most who live around us would laugh, or if not laugh, at least roll their eyes at the idea of letter written, in earnest, to you.
But I think I want to get over this offence, Jesus – I think most of us in the church do. We want to believe you are the risen, miracle-working Lord. But it’s almost like we need permission to believe again. We need to give ourselves permission to believe. We need our ministers to give us permission to believe.
Even as I write to you, Jesus, I realize that these words will have sent our Danish friend Søren spinning in his grave. He’s right: The fact that science can’t prove or disprove your resurrection won’t lead anyone to faith in you and in your resurrection. That science can’t prove or disprove your miracles also won’t lead anyone to faith in you. Your Danish servant is right to point out that men and women will believe in miracles, will believe in resurrection, only once they’ve met the risen you, Jesus – real and alive for them and the world.
But somehow it still feels like we need permission to believe – we need someone who will remind us that triumphant scientific rationalism can’t hog the show – someone to remind us that knowledge of you, held through faith, is legitimate and genuine knowledge.
Maybe I’m just looking for a way to make it easy, Jesus. Maybe I’m just trying to remove an offensiveness that can’t be removed – to remove a stumbling block against which I must inevitably stub my toe, or worse. Your words echo in my ear: “Blessed is the one who is not offended at me.” “Blessed is the one who can get past the difficulty of believing that I am who I am.”
I asked at the beginning of my letter, Jesus, whether you were perhaps frustrated with the baptizer’s lack of faith – perhaps you are similarly frustrated at this request for permission to believe. But I say again: I know full well that this permission to believe won’t bring me or anyone else to you in fullness of faith– but it might at least remove a stumbling block from the path of one who is on the way to faith in you.
We want to come to you Jesus – we want to arrive at a place of deeper faith in you and in the one who sent you. I want to live the life of service to which you have called me.
The more I think through these questions, and wrestle with your words, the more I feel that Søren Kierkegaard got it right – that faith leads necessarily through offence. When confronted with your lowliness, Jesus, and your loftiness, when confronted with the offensiveness of it all, the issue is: “Will I be offended, or will I believe.”
In many ways I’m not sure how to respond, Jesus, except by saying: I believe. And I want to believe. Will you help my unbelief?
I’m not sure how to respond except by saying: I’m following your way, Jesus. And I want to follow you further. Will you equip me for the path of faith and service?
I trust your reply.
Your servant in Montreal