Jesus Is UnChristian
The words unchristian is one I have heard a lot lately, from many people, in many different ways. I find myself on occasion tempted to use it. It is one of those words I wish to unname. It needs to be unnamed. It needs to not be used anymore, by anyone. The problem is the word presumes authority. It presumes that my interpretation of faith is the correct one and that allows me to establish firm lines to be drawn between that which is Christian |and| that which is unChristian.
The word Christian itself has come to be used to describe a person or group or corporate entity who puts faith in Jesus Christ as the self-revelation of God. It is not a word that Jesus ever used. The word first pops up in Antioch well after Jesus’ death (Acts 11). It is not even the word first used to describe Jesus’ followers. His first disciples, become apostles as he sent them into the world, were described most often as “followers of the way.” Jesus live a way of life, and those who “came after him” were those who attempted to follow him – and his way – in the living of their own lives.
Today I was in a bible study on Mark 1. And the part that really stayed with me was: “And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”” (Mark 1:36,37) Jesus had gone off to pray and they hunted for him. The Greek word here gives a meaning of “to hunt, to track, to follow.” So while we often may think of the idea of “following Jesus” like students following their teacher down a well-lit hallway… the connotation here is more challenging than that. They are having to discern, to track him down, to seek out and try not to lose their way in following the clues Jesus left behind.
And this speaks to me. This speaks to me of the kind of teacher who answered very few questions, asked many more questions, and taught in parables that intentionally confused and challenged first (traditional/face-value) reading. Jesus’ way is elusive and fleeting. Not weak. Not lacking substance kind of fleeting. I mean Jesus way has a humility around certainty and truth that challenges our desires to make absolute claims. Moses gave ten clear laws on his mountain; Jesus gave ambiguous and challenging character traits like meek, hungry and thirsty, mourning, and persecuted. How do we follow that way?
We follow that way as one without authority (to borrow a page from Fred Craddock). We follow as one who is always tracking, seeking after, following a teacher who will not be pinned down to easy platitudes and clear legal systems. We follow that way by being one whose proclamation asks far more questions than answers. And we must remember that Jesus spends most of this time asking these questions of his religious tradition and authorities (in keeping with a habit of that same religious tradition – he isn’t the first to question). It’s popular to say that Jesus is counter-cultural. But we must remember that the culture he lives in is deeply steeped in religion. Jesus is AS MUCH counter-religious as he is counter-cultural. We cannot follow in Jesus way without being deeply skeptical of our own tradition(s) and authority(ies).
So back to that unchristian word. Let’s get provocative for a moment. Jesus is unchristian. If there is anyone out there with more at stake in being unchristian its Jesus. Because the last thing Jesus seems to want is a bunch of self-authorized people speaking for him and telling other people what to do in his name. Jesus doesn’t want us to be sure of ourselves and self-righteous about our faith. Jesus wants us seeking, without authority, to follow in his way of questioning and questing after faithfulness to the living God – being made free and building people up.
The idea of unchristian presumes that I know Jesus’ singular way to live and I know you aren’t living it. This kind of certain and clearly defined way seems far closer to idolatry than to the way of Jesus which must be sought and hunted after – even when it looks exactly like the way I would want to look, ESPECIALLY when it looks exactly how I would want it to look. I see and know many different ways to follow Jesus. The map of the way is full of winding paths: as different as Peter and Paul and everything in between. And there is something scary beautiful about that.
I do not know that we can do without the word Christian anymore – I think that boat has sailed. But I dearly hope we can remove the word unchristian from usage, for Jesus’ sake.