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In the mud with Jesus: a manifesto

We begin a series reflecting on the values of The Salvation Army. In this Easter edition of War Cry, we look at what it really means to ‘put Jesus first’, finding ourselves in the mud and the mayhem.

There are times when we need to pour ashes on our heads and sit in the mud, and ask Jesus to give us another chance. Maybe this Easter is our time.

The real good news

When Jesus was walking this earth, he kept saying that the Kingdom of God is near … the divine is here. It’s so close you can touch it. ‘Reach out and touch me,’ said Jesus, ‘because something radical is about to happen to you. And not just to you, but to the world.’

Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, no less than 214 times. Ronald J. Sider, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (check that out for a title), points out that this kingdom was the gospel according to Jesus. It went much further than the ‘forgiveness of sins’, and required a revolution.

What’s more, Jesus showed us what that Kingdom looked like. He surrounded himself with a ‘community of disciples who began to imitate Jesus in living according to the norms of the dawning kingdom—a kingdom where the poor would receive justice, and peace would prevail. Jesus and his followers healed the sick, cared for the poor, and welcomed the marginalised into their fellowship,’ writes Sider.

When we meet Jesus, the only natural response is to want to leave everything behind and spend the rest of our lives living his way. That why it is so beautiful to be called a Christian— a ‘little Christ’. What an honour, what a mandate and what a privilege!

The blasphemy of the little Christs

Yet, why is it that when people encounter us Christians, they don’t automatically see Christ? They don’t see a reflection of the divine in a way that makes them want to leave everything behind and follow Jesus too? In fact, the word ‘Christian’ has become so sick and infected that for many people it means the opposite of the Kingdom of God; it means judgement and hurt and grief. What have we done to the name of Christ? Sider argues that as ‘evangelical Christians’, we have watered the true gospel down to a simple transaction: we say ‘sorry’ to Jesus for our sins, and he says, ‘You’re forgiven.’ The wonder of Christ is we can come to him with all our crap and he makes us clean again.

But this also requires a deep response from us—and that’s where we’ve failed. We have not challenged ourselves to leave everything behind and live in radically diff erent ways: to enter the Kingdom of God. When we call ourselves Christians, but fail to live like Christ, we blaspheme his name.

Red Letter Christianity

Tony Campolo and a bunch of Christian leaders in the US felt a deep yearning to get back to living like Jesus. They came up with the term ‘Red Letter Christians’, meaning they take the words of Jesus —often printed in red letters in our Bibles—seriously.

Shane Claiborne (who we interview in the next issue of War Cry) is part of the Red Letter movement. ‘What if Jesus really meant what he said?’ is his catchphrase. Claiborne has become a prophet to other Christians, having given up wealth to live in community and advocate for the poor. ‘If we really become a new creation in Christ, that should transform how we act, who we hang out with, how we look at money and war and politics and why we are here on earth. Indeed, all things become new,’ says Claiborne.

But Tony Campolo admits how hard it is to live like Jesus in our prosperous, comfortable world. I admire his honesty in this story he tells:

I remember a young Jewish man who became a convert to Christianity who, having read the Sermon on the Mount, asked me whether or not I had an insurance policy and a retirement fund.

When I answered, ‘What kind of question is that?’, he said, ‘Well, I was just reading in Matthew that you’re to take no thought for the future as what you need to eat and what you need to be clothed. Jesus said you shouldn’t concern yourself about these things.’

I almost felt like saying, ‘What do you want me to do, live like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field?’ I didn’t say that because he would have said, ‘That’s what Jesus told you to do, so why don’t you?’

Jesus very clearly said it is almost impossible to hold on to wealth and take part in God’s Kingdom (see Luke 18:22- 25). Is there anything more jarring to us Western Christians than to hear this? In the US, if everyone who called themselves an evangelical Christian tithed (gave 10 per cent of their income to fund God’s concerns), there would be US$145 billion more available for the poor and powerless. Imagine how that, alone, could solve many of the world’s inequalities!

But let’s not leave the blame with our brothers and sisters in the US. Let us also be willing to look at what we hold on to most tightly.

In the mud with Jesus

‘People today want a Christianity that looks like Jesus again,’ says Claiborne. If we want to know how to do that, we don’t need to look any further than Jesus himself.

Many years ago, I spent a year just reading the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In each story of Jesus, I imagined myself in the scene. I was the Pharisee talking to Jesus when he shockingly turned around and called me a ‘white washed grave’. I was the dirty, shameful woman with terminal bleeding who touched the hem of Jesus’ garments and shook with fear when he asked, ‘Who was that?’

I felt the offense, the indignation, the shame, the humility of each of these people. And like never before, I felt the love that covered it all. This was when I really fell in love—for want of the better word—with Jesus. He was not a set of beliefs; he was a human being who dared to get dirty with us lot.

There is a theology I love called ‘dirty theology’, which looks at how Jesus got down in the dirt with us—mixing mud and spit to heal a blind man, washing the dust off his disciples’ feet. Jesus was mud-and-dust real. It is this intense empathy with our lowliness that speaks of his divinity.

If we claim to put Jesus first, we must leave our sparkly, sterile mansions and pristine churches. We must pour ashes on our head (an ancient way of showing grief and asking forgiveness). We must get into the mud—because that is where we will find Jesus. And this is where we will discover that it is our dirty feet that Jesus is bending down to wash.

I love this poem, ‘The Vow of the Nail’, by Kiwi Salvationist Rosy Keane:

Oh Lord
Take my pampered hands
Take them in your rough-hewn carpenter's own
I yield the pampered skin
The unhampered sin
Let my palms look like yours
Cracked, calloused, raw
Hard-laboured and small-favoured
and little thought of and denied,
Open …
I will take the vow
Of the nail I will deny myself
My hands will bleed
My feet will chafe
The snares shall loose
My eyes will see
Your people will blink
Unslumbered violently numbered
And finally
At last We are Good News.

The Salvation Army in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga has drawn a line in the sand and said that we will put Jesus first in all that we do. It won’t always be pretty, but it will be transforming.

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 8 April 2017, pp20-21
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.