As part of the Inter-Religious Ash Wednesday Prayer Service, we connected with one another in small groups and introduced ourselves, sharing a little bit about our spiritual homes.
After I had said my name and who we are as a new progressive church, a young man spoke up, “What do you mean by progressive?”
I have been asked this question on numerous occasions. Some of my ministerial colleagues have bristled against the terms progressive Christian and progressive church. “Why do we need modifiers?” They say. Isn’t it adequate to just say we are Christians?
I have found that it’s not. Too much damage has been in the name of Jesus’ teachings, too much pain has been cause in the name of the Church, that proclaiming ourselves as progressive Christians, is a quick way to express a different vision.
In an article entitled Christianity Has Failed, Jim Wallis contends, “while the gospels instruct followers of Christ to help the poor, oppressed, maligned, mistreated, sick, and those most in need of help, Christians in America have largely supported measures that have rejected refugees, refused aid to immigrants, cut social services to the poor, diminished help for the sick, fueled xenophobia, reinforced misogyny, ignored racism, stoked hatred, reinforced corruption, and largely increased inequality, prejudice, and fear.
If Christians refuse to help and actually use their political advocacy and opinions to further hurt refugees, immigrants, women, foreigners, minorities, the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the sick, the LGBTQ community — and aren’t abiding by the golden rule of loving their neighbors as themselves, then who exactly are Christians supposedly loving?…”
He ends the essay with, “By these standards — and by the ultimate example that Jesus himself set for us by example — mainstream Christianity in America has failed. It looks nothing like Jesus.”
This week as part of the debate around healthcare, a Republican member of Congress asked why men should have to pay for prenatal care. This looks nothing like Jesus.
When politicians create laws that criminalize being poor or being sick or being a protestor and still call themselves Christians, this looks nothing like Jesus.
Despite how dominant Christianity is expressed, I am learning that living in the Way of Jesus is radical. I was once a more settled, more certain, less risk-taking sort of Christian. And then I went to college and started to read the Gospels for myself.
As we shared last week, Lent invites us to pause enough to see the truth about where we are in our individual and collective lives, that we may come face to face with what is, name it and get real. We started with Jesus’ encounter with the Devil and the three temptations.
The text pulls us into a spiritual wilderness that gives us chances to know ourselves more fully, in order that blossoms might one day emerge from the parched and cracked places.
Kathleen Norris writes, “To dwell in this desert and make it bloom requires that we indulge in neither guilt nor vainglorious fantasizing, but struggle to know ourselves as we are. In this process we will not escape sadness and pain.”
I think that might be the most difficult part for us to hear. Taking our spiritual journeys seriously, asks us to be honest about who we are. Knowing ourselves as we are is essential. But getting real often brings sadness and pain. Following Jesus unsettles and interrupts. Living in the way of Jesus is radical.
The scripture we heard from the Gospel of John include some of the most divisive and well-known verses in Christian sacred texts.
First this one, “5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ Or maybe you have heard it said, you must be born again.
And then this one:
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Both of these have been used by Christians to other, bully, test, shame, and harm.
And both of these verses have contributed in reducing Christianity to something like a magic spell, offering theologically decorated tickets to heaven with the right answer to the question “are you saved?”
This looks nothing like Jesus…. because it asks very little.
When we look closely at the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus, we see being born again is not a status determining who is worthy, but an extravagant invitation to a certain kind of life.
Christians have made being born again too small, too white, too rich, too nationalist, too colonialist when Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to change, to be radically open and to embrace a new way of thinking. He is offering him the chance to let go of what was, to let his old ways die. His is asking him to be willing to face the pain that will come with birthing something new.
Jesus isn’t saying be born again and keep the view and comfort and status that makes you feel superior.
As John Allen writes, Jesus asks Nicodemus to “walk away from the power and privilege of his leadership position and join a lost cause for justice and liberation, to cast in his lot with outcasts.”
He “is pushing his followers to understand that new life emerges constantly from the old, that God sends new life from above and new perspectives that interrupt our habits. This is what Jesus names as salvation.”
This is what Jesus looks like.
Even when those with political and economic power reject refugees, refuse aid to immigrants and cut social services to the poor and still call themselves Christian, we know that our individual and collective salvation will never be known from condemnation. Because this looks nothing like Jesus.
The final verse says this, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.“
Christians have made salvation about who is right and who wins.
This might be easier, but the invitation Jesus extends, to be born from above, to be born again, to be born anew, requires so much more from us than words.
What do you mean by progressive Christian? I have found all kinds of ways to answer this, but on that night I said, “We believe in science!” His face lit up. “I can’t believe I have to say that.” I said.
We are progressive Christians and we believe in inclusion and knowledge and radical love. We understand that following Jesus invites us to be born anew again and again, and to change, to be wrong, and to change.
Being born again means being willing to see ourselves as we truly are and accept that we will not escape sadness and pain.
Being born again means being radically open and daring to see with new eyes. Being born anew means walking away from privilege to use who we are to love the world. Being born from above means we are willing to be unsettled and have our participation in oppression interrupted.
This is what Jesus looks like.
After a time of silence we reflected around these questions.
- How has your spiritual journey interrupted your participation in oppression?
- How can we intentionally know ourselves as we are?
- How can our community more fully join the cause of justice and liberation?