Beware of the sugar-coated Jesus...There’s truth in that image of Jesus, but it’s not the whole truth.
Jesus was and is the friend of sinners. Jesus was and is the one who welcomes the poor, the powerless—the gracious host who welcomes us into his presence and wants us all to come in and enjoy the party. There’s more than a grain of truth in the image of Jesus as a warm and welcoming friend: the tenderness of God’s own heart, made tangible and visible in human form.
But when you turn Jesus into nothing more than one of the good old boys—when you forget that Jesus is also the fierce fire of God that comes to burn away all the pettiness, all the injustice, all the self-righteousness that scars our lives and dooms us to alienation from God and from each other—you are turning away from the real Jesus to a cheap imitation (the cartoon version, if you will) who is not the presence of the saving God but rather the idol of our own imagination.
* “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4.24), and Jesus is the fire-breathing prophet of God’s judgment upon all the ways in which we abuse our brothers and sisters—against all the walls of contempt or indifference behind which we shut ourselves off from God and from one another.
The Jesus who came crashing into our sanctuary this morning in the reading from the Gospel of Luke is nobody’s lapdog, nobody’s wimp. We much prefer a Savior who always soothes and comforts, a Jesus who calms our shattered nerves and tells us that everything is going to be o.k. But in our text from Luke 12, Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder with Isaiah and all the prophets in forcing us to face the bad news along with the good. New life is indeed available to us, but that will inevitably involve the destruction of the old, familiar, comfortable ways of living in which we are drifting serenely toward our own destruction. The good news is that Jesus loves us enough to tell us the truth—the whole truth, nothing but the truth— even when it hurts. Our God is a consuming fire, but Jesus didn’t suffer and die on the cross just to warm our hearts. Jesus is the tough love of God in human form.
That’s why Jesus insists on lighting a fire that will burn away everything that stands between us and God’s highest dream for our lives. “I have come,” he cries out, “to send a fire upon the earth!” Those aren’t the words of some favorite uncle whose only wish is that everybody have fun at the party.
No wonder Jesus was controversial! No wonder he aroused stiff resistance and sparked fierce emotions in ways that the sugar-coated Jesus of our imagination could never do. Fire, controversy, division—that’s what the real Jesus unleashes whenever anybody dares to take him seriously and respond wholeheartedly to the challenge of his call to discipleship. The claims of Jesus are divisive, splitting nations and communities—and even families—right down the middle.
Luke says that Jesus promises not serenity but division. That actually softens it a bitfrom what you will find in Matthew, where Jesus says bluntly, “I have come to bring not peace but a sword” (Matthew: 10.34). His raging fire burns away our conventional assumptions and our all too comfortable ways of getting on with our lives. He comes wielding the sword that cuts away at the social bonds linking even mother and daughter, father and son, whenever those bonds become part of what lures us onto the paths that lead to destruction.
In the 12th century, when a young Italian named Francis heard God’s call to walk away from his prosperous, upper-class lifestyle and spend himself in ministry to the poorest, the most powerless, the most vulnerable in his hometown of Assisi, his mom and dad were not pleased, to say the least. They had young Francis thrown in jail for defying their expectations that he would settle down to the conventional life of a respectable, upper-class Italian gentleman. The fire of Jesus created division between these parents and their son. Francis of Assisi learned that when Jesus talked about the fire and the sword—about upsetting the applecart and creatingdivisions rather than serenity for those who heard his message—he meant what he said.
What was true then is still true today, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus was, and is, a radical. He was, and is, a disturber of the peace. He was, and is, a troublemaker.
* Salvation means more than just cleaning things up a bit here and there, breaking a few bad habits, or learning how to be a better neighbor. Salvation is not just sweeping away the cobwebs in the corners of the house. It’s tearing down the old house to make room for a palace—a new creation, the new you, the place where Christ will perfectly reproduce himself in a life of justice and mercy, love and peace. When Jesus offers his grace to us this morning, he is determined not just to improve us around the edges but to remake us from top to bottom, inside and out.
It is often said that Jesus comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. John Farthing often speaks of the comforting side if Jesus, but here he speaks of the afflictive side. He reminds us that the sugar-coated Jesus is an idol in our imaginations.
There's a lesson here for open and relational (process) Christians. We are reminded that the non-controlling love of God, to use Thomas Oord's phrase, is challenging and as well as comforting, confrontational as well as hospitable, fiery as well as gentle. We are lured by the God to let go of the very comforts we cherish, allowing Jesus to tear down the houses of greed, self-indulgence, self-satisfaction, and luxury.
If we are comfortable middle-class Christians, the tearing down will be divisive. It may divide us from our families, our friends, our society, and aspects of our very selves. Like Francis of Assisi, we will need to face the fire and let our old ways burn away.
Have we the courage to abandon middle-class comforts? If not, let us be honest that we are only half-Christian: responsive to the comforting side of God's lure, but hiding from the afflictive side. We have created a sugar-coated Jesus in our imaginations in order to avoid the cost of true discipleship.
Beware the sugar-coated Jesus, says John Farthing. And let us also beware the idea that, just because we claim the name of Jesus, we actually follow him. The gospel is scary and, for that reason, all the more beautiful.