The year was 2009, it was my junior year of College at the University of South Florida, and I was a youth minister for the evangelical para-church outreach ministry Young Life. Raised in a proudly Republican middle-class family in the suburbs of New Tampa, religion was no foreign subject. At the age of 16 I converted to Christianity at a small Southern Baptist church made up of blue-collar conservatives.
Youth group and High School Debate club formed my early years. It wasn’t until college that I was invited to a Young Life club, where I fell in love with the humor and joy in their presentation of “the gospel.” I simultaneously began taking religious students and gender studies classes – they wrecked my world, each and every semester. It was a slippery slope and I was enjoying the ride!
One summer I took a group of these students to Windy Gap – it was like a five star resort-camp for high schoolers. We baited them in with the fun of dramatized dorkiness and sunny poolside belly flops, but ultimately the week climaxed with a rated R movie. We showed those brutal and disgusting clips from Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of Christ. The kids got to hear “The Gospel.”
Afterwards we were supposed to take each of our students individually to a quiet place where we could have a “One on One” with them, ideally presenting this terrifying version of The Gospel again and asking if they chose, Heaven or Hell.
I was so nervous. I always hated this kind of gospel-talk. I loved Jesus’ teachings so much, but I just felt so silly telling this kind of story. “Believe after me and your life will be perfect” Ugh. My high school friends seemed happy and content with their lives, they did not need the baggage of my religious mythology to confuse them any more – I felt like the gospel was a burden and not a blessing.
I mustered the courage to ask one of the students I was close with, William*, to go on a hike with me. I nervously began by just asking him questions about his week at camp.
“So uh how? Is Um camp going will?” I was like a bad sales man who knew he had to have a few buffer words to schmooze my way into his heart.
William was so quick to answer it was as if he didn’t hear my awkward inflection. He was so excited to tell me all about the girls he talked to, the random soda-ice-cream-candy mixes he and some of the guys made; he was excited to show me pictures of him climbing the rock wall and hiking the mountains, exploring the creek and rolling down the hill until he was so dizzy he hurled! William was high on life. Me on the other hand, I was a nervous wreck trying to figure out this darn Jesus sales pitch.
In my own heart I felt as if I was there to manipulate him into believing what I barely even thought to be true myself. But I did it anyways. I ignored his longwinded answer about his week and went in for the kill. I asked him what he thought about Jesus and if he accepted Jesus into his heart. His answer changed me forever.
William went on to tell me, more eloquent than any teenage boy I had ever heard, that he and his family were agnostic. They believed in being ethical and virtuous but they did not need the mythologies of religion or any supreme authority to tell them what was right or wrong. He then used the “H-word” …Humanism – a sinful word in my previous worldview. He told me that he liked the “Jesus stuff” because “Jesus seemed like such a cool guy, someone who lived a good life and that we could follow. Jesus was not like that guy in the Passion Movie, that’s all about death. Jesus was all about life.”
Needless to say, as a young minister increasingly frustrated with the Evangelical Gospel I was using to colonize others minds, William forever changed me. I began to wonder what life would be like if I didn’t have to believe God hated people, that God designed this whole story in such a silly messed up way; I was able to put away childish thinking for a much bigger Christian story.
When I first met William, my understanding of religion was what social physiologist Daniel Batson calls, “Religion as End.” Truth, with a big ole capitol T, was understood to be knowable in clear concrete terms; it took shape as an exclusive Christian theology in which anyone who didn’t think correctly would burn in Hell for eternity. It was theological “extreme vetting” and clearly stands in direct contrast to the open seats at Jesus’ table and the healing touch of his inclusive love. Extreme theological vetting squashes open-mindedness and flexibility; it’s defined by closed-minded attention to one’s own perspective.
What I came to learn in my relationship with Will was an alternative vision of spiritually that David calls, “Religion as Quest.” This vision embraces the complexities of difference, without flattening them all out as if their just one big unified blob, but giving voice to the nuances and contrasts that add to the greater relational web of well being.
Religious and spiritual wisdom can be understood in terms of multiplicity, open-endedness, and relationality. Truth is understood as a process, truth without a capital T; a truth-in-the-making, a truth that is shaped and formed by our collective experiences which are always already differently complex.
Now, here’s where our scripture today brings so much clarity for our plurally spiritual and mutlifaith world. The Apostle Paul pleads for the church in Corinth to be at peace with itself, for everyone there to work their butts off in providing the well-being of all in their church. It makes sense why they were struggling though, the Kingdom of God is so counterculture we struggle to recognize its beauty when it’s right before our eyes. We run from the Kingdom of God because it’s tough work when rich folks are now living, working, and eating alongside the poor lepers their old businesses in Rome exploited for profit. It’s hard work for military leaders to give up their credentials for this new kingdom where swords are beaten into plow shares and lions lie with lambs. It is tough work when you share your belongings; sharing your time, your money, and pool it together for a shared vision to care for the poor, sick, and hungry. It’s messy work being apart of this new world, the upside-down Kingdom of God, but it’s the work of love, it’s the work of compassion, it’s the work of Jesus the Christ.
You get the idea: community ain’t easy. Intentionally living in community is difficult work because we began to face our differences and learn to live with them, embrace them, and maybe take some on as our own. You don’t have time to argue about theological fine tunings when your digging vegetable gardens to feed the needy and teach the youth about God’s love of creation, you can’t build walls of separation and hate if you’re too busy cooking, cleaning, and eating together. When you are busy being the church you don’t have time to exclude, divide, and hate on people.
Let’s take a look deeper. In this scripture passage that highlights Paul’s letter to Corinth, he’s already uplifting two females as leaders. Remember, I left my first church job because they wouldn’t allow women in leadership. I found a more progressive church. Come to find out, for Paul, women in leadership is so 2,000 years ago.
Paul then goes on to say that even though being baptized into these subversive communities of solidarity and Roman resistance is a glorious memory, it’s not the person who baptized you that makes you special. You are special because God chose you to be an insider, God chose all outsiders to be insiders. That’s special because it goes against the world. Our world preaches divisive beliefs and mental barriers, nation-states and nationalism, so when the world says one thing Paul says:
I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots.
When the world defines reality through money, and the commodification of everything, by putting a price tag on land, on trees, and on people, Jesus declares a new day, a day where this type of thinking is exposed as the crackpot silliness it is! Human beings and tree beings and river beings are not objects for our consumption or destruction, no! They are living and lively beings singing the beauty of God in their sheer being-ness. The good news is that you don’t have to do a thing: God has done it all, forgiveness is the name of the game and God’s forgiveness runneth over thicker and more generous than any BP oil spill ever has!
“Wait!? You Christians don’t define existence by division? You don’t define yourself by who you are against?”
Well of course not! That’s the way of market competition and Paul says,
“Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.”
May we find new ways to trust in Jesus and not in the division of an economic social order that destroys the planet and the poor. We do not preach success by growth: we preach Christ crucified. We preach our story. The powers and principalities that seek to expand their Kingdom, always end up destroying those at the bottom, nailing them to crosses for all to blame as the poor beggars who lie, cheat, and steal. Paul says,
“The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction…Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”
And who is Christ but the sacred image of God in Jesus. In who we see a man living in deep solidarity with the poor, with the races and tribes despised in his day, and with women who continue to be paid less than men in our own “developed” country 2,000 years later.
We are Christians, followers of Christ crucified, working toward cultivating a compassionate life in common, admiring our differences and seeking the well-being of all! Amen.
*I’ve used a different name here for confidentiality.