People tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. If you don’t believe me, reach in your pocket or purse and pull out your phone. Remember, that overpriced piece of plastic in your pocket, the one built with rare Earth elements that are nearly impossible to extract from Africa and Latin America, and assembled by underpaid workers in China, it is supposed to be a phone. It’s not a game console. Your phone isn’t a music player. Your phone isn’t a weather machine. Nor is your phone a purveyor of gossip, passive-aggressive memes, your thoughts about coffee, or ideas about the government of the United States. Yet, it is.
Your simple, beautiful, cellular phone purchased to stay in touch with your family and friends is a web of interrelated ideas and a complex network of lifestyle applications with nothing to do with the first reason you bought a cell phone: you wanted to reach out and touch someone. So now, we text, we never talk. We type, we never talk. We send distorted artistic renderings of smiley faces and other animals. We never speak. Who talks on the phone? No one talks. Yet for nearly 40 days, we’ve excoriated our politicians for avoiding the one thing we rarely do ourselves: put down our phones and talk. I’ll ask again: why don’t we?
Why do I bring up the complicated lives we lead and the phones we carry as a metaphor for how things have gone wrong in the United Methodist Church? Our phones remind me of the faith we profess and the building in which we sit, the church. I’m not talking about local churches but also the church in general. The church, throughout its history, has been good at taking beautiful, life-changing ideas designed to connect people and places and making them more complicated than they need to be. The church can become a dot-connecting, hoop jumping, and saying the right words exercise. This model of the church teaches that if we do all the approved steps, in the right order, we’re being Christian. Actually, that’s not the church. It’s a form of secular religion (complete with liturgical devotion), divorced from the Christian tradition. This is the “best” “worst” thing the church does.
In our journey toward complexity, that is, creating an application for everything; we’ve lost touch with the original idea (our equivalent of the phone) which should have guided our efforts and innovation. Instead, we let the constant need for innovation guide the movement. As a result, we forget why we’re here, what we believe, and what we originally intended to do (and why those things still need to be done.)
So why are we here? What is our “original” phone? What brought us together in the first place? If we were to remove all of the applications and garbage from our phones/devices what would be left over? What would it look like? Is it the Apostles’ Creed? No. In my mind, the Apostles’ Creed is an application. It’s something we download. It doesn’t come with being a Christian. The Creed was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus and his disciples. Others, after decades of early innovation, decided what was important for Christians to believe about Jesus, the person. The creed can augment our information about Jesus, but it’s not the last word. Scripture is our primary point of entry when encountering Jesus.
Here’s the difference between the creed and what we’re looking for: we want simplicity. The Creed tells us what to believe. Belief is a layer of complexity Jesus rarely broached. I want to know what Jesus said about himself and how that points to things Jesus did. Do you see the distinction? What do others say about Jesus vs. what Jesus says about himself? Then, in revealing anything about himself, do we learn anything thing about the primary path of discipleship?
If the church wants to make things a little less complicated, we need to go back to the 1st generation “Jesus” phone. What can we learn from Jesus not just what others say about Jesus? How can we make the church look more like Jesus and less like ourselves?
Jesus is invited to read scripture in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. This is at the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He’s on the cusp of becoming a well-known teacher. People like what he has to say. Naturally, Nazareth is proud of the home town boy made good. They want in on the Jesus movement. It’s a great honor to be invited back to your home pulpit to speak, even for a United Methodist. I don’t need to tell you that family and friends were in the congregation. This is a big deal on multiple levels.
Sabbath morning, Jesus arrives, full of the Spirit and ready to worship. When the time comes, the prophetic scroll is presented to Jesus (Isaiah 61:1-2, 58:6). (The guest always received the prophetic reading.) Luke says that Jesus read the following:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
“And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Jesus says, “This is me. I have come to do these things. If you want to get on board, now is this time.” Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus gives his mission statement. In other words, if it doesn’t fall into the broad categories as I’ve outlined above, it’s not me or my thing. What has the Church done with Jesus’ plan for proclaiming the Good News? Do we still think Jesus’ news is good? What have we turned the Good News into? Is it a series of litmus tests to determine how best to navigate the complex, hoop jumping Christianity we’ve created in 21st America? Yes.
You see Jesus’ priorities. You know what the church values as priorities. When given the opportunity to quote from Old Testament he chooses to highlight the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed. He quotes Isaiah, not Leviticus. Jesus doesn’t reference marriage or human sexuality; the two issues many United Methodists believe should frame the church’s entire response to the secular world.
If we want to make the church look less like us and return it to the priorities Jesus outlined, we know what we need to do. It’s not like poverty, captivity, health care, and oppression aren’t global crises that manifest themselves in our own back yard. Some oppression even originates in our own theology and from parts of United Methodism.
We follow Jesus by doing Jesus’ actions. Being a Christian is more than repeating a creed or mouthing a prayer. It ought to be about putting belief into practice. We should become the answer to our own prayers. If your belief keeps someone oppressed, in darkness, or denies their fundamental humanity; it’s not Christian. Go back and re-read today’s lesson.
To talk about bringing “Good News” to the poor can lead to being branded a socialist.
To talk about proclaiming release to the captives can lead to being called soft on crime.
To talk about the recovery of sight to the blind in body and mind can lead to being called a supporter of Medicare for all.
To talk about letting the oppressed go free can lead to being called a revolutionary.
Let people call us any name they choose. What matters is that we’re following Christ in ways that it is difficult for anyone to contest.
Jesus calls us to do these words he read in Nazareth. This is his plan. This isn’t about repeating a creed and telling the story of man’s life. Jesus isn’t trying to keep an 18th-century denomination alive in 21st America. Jesus shows how to do the Good News. Good News that accepts everyone as God made them, on face value, from day one. If we make it any harder, that’s on us. I don’t want to be the guy who makes it any harder for someone to know, hear, or understand a liberating Jesus.
Richard Lowell Bryant