Don Armentrout stood tall enough to ride the big rollercoasters at Disney World and Six Flags. His balding head formed a kind of natural tonsure, and he peered through eyewear that resembled twin magnifying glasses.
When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, Don delivered his Church History lectures at a torrid clip, frequently hiking his sagging khakis back up to his waist as he said, “You know what I mean?” We all struggled to keep pace with him in our notes and breathed a sigh of relief whenever he started in on one of his brief asides.
One day, he said something like this:
When you get out there in your churches, people are going to come looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is you. You better think about that.
I’m still thinking about that. And now I’m asking you to think about that. All sorts of people are looking for God. God took up flesh and moved into the neighborhood. God comes to meet us in Jesus.
And here’s the catch. Since the Ascension and the descent of the Spirit, we are the only Body that Jesus has. People will come looking for Jesus, and they’re only going to get us. And that’s exactly how God designed it.
To borrow from Sting, every move we make, every breath we take represents Jesus to the world. God expects us to represent Jesus in the way he deserves. God’s mission of reconciliation and restoration hinges on it.
All sorts of people felt welcome around Jesus. The disabled, the contagious, and foreigners approached him without hesitation. His regular dinner companions included notorious crooks and women of ill-repute.
Jesus brought healing and sanity. He fed the hungry and forgave the people who wounded him. If you were down and out, flat on your back, or on everybody’s scumbag list, Jesus was on your side.
People are looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is us.
Jesus as much as told his disciples the same thing. For instance, after wrestling with the condescending, judgmental religious leaders of his day, he took the disciples aside and gave them a mini-lesson in how to look like Jesus. (Luke 17:1-10)
He said, don’t be a stumbling block to anybody else. Your thoughts, words, and deeds have a ripple effect. Whether you realize it or not, you can knock somebody else out of the boat. Hurt people hurt people. Jerks make jerks. You’d be better off having an anchor tied around your neck and being thrown into the bayou. Heal and nurture instead.
Oh, and while you’re at it, forgive. And keep forgiving. If the same boneheads have to apologize seven times a day every single day, forgive them. Sure, you’ll start to think that their remorse is insincere. God will sort that out. Forgive them.
Squirming at what they were hearing, they said, “Increase our faith!” We’re doing the same, I suspect. These expectations are too high. Nobody can live up to them. So give us the faith to accomplish what you ask!
You might think that Jesus would break out the gold stars for this response. But instead of a hearty pat on the back, Jesus gives them a verbal smack on the back of the head. He tells the disciples—and he’s telling us—that we’ve completely missed the boat about faith.
Faith is not something we have that makes us capable of remarkable things. Having a stronger faith has nothing to do with holding more tenaciously to our ideas about God.
Faith is a relationship. Jesus initiates and sustains that relationship by being faithful to us. He sticks by us and gives himself to us. Our faith is a response. It happens and its contours change one day at a time, and those days have a cumulative effect.
The various saints on our liturgical calendar show us that a faithful life amounts to a Jesus-saturated life. A faithful life is one in which Jesus does uncanny, unexpected, holy things. Saints don’t accomplish things so much as Jesus makes things happen in and through them.
Saints show us what it means to be the Body of Christ.
Plenty of saints never make it onto the Church’s calendar. History will not record most of their names. But we recognize them when we see them. They are representing Jesus in a way that makes us say, “Oh! Right! That’s it!”
For instance, about ten years ago we saw Jesus in the Amish community.
Charlie Roberts walked into a one-room schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and opened fire. He killed five children and wounded five others. Then he took his own life.
Charlie’s mother Terri will never forget that day. Her husband said, “I’ll never be able to face my Amish neighbors again.”
A few days later, the Robertses buried their son in a small, private ceremony. As they came to the gravesite, they saw forty members of the Amish community approaching. The Amish enfolded the Roberts family in a semi-circle, extending forgiveness and sharing grief.
In their sorrow and shame and loneliness the Robertses came looking for Jesus that day, whether they knew it or not. All they got was the Amish. And on that day, that small, wounded group of Amish were the real Jesus.
That’s who we want to be for the addict and the parolee, for the lonely teenager and the disabled vet, for the cynical banker and the calloused farmer, for the streetwalker and the street cleaner.
We want to bring healing and compassion and peace to over-scheduled families and exhausted night-shift workers. To bow-tied professionals and professional slackers.
We want to be Jesus to whomever we meet.
It saddens me when we portray Jesus as a condescending scold. Because of the Church, the world too frequently sees Jesus as obsessed with what’s wrong. As quarrelsome and scornful. As resentful and morally smug.
We know, or at least we are supposed to know, that Jesus came not to condemn but to save. And yet all too often we forget how to embody the inclusive graciousness that is the sacred heart of Jesus.
God realizes that his standards are too high for us injured, timid, fractious humans to meet. That’s why he became one of us and lived in our midst and dwells in our hearts. We are not in this alone.
We are the Body of Christ. People are looking for Jesus. And all they’re going to get is us. Let’s keep thinking about that.
Friends I’m on vacation in October, so I’ll be posting previously published essays each Friday based on the Lectionary for the coming Sunday. This one first appeared September 30, 2016. It was later included in Your Untold Story. Click here to get a copy. I’ll be posting new stuff again in November (and maybe even some sneak peeks of my next book). As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.