Why Jesus? Jesus the Vagabond
By William Willimon
The highway that winds up from the sea to Jerusalem is a rapidly ascending road through picturesque but rugged terrain. The heat is high, vegetation sparse. Israeli military trucks lumber up the hill, making it slow going to the Holy City. The name Jerusalem means "foundation of peace," but it never lived up to its name. Stuck in fuming traffic, inching along in the heat, I muse, "What a road for God Almighty to walk."
Most people met Jesus on the road. When John the Baptizer introduced Jesus to the world, he quoted the prophet Isaiah, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." In Jesus, God worked a highway making a road straight through the desert to enslaved humanity. Just as in the exodus, God made a "way" out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land, so Jesus is the "way" to God. How ironic that while we clamored up to God through our intellect, our morality, our architecture, our art, and our institutions (both secular and religious), in Jesus Christ, God slipped in among us. The first name for the church was simply "The Way," not only our way to God but rather God's way to us.
All the gospels present Jesus on a continual road trip--God in motion, urgently making a way to us in defeat of the desert in which we wander. Some of Jesus' best words were spoken on the run. So, if you want to know about Jesus, you've got to meet him on the road.
What the gospels deem important about Jesus is not his family or his youth but rather his forward movement, his mission. Breaking like a wave across dusty Galilee, he thunders forth into a captive land - God at highest momentum. Anybody who wants to meet Jesus, to understand or to be with Jesus, must be willing to relocate.
God promised to come in spite of our sad human history. God vowed to be with us, to show us God's glory, power, and love. And that all sounded fine until God Almighty dramatically made good on the promise and actually showed up, not as the thoroughly malleable God we wanted but rather as Jesus of Nazareth. "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me," Jesus said. But the things Jesus said and did led many to despise him. On a dark Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, that revulsion became bloody repulsion as we nailed Jesus' hands and feet to a cross and hoisted him up, naked, over a garbage dump outside of town. At last, we had silenced Jesus and the God he presented - or so we thought.
Three times, Jesus hinted that his death might not be the end of the drama, yet the thought that anything in the world could be stronger than death was inconceivable to everyone around Jesus, even as it is inconceivable today. (You know, folks back then might not have known everything we know today, but they knew that what's dead stays dead.)
Well, as is so often the case with a true and living God, our sin was not the end of the story. Three days after Jesus had been brutally tortured to death by the government - egged on by a consortium of religious leaders like me, deserted by his disciples, and then entombed - a couple of his followers (women) went out in the predawn darkness to the cemetery.
At the cemetery, place of rest and peace for the dead, the earth quaked. The huge stone placed before the tomb entrance - why on earth would the army need a big rock to keep the dead entombed? That stone was rolled away. An angel, messenger of God, perched impudently upon the rock.
The angel preached the first Easter sermon: "Don't be afraid. You seek Jesus, who was crucified? He is risen! Come, look at where he once lay in the tomb." Then the angel commissioned the women to be Jesus' first preachers: "Go, tell the men that he has already gone back to Galilee. There you will meet him."
Oh, it was a typically Jesus sort of moment, with people thinking they were coming close to where Jesus was resting, only to be told to "Go!" somewhere else. Jesus is God in motion, on the road, constantly going elsewhere, often to where he is not invited.
Despite his disciples' betrayal, on the first day of his resurrected life, well there's Jesus with returning to the ragtag group of Galilean losers who had failed him.
And what does Jesus say to them? "You have all had a rough time lately. Settle down and snuggle in here in Galilee among these good country folks with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build a church, and enjoy being a spiritual club"? No. This is Jesus, after all, not a Methodist bishop. The risen Christ commands, "Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing, and teaching everything I've commanded you! And don't limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I'll stick with you until the end of time - just to be sure you obey me."
Ah, how like peripatetic Jesus not to allow his people to rest, not to encourage them to hunker down with their own kind, but rather to send them forth on the most perilous of missions - to send forth those who had so disappointed him. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without venturing with Jesus to "Go! Make disciples!" The disciples were told, "Don't be afraid." That's interesting. Those who knew Jesus best, and were in turn known best by him, knew that, while friendship with Jesus is sweet, it is also demanding, difficult, and, at times, even fearsome.
As the Bible says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Presumably, it's not fearful to fall into the hands of a dead god, an idol who never shocks or demands anything of you, who is no more than a fake, a godlet, a mere projection of your fondest desires and silliest wishes. Out in Galilee - a dusty, drab, out-of-the-way sort of place, just like where most of us live - the disciples of Jesus were encountered by the living God who could show up anywhere, anytime. And that's scary. Here is God, not as a high-sounding principle, a noble ideal, or a set of rock-solid beliefs. Here is God on the move, moving toward us; that's a joyful thing - but more than a little scary, too.
The modern world has many ways of turning us in on ourselves, eventually to worship the dear little god within. Christianity, the religion evoked by Jesus, is a decidedly fierce means of wrenching us outward. We are not left alone peacefully to console ourselves with our sweet bromides or even to close our eyes and hug humanity in general. A God whom we couldn't have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God were merely a figment of our imagination - God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. And it scared us to death but also thrilled us to life.
The Galilean was a vagabond in many dimensions. The gospels agree that Jesus lived his adult life as a wandering beggar, without visible means of support. He never held a job or a proper home. Many expected God to come and save them; few expected God to show up as a homeless man, unmarried and unemployed. Constantly, Jesus crossed lines and transgressed boundaries. In clear violation of biblical law and custom, he reached out and touched lepers, insane persons, "unclean" women, corpses. Once, wandering about, he broke the law against plucking grain on the Sabbath, earning him the ire of the religious keepers of propriety. His family thought he was mad. Some Biblical authorities of the day attributed his healing powers to demonic possession. He called the rich "fools," saying to them, "woe to you who are rich," and to the despised and neglected poor, he preached liberating "good news." People like me, with advanced study in religion who made their living through interpreting God to less informed people like you, he called "whitewashed tombs," all spic and span outside, rotten inside. He is the way?
Something about Jesus led ordinary folks to forsake everything and follow. Those whom he chose as disciples appear to have had not much talent for being revolutionaries. Looking at his life and legacy, it's no wonder that many then and now regard him as a well-intentioned but sadly deluded failure. And yet the Letter to the Hebrews says that this homeless, begging, crucified vagabond is "the reflection of God's glory - the exact imprint of God's very being."
Sometimes people say, "God? Oh, can't say anything definitive about God. God is large, nebulous, and vague." We wish. By rendering God into an abstract idea, we can be assured that we'll always be safe from God. By raising the crucified Jesus from the dead, it was as if God vindicated Jesus, as if God said, "You want to know what God looks like? Look at Jesus! There, that's who I am."
It wasn't simply that, "God has raised a person from the dead." Who would have gotten worked up over, "God has raised Julius Caesar from the dead"? Rather, the Christian message was, "God raised Jesus from the dead." God raised this one who forgave his enemies, who reached out to the sinner and the outcast, this one who stood up to the authorities, and who invited everyone to his kingdom. That One is raised.
Not only was he on the move but Jesus constantly invited everyone to join his journey. In my pastoral experience, Jesus holds little interest for people who are at ease with themselves here, now, in this place, living their lives as the world tells them, content as pigs in mud. Jesus tends to come to people where they are but rarely leaves them as they were. Conversion of thought and life, is part of the adventure of being loved by Jesus.
The Bible introduces us to a living, speaking, moving Person, not to the fixed and final word on everything.
John begins his rollicking gospel account of Jesus by taking Jesus to, of all places, a post-wedding bash in Cana. During the merriment, the wine gave ran out. Mary, mother of Jesus, implored him to revive the rapidly wilting party. At first, Jesus brushes her off with, "Woman, what does that have to do with you or me? It's not my party. My hour has not yet come."
Of course it's not Jesus' hour; it's only the second chapter of the Gospel. But then Jesus tells the manager of the feast to fill up six stone jars with 180 gallons of water. Miraculously, the water is turned to premium wine.
John comments that this was "the first of his signs." A sign of what? A sign that Jesus should go into catering? A sign that Jesus had violated policy prohibiting alcohol at church-sponsored social events?
John says that his twelve disciples "believed in him." Saw "glory." What on earth did they believe? Where's the glory? Jesus has, up to this point, done no teaching or preaching and has asked no one to believe anything about him. And yet some believe; they want to follow Jesus toward this strange glory. Sometimes people believe Jesus, love Jesus, and follow Jesus on the basis of less than adequate information or evidence. It's the effect Jesus has on some people. So, be careful: Jesus might have the same effect on you.