I have three teenagers. One is about to begin his university studies at the college where I am currently employed. The other two are still in high school. Having high school and college-age kids means that our mailbox is often flooded by postcards from various universities across the nation. Almost daily we receive another advertisement from a college that communicates to the prospective student why they should choose their university.
Recently, my middle teen, who will be a junior in high school this next academic year, received a postcard from a Christian college. The header on the card read, “The most popular guy on campus walked the earth two thousand years ago.” Obviously this card is meant to inform the student that at this Christian campus, Jesus, the guy who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, is the most popular guy on that campus. The intention is to say to the prospective student, and the student’s parents, that at this school, we are really Christian.
While I understand that using Jesus in such a public relations campaign might be effective in catching the eye of students who want to attend a university where Jesus is very popular, somewhat like the star athlete who promotes a certain product, I wonder how popular Jesus really is. Or, perhaps a better question is, which Jesus is popular? Is the real Jesus popular?
I will have to admit, that in my own life, I sometimes find Jesus to be popular. I like Jesus. But the problem with which I struggle is that I like a certain kind of Jesus. I like the Jesus that I find comforting. You know, the Jesus who is often depicted in paintings that hang in children’s Sunday school rooms. In these images, Jesus is pictured with children and animals around him in scenes of great serenity and gentleness. Who would not like such a Jesus? I know that this is the Jesus I like. But is this the real Jesus?
In Mark 6, Jesus, Nazareth’s own hometown boy, returns home to preach to those who knew him as a child. You can imagine the anticipation they felt for what he might say as he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue. Although Mark does not tell us the words that Jesus spoke, he does tell us that those who heard him “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). Taken literally, they were scandalized by what he said. Why?
Perhaps they assumed that their hometown boy would make them proud by affirming their righteousness, their place as God’s elect people, and their pious religious observances. Perhaps they assumed that Jesus would side with them against their enemies, preach stirring sermons convicting others of their sins, and pointing to his own people as examples of what it means to live holy lives. They believed that Jesus would tell them what they wanted to hear, and this would make him popular.
However, whatever Jesus said in the synagogue on that day convinced the Nazarenes that the returning hometown boy was not the Jesus they wanted. Instead of being the popular Jesus, the one everyone could like, he was offensive and scandalous to them. He was not popular.
We can look at this story and point our pious fingers at these people and others who reject Jesus, shaming them for not embracing the person and words of Jesus. But are we not just looking into the mirror at our own faces? Was not their problem with Jesus the same as our problem with Jesus?
We embrace the Jesus we want, the popular Jesus who listens to our problems, offers us comfort and easily forgives our sins. But we quickly reject the unpopular Jesus, the Jesus who offends us.
The Jesus we want is our friend. He is our ally in the face of our enemies. This Jesus is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness.
The Jesus we want permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He allows us to be unconscious of the sufferings around us and to replace real discipleship with a pseudo spirituality that manipulates us into thinking we are close to him.
He consents to our prejudices that we not only hold against people of other races and genders, but especially against those of other religions and sexual orientations. Yes, this is the Jesus we prefer. He is the Jesus we can accept. He is the popular Jesus.
But this is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him. This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture and gender. This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased persons and various others of questionable social standing.
This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace and hope in our world. This is the Jesus that desires for us to be inclusive and affirming of others. This is the Jesus who calls us to rethink our theological assertions and to open ourselves to being moved by his Spirit. And this is the Jesus, who, by being so offensive and so scandalous to his contemporaries was crucified on the most offensive and scandalous instruments of Roman power – the cross.
Yes, this is the offensive Jesus, the one who is not so popular. This is the Jesus, that if I am honest, I do not like, for instead of comforting me and affirming what I want, he haunts me. But he is the real Jesus. He is the radical Jesus. He is the biblical Jesus. Indeed, this Jesus refused to be popular, for although he called folks to follow him, he called them to embrace his radical, and dare I say, unpopular way of living. Is this Jesus popular? As I look around, I would have to say, I don’t think so.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.