Where would Jesus be? I couldn’t help pondering that question as I watched some of the Norwich Pride parade. It was a colourful scene, noisy with life, including a whole variety of age groups and organisations (including some churches) represented – and plenty of rainbow coloured wear, including the odd pair of rainbow coloured wings. Wouldn’t Jesus, who came to bring life in all its fullness, be right there in the middle? and wouldn’t the Jesus who spent time with those on the edges of his own society spend time with those who have suffered so much persecution just for being who they are? Yet I also know that Jesus spent time with the professional religious people of his day, both eating with them and challenging them. Wouldn’t Jesus also be prepared to spend time with the religious people of our day, including challenging us where we are laying too much judgement on others? where we have taken one aspect of life, and judge it, while ignoring plenty of other far more damaging behaviours? I have long felt that we place too much emphasis on sexual behaviour (including those aspects which are not necessarily sinful), while ignoring behaviours which can cause far more damage, and are far more widespread – but perhaps less easily judged by us.
Looking at a crucifix after the parade, seeing the outstretched arms, I came to the conclusion that, actually, Jesus would have reached out to both groups, longing to bring all into the kingdom, and those arms, stretched out, labour to reconcile us all. That Jesus’ behaviour worked to bring people to a sense of Who God is, and those passages in the gospels that are full of ‘woes’ work to try and bring the religious to a sense of where they were going wrong. I wonder what ‘woes’ he would bring up with us now? It might be a salutary exercise to spend some time pondering this – except, I suspect, that whatever Jesus did say would touch right to the heart of those issues we are blind to. That the woes we come up with will say far more about us than they do about God.
Yet some time spent in prayer and listening might help us perceive those areas that God wishes us to change. For we are followers of Jesus, called to be obedient to him, and obedience is at heart about listening, not rules. It is about hearing what God is saying, then doing it, rather than creating a list of man-made rules (however biblically based) and expecting others to conform (especially, possibly, when those rules hit at the heart of who people are, rather than where they go wrong). Of course, there are some rules that should be kept: rules around safeguarding children and vulnerable adults, for example, and those mentioned in the ten commandments. But maybe part of our obedience, part of our listening, is to listen to the heart of those rules. Think of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) and how Jesus takes rules like ‘do not kill’ and says to us that we should not be angry with our neighbour. For the law is summed up in two sentences: Love the Lord your God and Love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:25-28).
I wonder whether our habit of creating rules to follow is actually based far more around our own needs. To be able to say ‘if you do x, y or z, then you’re a good person’ – that’s a bit simplistic, but I suspect it may underlie many attitudes. I like rules: I’m a natural rule keeper; they tell me what I’m supposed to be doing, how not to upset people and they make a sometimes terrifying world more accessible. But that is all about me; it also means I need you to keep the rules (including the ones I’ve worked out, that you might not be aware of) in order to keep me from being less scared. Rule keeping is also a lot easier: if we know the rules, then we can keep them, we can know we are right; we can condemn others who break them; and whoever is in charge is responsible for ensuring others keep them. If that’s not us, we can sit back and criticise or protest (or whatever suits our fancy) at the failure of those who are.
Yet, ultimately, we follow a God of Love, not of rules. We are called to be obedient, not in the sense of ‘do as I say’ but in a spirit of mutual listening, both between us and God, and between each other. This can be hard: it is so easy to allow our culture to influence our listening to God (I think this works whether we agree with the prevailing culture or not; it is easy to hold onto non-cultural values in order to show that we’re not being influenced, which means we are, but in a different way); it is very difficult to know exactly what God is saying, and a spirit of humility goes well with our listening. Listening to each other can be just as tough, involving as it does becoming aware of a differing outlooks and world views, as well as being prepared to lay aside some of our most cherished ideals. But such listening is vital, and can only be done in love; and, of course, we do have a pattern of love laid out for us: not only in Jesus, but also in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient, kind, is not proud or rude or easily angered or … Read it through, maybe in several versions to get the idea of the heart of the passage. What it does not say is that love judges.
Where would Jesus be? I suspect we shouldn’t be asking the question, as our answers will show forth our own prejudices as much as where Jesus would actually be. Where Jesus would be will likely surprise us. Maybe part of our listening could include being open to the surprising nature of our God, a willingness to hear the depth and strength of the love of our God – and a preparedness to be changed by that.