So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
Today’s meditation is simple one but a necessary one that’s often forgotten in our “spiritual but not religious” culture. What effect has this cultural tendency had on Christianity? For years we’ve been hearing that we need to see Christianity as less a “head religion” and more a “heart religion.” It sort of goes hand in hand with, “Make Christianity a relationship, not a religion.”
OK, let that be the case, in which case, the relationship is Jesus the teacher and me the student. Maybe that’s not as sexy as what is meant when the word “relationship” is used, but it’s accurate. When people emphasize the idea of “relationship” what they all too often mean is that Jesus becomes this imaginary friend who walks with us and talks with us. He’s a phantom we have a “relationship” with.
But how often is that phantom nothing more than a projection of our own desires? How often does Jesus become what we project into the space created when we find that quiet spot and wait for the “still small voice” of God, an abuse of this week’s Old Testament reading we’ll deal with later?
“Pssst, I want you to marry that guy,” said the still small voice, someone’s imaginary friend they name Jesus. “I want you to go into the ministry,” it says to another, and he’ll have a ready story to tell when people ask him, “When did you receive your call?”
Yes, we cannot ever deny what God may be doing. To paraphrase something someone once said about the Church: “We can say for sure what God says (in the Bible), but outside of blatant heresy, we cannot say for sure what God has not said, or how God is moving people.” Is God moving people through voices in their head to marry this person or go on that mission trip or enter into that ministry? Who knows. I have my doubts, but far be it from me to fight against the Holy Spirit if He’s behind something. In any event, we do have St. John saying, “Test the spirits.” And then he proceeds to lay down the doctrinal standard by which we test the spirits. Those who are Gnostics (John’s immediate reference) are not to be heeded at all; and those who deny the incarnation or the doctrine of the Trinity are false spirits.
Well, sorry to say, but that rules out a great percentage of people who claim to be walking and talking with God.
But lets move beyond all this “relationship” talk in the first place, because it’s not the starting point in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is a teacher; we are students. What sort of “relationship” is that? Probably not the one many have in mind.
Jesus is a teacher. The crowds were coming to hear Him preach, and He taught them. He didn’t give them therapy. He didn’t whisper sweet nothings into their ears. He didn’t give them a motivational seminar. He didn’t yield His time to the praise band. He. Taught. Them.
He was dogmatician. If anything, the past several weeks should demonstrate that there is some deep, doctrinal theology going on in Jesus’ teachings in Luke, just as there was in John. There are teachings about grace and faith, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the nature of God, forgiveness and mercy, table fellowship, and worship. He taught it all, and the response of sinners two weeks ago and the people in this weeks’ Gospel tells us a lot of the nature of His teaching: they pressed against Him to hear Him. Why? Because He taught with authority. Because His Word was God’s Word. Because, though they were not subtle like St. John to put it this way, He is the Word made flesh.
Christianity is a head religion, not a heart relationship. “It’s not an either/or,” some will say. But it’s not that it’s not an either/or. It’s that, according to the constructs set up to make this dichotomous statement, the constructs so many set up, the “heart relationship” is actually just wrong. Because it’s Gnostic. It’s an attempt to downplay words and teachings and dogmas and ordered thought at the expense of intuitions of the heart, feelings, emotions, sensibilities, and a more “artistic” reception of the divine. But if that’s the dichotomy set up, then we have to side with the former. Jesus is a teacher. The Holy Spirit is a teacher. He conveys truth by means of organized thought, spoken words, rationally arranged teaching.
Of course, what is learned in the head is embraced by the heart. And of course, given the faith of infants and the infirm, we have to adjust what we mean by “learned in the head,” but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Christianity is at heart a teaching, something conveyed by catechesis.
Unfortunately, many congregations, sensing that the culture has drifted away from learning doctrine and is more interested in “feeling their faith,” have curtailed catechesis. But where are the persons pressing to hear Jesus? Where are the persons who can’t get enough of learning Jesus’ teachings?
Which brings up another point. When a congregation teaches, are they teaching Jesus’ words? How often is the church’s teaching nothing more than “Bible teaching” or teaching about finances, or teaching about “Biblical principles”? How often does a sermon have no reference even to Jesus or His words from the Gospel?
I have experienced this far too many times, and that is unfortunate. Jesus is a teacher. He’s the Teacher. He’s called rabbi, which means “teacher.” And His disciples are they who press about Him to hear Him teach. They press about Him because He is a Savior, which maybe tells us a reason why people aren’t interested in learning from the Gospels, or learning from Jesus’ words. Perhaps they are not sinners needing a Savior.
But where there are sinners, there are people pressing about to hear Jesus teach.