(also published on Episcopal cafe)
I have been teaching in a forum series locally on the theme “Why Be a Christian,” and in the course of that I’ve been digging a little deeper into Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s efforts to call the Episcopal Church back to our identity as a “Jesus movement,” even as I’ve been surprised and a little dismayed by many “liberal” Episcopalians who confess they have “trouble with the Jesus part.”
When I teach about Christian spirituality I often remind people that at least in the historical tradition, when Christians talk about “following Jesus” they mean not only following precepts of a great Wisdom teacher, which Jesus certainly was, historically, but about following and knowing the post-Resurrection Jesus, experiencing the holy through our experience of the Living Christ who promised to be with us always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)
But I think that Episcopalians and others who identify as mainline Protestants or “progressives” have been shy about Jesus-language, largely because of the way that self-identified conservative Evangelicals have emphasized as normative a “belief in Jesus Christ as personal Savior”, but tying that to a highly individualistic theology that tends to emphasize personal salvation from damnation, fear of judgment, and conformity to community norms that are considered “Biblical” through a fundamentalist lens.
A watchword of “liberal” Christianity, beginning with Harry Emerson Fosdick and picked up by Verna Dozier and Bishop Michael Curry among others, is that we need to learn to “follow Jesus, not worship Him.” I would be on board with this if we added “follow Jesus, not just worship Him,” but my experience tells me that the energy that allows us to follow Jesus’s teachings comes from a more mysterious place that the tradition has named as the work of the Holy Spirit or as the encounter with the Living Christ. We not only follow the teachings of our great Wisdom Teacher; we seek to be empowered, through prayer, worship, and spiritual practice, by the God who desires New Life for all of Creation, who was Incarnate in Jesus. We are called both to follow Jesus and to worship together, to embrace the mystery of the divine life, in which His story invites all Creation to participate. This is what our sacramental tradition affirms when we call ourselves “living members of our. . . Savior Jesus Christ” - sent “to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord”) as our prayer book has it (BCP. 365-6).
As I explored “Jesus movements” of the 20th century I came to realize that I myself am a product of the revival of a Jesus-focus that we saw in the US in the 1960’s and 1970s, expressed in the “Jesus people” of hippie culture, in the charismatic revivals in the Roman and Episcopal churches, in the strengthening of movements like Intervarsity and Campus Crusade for Christ, and also – strikingly – in movements like Sojourners and Call to Renewal that persist in tapping the energy of the Living Christ to build “base communities” dedicated to the service of the poor and work for social justice.
Looking at “Jesus movements” in the Christian tradition, we can see that across the political spectrum, times of revival have come with the invitation to embrace a relationship with the Living Christ. So the progressively oriented Social Gospel movement of the turn of the 20th century was powered in part by the question “What would Jesus do?” – a question nourished by deeply personal prayer. Jesuit spirituality invites companionship with Jesus as we discern our path for life, and Franciscan spirituality embraces the God of Creation incarnate in the humble Child, calling Christians to a life of following Jesus that embraces Poverty of Spirit. These are spiritual traditions that have been available to what our culture labels as “liberal” or “progressive” politics – but the Church often seems disconnected from these rich resources in our tradition, even when the words of our liturgy and hymnody invoke them.
I think we Episcopalians and liberal Protestants have become shy about embracing a relationship with the Living Christ because we have ceded language about “following Jesus” – even the word “discipleship”-- to the theological discourse of American fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. And the reasons for this divide have deeper theological and cultural roots that I’ve uncovered in looking at my own journey of faith, which is very much “Jesus centered” though I’ve often been shy about using that language in Episcopalian circles: I want us to get over this shyness. But here’s my story. My testimony, if you will.
I came into the Episcopal Church as a young adult in the mid-1970s, playing my guitar for the student chapter service at St. John’s Northampton, on the campus of Smith College. I learned not only the early folk masses of Ian Mitchell (now largely forgotten) but also many of the songs that energized my evangelical friends who attended the Thursday Eucharist and were also active in Campus Crusade for Christ. In fact, part of what drew me back to active involvement in Church was the way I experienced, in one of my evangelical friends, a person who clearly lived into and took great joy in an ongoing, prayerful relationship with Jesus. Just being in her presence was transformative. We differed theologically on a lot of things (I’ll get to that in a minute) but there was a core experience that attracted me, and that I came to find in the celebrations of Eucharist at St. John’s – affirmed in the new liturgical language that we were using and in the conversations we had in small groups about what this all meant for our lives. But it was about experience at first, not doctrine or belief. And that experience was about Jesus, though because of the excesses of my Evangelical friends I gradually became more shy about claiming my experience in that language. Luckily the Eucharistic prayers named it every time and gave me language that worked for me.