In a hilarious episode of The Simpsons called “Missionary Impossible,” Homer pledges ten thousand dollars to PBS and is generally credited for saving the television network. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Homer does not have the money, prompting a mob of characters and personalities from various PBS shows to chase him through the streets.
He hides out in the First Church of Springfield and bargains with Reverend Lovejoy who, despite Homer’s obvious lack of Christian faith or understanding, packs him off as a missionary to the South Pacific. Just as the plane is about to take off, Homer shows his utter ignorance when he anxiously exclaims, “Jeebus? Jeebus? But I don’t know Jeebus! Helllp me Jeebus!” Homer arrives on the island where he meets the natives. At first he is so fearful that he’s about to be eaten for dinner, he drops to the ground crying “Oh God!” repeatedly. The natives take him for a religious mystic and so they too fall to the ground crying out to God.
Emboldened by his new status as spiritual guru, Homer begins trying to teach them about religion, but realizing that he knows nothing about it, he tries something new. While the natives were noble savages ignorant of and unspoiled by civilization, Homer decides to build a casino on the island, which he names “The Lucky Savage.” This introduces alcohol, gambling, and violence to the island and totally ruins the natives’ previously virtuous way of life. We start with this story because it highlights the impact of how ignorance of Jesus by those who claim his name is toxic to both the believer as well as those around him or her. Following “Jeebus,” Homer wreaked utter havoc on the population, and we are left wondering if this does not describe large tracts of Christian history equally well.
Now we of all people do not want to say that God doesn’t use the odd Homers of this world (we think the church should be a freak collection and that God does use weirdos of all sorts), but it does highlight the fact that the missional disciple must know God in a real way or else bear false witness. And given our previously mentioned commitment to a distinctly missional form of Christianity, this will highlight some of the ways ignorance of Jesus (willful or otherwise) creates a toxic religion that is not only not worth spreading, but detrimental to the cause of Christ. God Is Like Jesus The first and absolutely most foundational thing we can say about missional discipleship is that it must be based squarely on the founder of the Christian faith—Jesus the Messiah.
And while this might seem obvious, one can easily be excused for not being able to recognize anything approximating Jesus in some of the people who claim his name. This discontinuity between Jesus and the religion that claims his name, what Jacques Ellul calls the “subversion of Christianity,” has led countless people to say with political humorist Bill Maher, “I don’t know anyone less Jesus-like than most Christians.” It also prompted researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons to write a book called unChristian , which is based on what most non-Christian twenty-somethings said about so-called Christians. 1 Jesus is the key not only because Christian discipleship is about becoming more like Jesus but also because it is only in and through Jesus that we can get the proper, truly Christ an understanding of God. In other words, Jesus gets defining rights in relation to life, discipleship, theology, and everything in between.
Not only is he the mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5), he is the prism through which we can and must understand God (Col. 1:9–21, Heb. 1:1–3). New Testament scholar Albert Nolan is quite right when he states, By his words and practice, Jesus himself changed the content of the word “God.” If we do not allow him to change our image of God, we will not be able to say that he is our Lord and our God. To choose him as our God is to make him the source of our information about divinity and to refuse to superimpose upon him our own ideas of divinity.
This is the meaning of the traditional assertion that Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus reveals God to us; God does not reveal Jesus to us. . . . We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must deduce everything about God from what we do know about Jesus. . . . To say that Jesus is divine does not change our understanding of Jesus; it changes our understanding of divinity. Reclaiming the centrality of Jesus will help us avoid the perennial mistake of superimposing upon the life and personality of Jesus our preconceived ideas of what God is supposed to be like.
N. T. Wright affirms this when he says, "My proposal is not that we know what the word “god” means, and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that. Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross—and we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be recentered around that point."
Jesus is, and must be, the central reference point for the Christian because God looks like Jesus and Jesus does what God wants to do! (See John 10:38, 12:49–50.) We love Greg Boyd’s wonderful description of this: Jesus spent his ministry freeing people from evil and misery. This is what God seeks to do . Jesus wars against spiritual forces that oppress people and resist God’s good purposes.
This is what God does . Jesus loved people others rejected—even people who rejected him. This is how God loves . Jesus had nothing but compassion for people who were afflicted by sin, disease, and tragedy. This is how God feels . And Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, suffering in the place of sinful humanity, defeating sin and the devil, because he passionately loves people and wants to reconcile them to God. This is how God saves . It is true that Jesus is like God, but the greater truth, one closer to the revelation of God that Jesus ushers in, is that God is like Jesus!
As Michael Ramsey, the former Anglican archbishop, noted, “God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” Or as Jesus says when asked to show his credentials, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” and “I and the Father are one” (John 14:9; 10:30). We Become What We Worship Focusing our discipleship on Jesus forces us to take seriously the implications of following him, of becoming like him . . . like God. The spiritual agenda for discipleship is thus set: Jesus is our primary model, teacher, guide, savior, and Lord. He is the standard by which we assess discipleship and spirituality. And we must become living versions of him—little Jesuses. So, if we want to know what God is like, we need to look no further than the person of Jesus Christ.
Now while this may seem like an incredibly obvious thing to say, it is staggering how few of us really integrate this most fundamental of truths into our lives. Recently one of us was reminded of this reality when attending a local Bible study. The group was studying a book on the character and attributes of God. The leader of the group was asking whether God was knowable, and if so, how we can really know him. The participants were caught up by the “otherness” and “awesomeness” of God experienced in worship, and seemed to sit more comfortably talking about this.
When the leader pushed for more specifics, one person mentioned creation and then another the Scriptures, but no one seemed to be able to go further. It wasn’t until the study leader stated that it was Jesus who shows us who God is, and that we know God in and through him, that the people seemed to make the connection. What is interesting is that these highly intelligent, mature men and women had been going to church most of their lives, and yet they missed this primary fact—the Jesus factor. That there is a radical disconnect between God and Jesus for many believers, as illustrated in the story above, shouldn’t surprise us. For most people it is far easier to sit with the “otherness” of God—we prefer our divinity at a safe distance.
But while God’s transcendence does, and should, instill feelings of awe and a desire to worship within us, it does not immediately show us a way to follow . We see God or read about him and stand in awe. But what then are we supposed to do besides worship and adore him? When confronted with the reality of God in Jesus, God in human flesh, God is no longer beyond and unfathomable, but immediate and present. He has come close to us, and his claim on our lives becomes somewhat more unavoidable.
And that.... was the whole point of the incarnation.
- Excerpt from Untamed by Alan and Debra Hirsch