Years ago John Stott’s book, Christ the Controversialist, caught my attention. He put into words what I was finding in my regular tours through the Bible: Jesus, though gracious and loving, always produced chaos as he rejected the status quo.
He was, for instance, deeply spiritual yet without being either a Stoic or a mystic—both popular options in his day. Stoic spirituality revolved around logic and discipline. Yet the passionate Jesus strode through the villages and towns of 1st century Palestine with a life-changing love; offering transformation to all through a devoted love for his Father.
Nor did Jesus display the mystical spirituality of a monastic cell, circular mazes, or chanted prayers. Christ’s devotion to his Father was, instead, wholly dynamic: he knocked over money-tables in the temple, proclaimed woes against the arrogant educators of his day, and stared down the priestly leaders and the Roman rulers on his way to the cross.
In his prayers we find a man sweating drops of blood as he wrestled with the mission the Father had given him; and as a passionate caregiver he boldly called for his Father to protect and grow the beloved ones he had been given. He quickly interrupted a much-needed retreat with his apostles in order to feed his throngs of needy followers. He regularly irritated the religious figures of his day by using the Sabbath as a day to heal any lame, blind, or hurting people who came his way.
The obvious question, then, is what has happened to this lively, wonderful, and compelling Jesus? Is he at all present in today’s “Christendom”?
Perhaps here and there. But I’m afraid that for too many people he has been turned into an iconic figure whose main role is to bless our church growth campaigns and to promote petty ambitions for power, wealth, and wisdom. And with that he has been reduced to the status of a beggar looking around for someone willing to wear his name.
I think, for instance, of some of the heart-numbing choices made today that make him into such a modest figure.
Jesus called us to “abide in my word” but today we find churches promoting options to nibble at his word for a few minutes a day, if at all. Jesus also warned the self-glory-driven educators of his day to dump their doctoral robes in the nearest bin and to stop using their status-based titles; yet today even Bible colleges flaunt academic regalia and ask faculty members to bear their labels of “professor” or “doctor” of this and that.
In another realm, we treat self-indulgent entertainments as the highlight of a given day or week while ignoring those around us who would prosper if they were offered a shared meal or a thoughtful conversation—the sort of meals and conversations Jesus once freely offered.
And sexuality is too often treated as a passing stimulant rather than a sacred gift meant only for marriage; and biblical marriages are increasingly rare while serial marriages multiply. Jesus, by contrast, was devoted to purifying his bride, the church, as a faithful groom.
In too many cases we find a trajectory away from Christ, not towards him, not just in days of old, but also in our present day. And the Bible begins to sound like so much nonsense to those who have walked away from him.
But Jesus is still the powerful yet compassionate God-man who once walked among us with enormous presence and power. And his ways are utterly disruptive to any whose loves are misdirected.
So, is he still controversial? I certainly hope he is!