OK, it’s not just Episcopalians who say this one; it has gained a life of its own in several quarters. And the trope (most familiar as a social-media meme) has several variations. The default variant seems to be “Things Jesus Never Said.” It even has its own Twitter account. Under #JesusNeverSaid (or @ThingsJesusNeverSaid) is a characterization of a recognizable but disastrously errant — laughably errant — vision of the Christian religion.
To judge from the proliferation of variants, there is a lot of laughable (or is it contemptible?) Christianity out there. Catholic memesters remind us that #JesusNeverSaid, “He who eats this symbol of my flesh and drinks this symbol of my blood shall have eternal life. For my flesh is symbolic food, and my blood is symbolic drink” (silly Protestants).
Progressives remind us that #JesusNeverSaid, “Love your neighbor, except if they are gay/lesbian/tattooed/pierced/mixed-race/atheist” (damned homophobes).
Cultural conservatives also get in on the act: #JesusNeverSaid, “After lunch we should march in a parade together so you can show your pride in your sins” (damned gays).
This is an equal-opportunity meme. Everyone is indicted, save for Jesus.
The first two or three times I saw it ten years ago, it struck me as clever and incisive; provided that the right villains were lampooned, it appealed to my well-tuned sense of indignation. What could be more heartening than the presumption, here self-evident, that the Christian religion and its adherents can be judged by a singular criterion?
Am I alone in seeing the launch of a new bumper sticker? Jesus didn’t say it. I don’t believe it. That settles it. A little apophatic neo-fundamentalism could fund a new ecumenism.
That was the first few times. The last two or three hundred variations are just tired and spent — a lazy way to make a point.
#ThingsJesusNeverSaid is not the only version. There is the simpler Jesus never …, which if capable of running the same rhetorical errand evinces a greater flexibility. If #ThingsJesusNeverSaid is always derisive, Jesus never … can do that, but could also be ruefully hopeful. I think, in fact, that is the point of the meme below, which recently made the rounds on the newsfeeds of a good number of reflective practitioners.
The denial that “Jesus never asked anyone to form a church” is obviously problematic. All Bible readers of all stripes will remember that, well, it says he did actually tell Peter that “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18; cf. Matt. 18:17). Yet the denial has the better part of the guild of New Testament scholarship behind it, where it is frequently doubted that those Matthean words, absent in the synoptic parallels, go back to the Jesus of history. There’s no space to replay that debate here, save for two observations:
First, yes, most assuredly, Jesus (the “historical” one) “never asked anyone to form a church,” if by that we mean a new religion in contradistinction to Israel and Judaism, the religious institution with all its trappings. Almost as certainly, however, Jesus (the “historical” one) was forming a renewal qahal (Hebrew “assembly” = Greek ekklēsia = [for better or worse] English “church”) as an alternative to the aspiring nation-state and temple cult then on offer.
Second, if we are going to engage in the sort of skepticism that denies that Jesus had any communal aspirations, then fairness would demand that we extend the same to the Mandatum of John 13:34-35: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Not only is the command singularly attested in the Fourth Gospel (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17), it is a rather distinctively Johannine sentiment (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 1:5). If we’re going to do our business that way, Jesus never … becomes a capacious category indeed.
But this meme — like other Jesus never … memes — is not about biblical criticism, even if it might pretend to take recourse there. There is a purer aspiration. It puts words to an embarrassment. Surely Jesus must have meant for something better than the Church with its sordid history, its loveless divisions, and for the countless ways it contributes so generously to the world’s sorrows — all the worse for its vaunted claims and the immodesty of its self-importance. We want to be a “Jesus movement,” and we’re a church instead. It’s disappointing. And we want to save Jesus from the embarrassment of this having been his idea, much less the best he can do at this point. He can do better, by which we mean “we can do better.”
And maybe we should. But we won’t “do better” by making lazy and dubious claims about what “Jesus never” said or did. It would be better, wouldn’t it, if instead we embraced what Jesus said and did — or were embraced by it. And, lacking a better alternative, we might even embrace a Jesus mediated to us in the texts of the community he founded.
If we do, we’ll find that Jesus came bearing the kingdom of God in word and deed. It is unlikely that we will ever escape the embarrassment of belonging to this community (a.k.a. “church”) whose singular membership qualification is to be a baptized sinner. But if it is aspiration we seek, we can scarcely do better than join ourselves to this same community (a.k.a. “church”) that
is the bearer to all the nations of a gospel that announces the kingdom, the reign, and the sovereignty of God … call[ing] men and women to repent of their false loyalty to other powers, to become believers in the one true sovereignty, and so to become corporately a sign, instrument, and foretaste of that sovereignty of the one true and living God over all nature, all nations, and all human lives.
Jesus never said it better himself.
- “Things Episcopalians say (1): ‘Not literally.’ Seriously?” (Feb. 23, 2015).
- “Things Episcopalians say (2): ‘You don’t have to check your brain at the door‘” (April 28, 2015).
- “Things Episcopalians say (3): ‘Jesus Movement’” (May 13, 2016).
The featured image is Ivan Kramskoi’s “Christ in the Wilderness” (1871). It is in the public domain.