For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Romans 8:38, 39
What happens for us and in us through Christ has two sides to it: in Christ we find God, and we find ourselves in Christ. This is the true God: the one who in Christ takes the way of suffering to the point of death on the cross, so as to reconcile this faithless and torn world to himself; the one who takes on himself death in profoundest forsakenness so as to comfort all the forsaken through his love; the one who becomes poor so as to make the poor rich. In Christ, God himself comes to us and reconciles us with himself. And that is our true self: our sins, which cut us off from the source, the wellspring of life, are forgiven. Our enmity is overcome. God reconciles us, and we are reconciled. God loves us, and we are beloved.
-Jurgen Moltmann From his book, Jesus Christ For Today’s World
What difference does Jesus make?
There are a few ways to pose the question.
I recall a sermon I heard when I was a teenager. The preacher asked the congregation: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? At the time, I heard the question in a shaming way, but I’ve held on to it anyway, as a way of personal spiritual assessment. What is the evidence? Has it all made any difference?
A few years later, when I served as rector, I remember a speaker who framed the question this way: If your church disappeared from your community, would the community notice it was gone?
Last week, one of my spiritual guides, Dwight Zscheile, Professor at Luther Seminary, spoke to a group of us about cultivating communities of hope. He put the question this way: What difference does Jesus make?
It was a way of asking us to explore our core identity as a church, the community committed to following Jesus. He noted all kinds of reasons people come to church: the joy of social connection, aesthetics like music and art, a vehicle for good works in the community, satisfying performances akin to an interesting lecture or swell concert. All good things. But are they at the core? How are they distinct from other offerings available in our culture?
He said that the core is revealed in the 8th chapter of Romans, where Paul affirms that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, a love that will not let us go, a love that meets the longings and losses we face. The core is transforming grace. When that love is embraced, it answers the question about the difference Jesus makes.
There are various ways to express the same question. You may have other variations in mind. Basically it asks why we do what we do. Why do we commit time, talent and treasure to a spiritual community? What does it have to do with hope? How do we come to see a difference in our lives? How do we participate in making a difference in our world?
I read a recent interview with another one of my spiritual guides, Marian Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington. It’s an interesting time for that job, for sure. The article noted that the good bishop has not been shy in calling for policies that reflect Jesus’ call to care for the least of these.
For her, that has involved listening to Jesus, following Jesus, and not simply depicting the Jesus of our own choosing. In other words, letting Jesus make the difference in us. She said that if your Jesus always agrees with your politics, you’re probably not reading deeply enough into Jesus. At the same time, she does not believe that justice and societal issues are optional for clergy. They are embedded in our faith. And she admits that it doesn’t matter how articulate a bishop is if she doesn’t have behind her strong vibrant congregations who are making a difference in their communities.
Making a difference. In Bishop Budde’s words, it’s about leading with Jesus. That means to me allowing Jesus to make a difference in our lives. That will look different for each of us. Bishop Budde’s context, her vocation leads her on a certain path in these extraordinary times for our church and nation. Yours and mine will reflect our own context, our own vocation.
But wherever and whoever we are, we are called to ask on this Monday morning: What does leading with Jesus look like for us this week? What difference does Jesus make in our lives? What difference does it make in our church? Is there evidence of any transformation? If our church went away, would anyone notice?
Not bad questions to ponder as Lent approaches. Maybe you can prepare for that holy season with thoughts and prayers about these questions, however they are framed for us, however they touch our hearts.