For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,
—Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV
Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.
—John 14:21, NIV
Christian scholars exist to compile, interpret, discuss, explain, and compare early witnesses and each other. But scholars are of secondary importance, since our faith is founded on a historical event, and with the historicity of that event all Christendom stands or falls. The writers of the New Testament themselves noted this precarious situation. Paul stated only decades after the resurrection that only two things are possible: either Jesus rose from the grave or He didn’t. If Jesus rose again, His claims are true. If He did not, He does not warrant our attention, let alone our worship. If Jesus did not rise, then no amount of theological or spiritual or scholarly thinking; no demythologization or tradition or footnotes; no mysticism, no rationalism, no pietism, no prayer, no social action nor political advocacy in His name will do us any good. If Jesus did not rise from the grave, liberal theology is a joke and conservative theology is a delusion.
It is easier, and far more respectable, to bury the problem in ecclesiastical busywork. We take on socially acceptable causes. Embarrassed by the smelly armpits of our beginning, we refuse the man Jesus the dignity of a personal name by referring to Him only with His job title, the Christ. Finally we spiritualize Him to a vaguely vaporous non-entity called a Christ Event. Where Jesus once instigated our faith, the Christ Event merely exemplifies it. Our attempt to become more dignified and more respectable leads us to the brink of denying the historical personage upon whom our faith is based, and we ludicrously pull the rug out from under our own feet!
It troubles us to ponder the existence and vitality of our God, so we turn away from seeking Him in the events of our lives. Or perhaps we do not seek Him because we fear He might be there! Jesus on the cross offends our sensitivities and our sense of decorum, so we run hard in the opposite direction. We find Him hidden in a thousand guises, all elusive and allegorical. Scripture is our excuse. Jesus taught us that our behavior towards others is our behavior towards Him. The apostles taught us that the Spirit of the Lord dwells among us. We have rightly learned to serve the Lord in serving others and to perceive Him in people around us; but we have wrongly concluded that these are the only ways in which we will ever see or serve Him.
Christian social action, political advocacy, good works of any kind that exist without an inner, direct and mystical perception of God is like baking bread without lighting the pilot light. It smells bad, and nothing turns out right. We obey our hearts out, but we have never seen nor heard our Master—we even believe that we can never see or hear Him. Our life is a frantic struggle to obey without hearing the Master’s commands, to serve without seeing the object of our devotion. James said that faith without works is dead; but Paul was also right when he said that works without faith is just busywork. Neither mystic nor activist would find much comfort there. What good is a mystic who hears, but does not obey? What good is an activist who obeys without ever hearing the Master? One listens with his hands tied behind his back, the other works with a blindfold and earplugs.
What is Christian activism? What is Christian obedience? Jesus commanded us to love the unlovely, to befriend the friendless, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to serve the undeserving, to forgive the unworthy, to visit the imprisoned, and to heal the sick. How often do we assert that our faith is a lifestyle? Whoever heard of a lifestyle that is carried out only by committees! Let us then be personally holy, and not just corporately holy.
It is ironic! The liberals chide the conservatives for their blind faith, then they put earplugs in before they serve. If one is blind to reason, the other is deaf to God. Despite their bragging and bickering, they both land in the ditch!
If you preach that people should clothe the naked and feed the hungry, will they not all applaud your view, though they will not lift a finger to do it? Some have noted that all people of all religious persuasions will give at least lip service to this sort of thing, and they prattle the nonsensical drivel that all religions are the same. All religions are similar in this manner, and to this degree they are all ineffectual as well.
However, if you say, “Jesus loves me and He commanded me to clothe and feed and serve,” you put yourself on the line. Now you must have a personal tale to tell, without the protection of liturgy or scholarly tradition. When you say, “Jesus loves me,” you affirm a mystical experience in your devotional life, and place yourself at the mercy of those whose spiritual blindness leads them to scorn and ridicule you. When you say, “Jesus loves me,” you have to have a solid experiential basis for this unpopular proclamation. We all know that the eyewitnesses are cross-examined more thoroughly than the expert friend of the court, that is why we prefer the role of scholar to convert.
Our Master is not a scholar. He does not defend His actions and teachings with the majority of scholarly opinion. He does not do good deeds for their own sake, but to prove the validity of His claims. He lets the scholars who follow Him figure out a theology to describe Him. Consequently, we who call ourselves Christians cannot escape our duty to obey our Master. We are compelled to seek Him, alive and breathing beneath the layers of tradition, beneath the burden of obfuscating theologians, below the pain of blind works without faith, and blind faith without works.
Before the mystical breaks into your life, you become fatigued in your social action, because you cannot see results or do not find collaboration. Much of what you do seems silly, so you dress it up and dignify it. Once you have seen His face, you will not tire in your labors, because you work to please your Master who may have grander plans than your apparent success or failure may belie. Those things that used to be silly become joyous and humorous.
If all your studies and scholarship and advocacy and service and obedience and experience; in short, if all your life is to have any meaning at all, then that simple, historical man named Jesus must have lived and died and risen again. And if He did, then what He taught is true. And if it is, you must have an experiential basis for saying “Jesus loves me” with the naiveté of a child and the conviction of an adult. For He promised to manifest Himself to those who truly love Him.
I challenge you to seek His face. He will not reveal His face except to those who are obedient. Therefore, obedience and mysticism are inseparable.
Let us therefore be neither liberal nor conservative, let us therefore be both mystic and activist, let us therefore hear His voice and obey His commands. Let us follow the Way, preach the Truth, and live the Life.