I first heard the joke sitting around a campfire at Pathfinder Lodge, a Baptist camp near Cooperstown, N.Y.
“The good news is that Jesus is back.”
“What’s the bad news?”
This sounded dangerously impious to seventh graders and the counselor’s silent disapproval was accentuated by the snapping firewood and the gyres of sparks in the humid darkness. The censorious face of a counselor looks satanic in the red glow so we’d cautiously tongue our smores until the evening ended with choruses of kum-bah-yah and we could escape to our tents. There, we’d repeat the hazardous joke and squeal with laughter.
Of course, the Jesus-is-back-and-mad joke pales in comparison to other eighth grade anecdotes designed to bring kids up to speed on important issues of sex and scatology. I remember an older kid had us on the verge peeing our pants with his story about an inarticulate Baptist preacher who encouraged seventh graders to set aside their spare change for Jesus and accidentally said nipples instead of nickels.
There were other stories of high hilarity that became anecdotal sign posts for our coming of age. I’d like to look back on them and report I no longer find them funny. But all of them are funny, just not repeatable in church settings. Which, of course, is what makes them funny.
The one joke that never loses its humor over the years is the Jesus is back joke. Jesus is back and he’s furious.
Actually, this is more a hermeneutic than a joke. It’s a brief, two-part sermon with yawning theological depth.
It forces us to ask ourselves: what is there in our world to gladden the heart of a returning savior?
Certainly if Jesus came back this morning he would be enraged by our rigid inability to put his greatest commandment into practice: love God and love your neighbor. As I write, the U.S. government is shut down because politicians have reached an impasse over many issues, including whether persons from other countries - among them, if you will pardon my soaring presidential rhetoric, shithole countries - should be welcomed to our shores and allowed to stay.
It would be a mistake to think Jesus is neutral about this brazen desecration of the great commandment.
We might glance wistfully at pastel portrayals of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” on our Sunday school walls, the Jesus who tiptoes through the tulips with his entourage of happy children and docile lambs, and tell ourselves that anger is beneath him.
But scripture makes it plain that Jesus had a temper that he could unleash with a righteous fury in the face of ignorance and hate. He scorned the self-important scribes as poseurs who “devour widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47). He denounced Pharisees and Lawyers as “full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39), called them hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13), “blind guides,” “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16, 17), castigated them as “brood of vipers” and asked how they could escape being sentenced to hell (Matthew 23:33). He condemned whole villages that rejected him, and predicted an intolerable judgment that would drag them en masse to hell (Luke 10:15). Most famously, he physically drove the money changers out of the temple, calling them “robbers” (Mark 11:17, Matthew 21:12-13).
Who, then, would escape the fury of Jesus?
We might figure that out by looking at the types of persons Jesus hung around with, some of whom are specifically named and others inferred: Pharisees (there were some he liked), tax collectors, officers of the despised Roman occupation, poor people, blind people, lepers, thieves, scoundrels, whores, adulterers, idolaters, homosexuals, and Samaritans (e.g., persons perceived as having an intolerable religion akin to Muslims, Sikhs or Buddhists). When Jesus returns, we can be sure he will not waste time delineating between undocumented aliens and Mayflower descendants. But he will certainly be pissed if he finds us arguing over which of us is legal and which is not.
Some scholars, including Garry Wills (What Jesus Meant, Viking, 2006), contend Jesus was also a feminist because he talked to women, intervened when they were under attack, enlisted them as apostles, and made a point of appearing first to a woman after his resurrection.
And who made Jesus angry? The rich, the powerful, the upper classes, the religious elite, anyone who posed as superior to or exercised power over the persons Jesus loved most.
It’s a fair guess that when Jesus returns he will be angriest at the staunchly ignorant and hateful: persons who deem themselves to be in a higher class than others, persons who deem themselves to be a superior race, white supremacists who sing songs of hate that invite other ignoramuses to join the battle against people of color, or – the list is interminable – Westboro Baptist Church and its insane homophobia. (Perhaps you’ve seen the widely posted sermonette on social media: “Live your life in such a way that Westboro Baptist Church will want to picket your funeral.”)
Some haters are so whack that Jesus might actually take their dysfunction into consideration. He might be inclined to cut the incredibly ignorant some slack because, well, because of their incredible ignorance. In my more generous moments, I’m inclined to think this category might include our current president and his unChristian cabal of followers.
But would the rest of us be so fortunate?
Jesus has taught us to love one another unconditionally, as God loves each of us. That does make you worry how Jesus will react to the vast majority of us Christians who can’t quite manage to love one another. For most of us, one of life’s greatest challenges is to tolerate persons we can’t stand.
In my years as a church and newspaper journalist, I had ample opportunities to observe and participate in activities that must have angered Jesus.
I’ve seen congregations split for all sorts of reasons, most of them stemming from the inability of members to “live in love, as Christ loved us” (Ephesians 5:2). Of course churches come apart at the seams over issues of theology or pastoral leadership, but they have also divided over the color of paint in the sanctuary, the style of choir gowns, the artistic quality of banners, the timing of potluck suppers, the casting of the Christmas pageant, the animals chosen for the crèche, and the temperature of the coffee.
Some of these childish divisions might actually make Jesus smile. Other foibles of human behavior may be less amusing and more destructive, such as family feuds, relationship betrayals, vicious gossip, rumor mongering, jealousy, office treachery, and condescension toward all.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the rowdy Christians at Ephesus, summarized rules for behavior based on the simple command to love one another:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:29-32)These are familiar words about niceness, but what if we take them seriously? If this is the standard of Christian behavior Jesus expects, the joke takes on deeper meaning: Jesus is back, and he’s mad.
If you generalize this standard of behavior to recent human history, it gets worse. Let’s pick an arbitrary date that has special interest to Americans and Europeans: 1492. That was ostensibly the year the Americas were discovered by European sailors with a missionary zeal to bring the aboriginal peoples to Christ. On the island of Hispaniola, 90 percent of native Tainos were dead by 1519 because the European Christians brought them the gifts of small pox and slavery. Somehow the Christians, who reputedly traveled with their bibles, missed the bit about being kind to one another.
The year 1492 was also the year Rodrigo Borgia was elected Pope Alexander VI, beginning a reign so licentious that it inspired two cable mini-series that capitalized on his sexual libertinism, brazen nepotism, and Machiavellian machinations. Although an actual portrait of Pope Borgia casts doubt that his sexual favors were much in demand, he spawned a murderous brood, including his poisonous daughter Lucretia and sons Cesare and Juan, both popular candidates for anti-christ. What bible were they reading?
As time went on, the concept of divine right of kings had effectively squashed any notion of Christian kindness. Henry VIII (1509-1547), after defying the church to divorce two wives who bored him and execute two more who annoyed him, tried to win back God’s favor by making it a capital offense to believe the Eucharistic host was merely bread. Perhaps these out-of-control megalomaniacs had already formed in their minds the excuse Dostoyevsky posited in Crime and Punishment (1866): that God placed some humans so far above their fellows that they need not adhere to biblical standards of behavior. It worked for Napoleon (1769-1841) but, as any literature major knows, not for Raskolnikov. (Read the book.) And don’t get me started on former President Robert Mugabe, the iron-fisted and homicidal dictator of Zimbabwe who began his address to the 1998 Harare Assembly of the World Council of Churches, “Christian sisters and brothers.”
But there’s no point to trying to name history’s worst Christians. The list has no end, and there are days when it includes me.
So I contend the case is adequately made to support this theological syllogism:
Jesus is coming; Jesus is mad.
So what are we going to do when the trumpet sounds up yonder? Hide?
My instinct is to recall those moments of my youth (and perhaps a little older than my youth) when I realized I had really screwed up. I had broken a rule so fundamental, so inviolable, that no forgiveness was possible.
Dare I confess it? When I was 17, I stole my father’s tractor to haul some discarded wood beams across town to a small cave, where my spelunking pals and I thought we could build a wooden doorway.
It didn’t work. The entrance to this cave was pure mud and bats, and no amount of lumber was going to change that. So we packed up the wagon and I drove the tractor home.
There, waiting for me at the top of the hill, was Dad. He waited for me with a red but expressionless face.
Jesus is back and he’s mad? Big deal. This was serious. This was my dad, and he was clearly pissed. My impulse was to run. Maybe Dad’s impulse was to slap me upside the face, which – truth be told – would have been justified.
But what I remember about this incident, in addition to the horror of being caught, is that it ended okay. He didn’t kill me. He didn’t slap me upside the face. He just gave me one of those sad, disappointed looks that I remember to this day: the look of a father who loved me so much that his disappointment in my bad behavior was more painful for him than for me.
That, I suspect, is the kind of anger with which Jesus is returning. He’ll be mad. He’ll be hurt at our behavior. But his love for us will be the same.
Henry M. Nouwen wrote:
“Jesus’ whole life was a witness to his Father's love, and Jesus calls his followers to carry on that witness in his Name. We, as followers of Jesus, are sent into this world to be visible signs of God’s unconditional love. Thus we are not first of all judged by what we say but by what we live. When people say of us: ‘See how they love one another,’ they catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced and are drawn to it as by a magnet.”It’s not going to be easy. There are still going to be people we can’t stand. There are still temptations we can’t ignore. There is still the potential that we will make terrible mistakes, errors that will make Jesus mad.
But “in a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred,” Nouwen writes, “We have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds.”
Jesus is coming, and Jesus is mad – very mad.
But may Jesus take some comfort in our futile efforts to “put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander … and to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven us.”
May Jesus take some comfort in our futile efforts to be seekers of sometimes impossible standards, to be members of a tiny sleeper cell of love amid all the hatred and cruelty and pain that surrounds us.