What I want from church: the Jesus of the Gospels

Jesus – The Prince of Peace (Akiane Kramarik)

I find it ironic that in the midst of the conversation about the undervalued and misunderstood role of women in the church, the church is often still characterized by preaching a message which is packaged in a more “female” way, and thus undervalues and misunderstands the call of both men and women to discipleship. What do I mean by this?
Why “female”, and why in inverted commas?

Our evangelism is characterized by a presentation of our felt needs: we are sinners in need of a Savior, guilty ones in need of pardon, lost ones in need of a Shepherd. The gospel is marketed towards our emotions. Our worship songs sometimes sing declarations of God’s majesty, but can also often tend towards the “Jesus is my boyfriend” lyrics, calling for us to declare “I’m so in love with you” “in this intimate place” – right in the middle of our corporate worship services. These refrains are uncomfortable for me, but all the more awkward for my 6’2″ husband who won’t even whisper “I love you” on the phone when he’s at work. Our ministries appeal for service help in the more “feminine” categories: welcoming, working in the nursery, teaching children’s church, providing snacks. Hospitality, children and food are not traditionally the areas where men sign up in their droves.

Church may be a place where (for many) there is a “masculine feel” in leadership, but I find the message and ministry of the church often have a distinctly feminine feel. If you ain’t the preacher or an elder, the opportunities for men are limited. Of course, my husband can change a diaper with the best of them, but in some nurseries men are not permitted to serve, and the bevy of faithful bible teachers who serve in children’s ministry remain predominantly female.

I wonder, though, if the feminine “feel” of our ministries doesn’t take its cue from the felt-needs-based way in which we pitch our message. Jesus is a comforter, a healer, a Savior. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, the suffering Servant, the loving rescuer.  That Jesus rightfully and perfectly holds all these titles is proof that those nurturing qualities do not belong exclusively to the female domain. Jesus IS the epitome of love, of care, of welcome.

However, as a woman who is a disciple myself, as a woman with a husband who wants to serve with the particular gifts God has given him, and as a woman who is raising sons and daughters: what I want from church is this – a robust preaching of the Jesus of the Gospels.

I want to hear about the Jesus who demanded loyalty, who commanded authority from storms, sinners and satanic forces, who said vexing and frustrating and wild things. I want to hear preaching which is not just faithful to His words but to His TONE: of comfort but also of rebuke, of welcome but also of warning. I want to hear His dares, His call to come and die, His challenge to make hard choices. I want the Jesus of the gospels who does not just meet our needs, but who calls us to bold and courageous adventure, to self-sacrifice, to taking risks. I want the Jesus who promises huge rewards for huge sacrifices, who embraces fiesty Peter and wayward Mary and touchy-feely John.

I want the Jesus who welcomed the little children, but also the Jesus with eyes like a flame of fire, with feet of burnished bronze and a sharp two-edged sword coming out of his mouth. Whatever that wild imagery means, I want to grapple with it. I want the Jesus who inspires my awe and calls forth my worship: a gospel from The Gospels. That’s the Jesus I want. That’s the Jesus I need: the one who is worthy of the honor, adoration and allegiance of men and women alike.

A few years back, Preston Yancey invited women to write guest posts on what they wanted from church. This was my post which ran on his blog. A reader recently asked me if I could help her find that piece, and it seems to have disappeared from the internet so I’m publishing it again here. And, just to say, since that time I’ve read Leslie Leyland Fields’ book Crossing the Waters, which is about as robust a dive into the wild, tender, authoritative, awesome Jesus of the gospels as I’ve ever come across (you can read an excerpt here). And it’s written by a woman 😉 

On Finding Aslan

If ever there was a thrilling way to read the Chronicles of Narnia, it is this: reading it aloud to your children. Snuggled up on the couch, reading it with my years of faith behind me and my daughter’s fresh pair of ears and vivid imagination – it is a wild ride of joy and discovery.

This is not the first time I am reading the Narnia series. Far from it. But this time I am experiencing a new, raw emotion as I read. As we journey through the pages and the drama, with enemies closing in, betrayal all around and the future unclear, I keep finding myself holding my breath: I just can’t wait for the lion to show up.

I find myself aching for Aslan’s arrival. Why does he not come sooner? Can’t he see the children are in trouble? I remember the stories generally well enough to know that he does always turn up, and that in hindsight it was always exactly the right moment – but as we read I find I’m LONGING for it. I’m flipping the pages, desperate for the narrative to declare his arrival.

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My heart literally beats faster when he finally arrives. I am struck once again at how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. He is breathtaking. I know it isn’t just me, either, because my 5-year old’s face shines with joyous awe when we get to the Aslan parts. She is my little Lucy incarnate, and I love her all the more for it.

My daughter and I were both misty-eyed when we got to the end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week, where Aslan tells Lucy that this is their last Narnian goodbye. Lucy is heartbroken:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Do you know Aslan’s other name in our world?” I asked my daughter.

“Jesus,” she whispered back, all fierceness-and-devotion in her voice.

Reading Narnia with my daughter has made me think long and deep again. By knowing Aslan there for a little, I am to know him better here. This is the very reason Lewis brought us to Narnia.

But why, then, do I long for Aslan in a way that I haven’t longed for Jesus for a while? Why have I not found myself praying Maranatha – COME Lord Jesus as the early church did?

I wondered about this for a while and then forgot about it. And then one evening, while reading through the gospel of Luke with my small group, all of a sudden, I felt the Lion show up. My heart rate literally sped up, because there on the pages of Luke, He had arrived. And I found I had forgotten how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. Jesus is breathtaking.

I had forgotten. It’s been a while since I’ve read the gospels.

CS Lewis’s Aslan is 100% proof positive that he was a diligent student of the gospels. The Aslan he wrote of was Jesus in every way: the one who grows bigger the more we know him, the one who gave his life for his betrayers, the one who never explains what “could have” have happened but gives grace enough for the next step. He is disarming, delightful, terrifying, hilarious. He is not a tame lion.

There are perhaps more people who have read Narnia than have read one of the gospels in the past 25 years. Friends, if you loved Aslan (even as a child), and you haven’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in a while – do yourself a favor:

Read a gospel.

Watch this 3 minute video by NT Wright if you need an incentive. And if I can offer one tip while reading, it would be this: don’t read it waiting for the “take away nugget”. Read it as if you were one of the crowd, one of the Pevensie children, meeting him for the first time.

And I’ll eat my hat if, while reading the gospels, you don’t find that the Lion shows up.