Monday is my rest day and one of the things I usually do at some point in the day is walk the dog and listen to a sermon on my iPod. I listen to sermons from friends of mine at other churches or more “famous” preachers whose sermons are available via podcast. I look forward to these walks and these sermons. It’s nice to listen instead of speak, as I do most Sundays, and I almost invariably come back from my walks having received something good for the day and the week ahead.
Recently, however, I came back from my walk in a somewhat frustrated frame of mind. The speaker took a very interesting, politically charged text of Scripture with a number of fascinating angles coming out of its first century context, and drew the conclusion that the point of this passage was to teach us not to “put Jesus in a box.” We were urged to set aside our preconceptions of Jesus in order to realize that what he really wants is a relationship with us.
Most importantly, we were told to realize that “Jesus doesn’t want us to love him for what we can get out of him.” No, what Jesus wants, apparently, is for us to simply love him for his own sake.
Really? Is this really what Jesus wants. Does Jesus really want or expect us to love him purely for who he is with no interest whatsoever in what he can do for us? Is this desirable? Is it even possible? What would loving Jesus with no concern for ourselves even look like? My sense is that phrases like the ones I heard on my walk belong to a stock category of pious-sounding platitudes that some Christians think they ought to affirm but which, upon closer scrutiny, are impossible to fulfill.
Every single Christian on the planet makes the decision to follow Jesus for some reason, after all. Perhaps we are drawn to his ethical teachings. Perhaps our souls are flooded with joy and illumination as the result of a mystical encounter. Perhaps we experience forgiveness and a release from the bondage of guilt and shame. Perhaps we are shattered and broken at the discovery that Jesus would die in our place. Perhaps we are overwhelmed by the joy and fullness that comes from a life spent in love of God and others. Perhaps we are knocked off our feet by grace. Perhaps we are trying to please our parents.
Whatever our reasons, the point is that in each and every case we are “getting something” out of Jesus. Forgiveness, meaning, enlightenment, direction, judgment, release, justification, peace, hope… it matters not. It’s still something. Even if “all” we want is a “relationship” with Jesus, relationships still give us things. I don’t love my wife or children with no interest in what I am getting out of the arrangement. Among other things, I am a more fulfilled and complete person because of these relationships—a rather big “something,” if ever there was one. If this is true of human relationships, how much more is it the case when it comes to our relationship with God?
In John 6:60-68, the disciples are scratching their heads after a particularly vexing session of teaching from Jesus. Many other onlookers have had enough of this Jesus and his maddening, confusing words, and have walked away. Jesus looks at the twelve disciples and says, “And you? Are you going to take off too?” Peter, as usual, is the first pupil to raise his hand, and his response has resounded down through the ages: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter was casting his lot with Jesus for many reasons—including what he could “get out of him.” Eternal life is a pretty big something to get out of any deal, after all.
We must not attempt to be more pious than Scripture. We human beings are needy and poor in countless ways. There is no sense in sanctimoniously attempting to subtract ourselves from the equation of faith, pretending we don’t want or need things from Jesus—things like wisdom, forgiveness, salvation, life. These are deep existential needs that reach down to the very core of who we are and what we hope for as human beings. And we can secure none of these things for ourselves.
We need these things. We want these things. And Jesus offers them. Jesus wants us to love, follow, and serve him—for his sake, yes, but also for our sake, and for the sake of the world that he loves.