What did Jesus intend to happen when he left? It wasn’t immediately clear to his disciples and may not be to us.
There is some confusion at the end of the gospels, with no obvious vision apparent. No one has a five-point plan in their hand, kindly scribbled by Jesus before ascending. There are no helpful bullet-points for a presentation at a Disciples Away-Day.
‘In the event of my death, do this, this and this.’
So confusion reigns and unsurprisingly, the gospels end very differently. Mark closes with the disciples ‘distressed, terrified and saying nothing to anyone because they are afraid.’
Luke has Jesus taken up into heaven blessing his disciples who then go back to Jerusalem and celebrate in great joy in the Temple. (Though we must wonder how that worked, given Jesus’ recent history there with the money lenders and temple guards.)
John finishes with the prediction of Peter’s death and refutation of a rumour that John would live forever – hardly a call to arms; while the Gospel of Mary Magdalene ends in an unpleasant dispute among the disciples, with power struggles becoming apparent.
Matthew, as though jumping forward thirty years, is ‘churchy’ in tone, including the recommendation of baptism and the invocation of the Trinity; while The Gospel of Thomas finishes with Jesus questioning Peter’s view of women.
So what now? Jesus leaves no manifesto apart from his dangerous, beguiling, courageous and ultimately, unsuccessful life; followed by his terrifying return from death, which settled nothing and disturbed much.
If the disciples are all over the place, they cannot be blamed. After all, they had lived the shock of a resurrection which, frankly, was as shocking as shocks can get.
As time passed, it would become something hopeful; something to proclaim. But this was not their initial experience. Where do you begin when someone has come back from the dead? Especially if that someone is someone you abandoned when they were arrested, creeping fearfully into hiding, all solidarity forgotten.
They will have experienced significant embarrassment on re-acquaintance. Jesus kindly says to them ‘Peace be with you’ – but they may have struggled to feel it. Only confusion reigns.
To be fair to Mary Magdalene, she does offer a manifesto and it’s a word given to her in private by Jesus: nous. Where the nous is, there is the treasure, she says; a place in the soul beyond thought and sense – a place of deep knowing. But as her gospel records, Peter didn’t like the idea and it was written out of the story.
So, what now? Their teacher has come back from the dead, but, without wishing to sound rude, ‘So what?’ And this was perhaps the most shocking aspect of writing my Jesus novel, Gospel: Rumours of Love: the chaos and lack of direction which Jesus left behind him. I’m not sure I had fully appreciated this.
He left a life rather than a manifesto; a ministry rather than a five-point plan. And as church history reveals, a life and ministry can be read and told in a hundred – no, a thousand – different ways.
So what did Jesus want? We are told the only thing we can look after is our intentions. So what did Jesus intend? Some might say that the confusion was sorted at Pentecost. The spirit came in tongues of fire and gave the church the direction it needed, gave them all words necessary. ‘No need for Jesus now. Relax. We have something better; we have his spirit within us to guide.’
From here on, Mother Church would be the custodian of Jesus’ memory and intentions.
So how has it done?
I sense a clear shape of intention in Jesus – intention which might be summarised as outrageous love and dismantling challenge. (We’ll not minimise how exhausting it must have been living with him. He is an exhausting and healing companion; demanding and kind; uncomfortable and safe.) Here are some obvious shapes in his life.
Jesus healed people with word and touch. If love is ‘the accurate assessment of need’ Jesus assessed truly and on different levels. Salvation has many changes of clothes.
Through the image of the seed, he encouraged constant dismantlement of the egoic structures in our lives, a different salvation.
He spoke a great deal about the Kingdom of God, it was his calling card; and he described it as a state rather than a place or a belief.
He teaches about the kingdom using stories rather than the left-side of the brain ‘three points’ approach. And in the Gospel of Thomas suggests we’re more likely to find it in the splitting of wood rather than the Temple – not a line to win friends.
His doctrine is simply trust in God, love of neighbour and good attitudes. Some might wonder quite how it was we got to thirty nine articles. But then Judaism turned ten commandments into over six hundred rules, so there is precedent.
The reach of this kingdom knows no racial, geographical, social or ethical boundaries. It includes Canaanites, Romans, Tyre, Sidon, Samaria, women, (a significant and crucial presence in his travelling household) outcasts, adulterers – even tax collecting collaborators.
He clashes with institutional religion throughout his life; and is crucified by institutional religion. No one could say and do what he said and did in the Temple. It was blasphemy.
He is attentive to the vulnerable but rude to power, political and religious, referring to Herod as a ‘fox’ and the Pharisees – the honest-to-God foot soldiers of the faith – as ‘white-washed tombs’, ‘blind guides’ and ‘snakes and sons of snakes.’
The Temple itself he calls a ‘den of thieves’. He is also publicly rude to his mother; another way to lose friends.
Jesus says that children are about as close to the Kingdom of God as you can get. And adds that those who harm children deserve to have a millstone attached to their necks and be thrown in the sea.
(The church has tended just to move them to another parish.)
Jesus sees the institutional religion around him as an unhealthy and abusive form of power. Listen to his tirade against it in Matthew 23, if you have forgotten. There are few angrier verbal assaults in human history; I can’t think of one. It is relentlessly savage.
So, here is what Jesus intends and here is the rub. With this speech ringing in our ears, the idea of placing the Jesus legacy into the hands of institutional religion is problematic.
After all, institutions serve themselves; their own existence is always their priority and cover-ups are routine practice from the top downwards. Is the Jesus story safe in such hands? Someone with a habit for hyperbole compared it to placing your granddaughter in the hands of a paedophile for the summer holidays, with the words: ‘She’ll be safe there.’
Or we could go down another path. Imagine you were a follower of Jesus, listening to his teachings on servanthood, on the first being last and how no one should be called ‘leader’. You’d heard him denounce those who take pleasure in their robes and their status and seek the best seats in the synagogue.
And now imagine fast-forwarding two thousand years, where you find yourself in the audience for the enthronement of a bishop. Your first response, as you behold the scene, would probably not be: ‘Well, that makes sense. I completely understand why and how this has happened.’
No one steps into a perfect situation. Everyone has to work with what is and Jesus was no different. You have to start where you are and Jesus was a child of Nazareth, which was said to be more like Jerusalem than Jerusalem itself – not a good place to be a Phoenician.
So he would have known all about Israel’s borders – geographical, racial and spiritual. He would have known who was in and who was out. He would have understood that for those around him, the Kingdom of Israel was synonymous with the Kingdom of God, the two were one. And the jewel in this wonderful crown was the Temple.
This was the narrative Jesus stepped into and to which he paid lip service. But it was also the narrative he dismantled stone by stone and constantly undermined, until nothing was left standing. From here on, the Kingdom knew no boundaries, and held no one beyond the pale.
In Jesus’ hands, the reach of the kingdom is immeasurably and offensively stretched. When it came to humanity, there was to be utter equality of treatment. Here was something way beyond the narrow confines of the belief structures around him. It was a new Israel, and quite unrecognisable from the old.
And here I am reminded of a church in London which above the doorway, on arrival, says ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of God’. And above the doorway, on departure, says ‘Welcome to the Kingdom of God.’ The Kingdom of God is unlocked and ungagged. Maybe the Kingdom of God can contain institutional religion; but not vice versa. Institutions can exist in the Kingdom of God; but they can never define it. They are there on sufferance.
But there’s more. Jesus is not happy with merely extending the reach of the kingdom. It really isn’t about converts. As he complains to the Pharisees, ‘You love a convert – but then make them twice as fit for hell as you are!’ It’s a line that echoes down the centuries.
Jesus also wishes to deepen the quality of the kingdom as witnessed in the story of the lost son. Here is a young man who abuses his father’s love right royally, storms off in a cloud of entitlement, makes a complete pig’s ear of things, comes grovelling home – and finds his father running towards him like a maniac, in blind excitement at his return. Jewish authority figures did not run; it was considered beneath them, lacking gravitas.
But now we hear that God runs – for what else can love do?
There are many stories of such love in the gospels, whether towards children or outcasts or the crippled or thieves on the cross. Jesus compares his feelings to that of a mother hen, longing to gather her chicks around her. And then perhaps the line that trumps them all, again from the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.’
What love is this? Again, utter equality. Not only is the reach of the kingdom extended; its quality is deepened as rules are dissolved; for the old order, as Jesus explains to the Pharisees, ‘ties loads onto people’s backs that are heavy and hard to carry.’
Jesus leaves no room for the cramped morality of 1st Century Judaism or of any other institutional faith. Institutions love boundaries: who’s in, and who’s out.
Exclusions are part of the ‘purity’ charade; and rules, as with the Golf Club, give necessary shape for the membership.
But Jesus’ kingdom knew neither exclusion nor rules. A gay couple or a divorcee cannot be married in an Anglican church, while an oil man, destroying the planet, is welcome. This version of the kingdom, hardly a lone example, is insane; and quite unrelated to Jesus. But that’s what institutions are and do.
Jesus left the disciples in some disarray and with no five-point plan. Instead, he left something more precious – the shocking rumour of a kingdom that starts with the state of the heart; any heart and any where. It’s all about the heart. This is territory institutional religion can nurture, (I have seen it done and done well); but never contain nor rule. It has no authority here; though maybe it can serve.
Did Jesus intend a kingdom whose reach was for everyone and forever; and distinguished by love rather than rules? And did it begin and end with the state of the heart? If so, it is a precious but vulnerable legacy.
Beyond the distorting constraints of any institution, we’ll be mindful of the hands in which this legacy is placed.
Simon Parke is author of a novel about Jesus called ‘Gospel, Rumours of Love’ and published by White Crow.