M. Craig Barnes is among my favorite writer-pastors. A mainliner (PCUSA) and so not as well-known, perhaps, as John Piper or Tim Keller or Mark Driscoll among evangelicals, Barnes, former senior pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and currently same at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, is a rock-solid preacher of the gospel, which is to say, the forgiveness of sins to be found in Christ through faith alone.
I have read virtually everything the man has published, and his masterwork, When God Interrupts, several times. If you’re at a point in your life where you fear every light at the end of the tunnel is just another train headed straight for you, buy this book. It is neither pap to prop up your spirits, nor condemnation of your pity party, but an honest assessment of the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer. A life that can surprise you with its terrifying recalibration of your plans—and that surprises you again when you realize that this may very well be what God had in mind all along.
In a recent sermon, entitled “The Judas Chromosome,” Barnes calls out a small detail in the Last Supper. Recounting the different explanations for Judas’ betrayal—greed, disappointed political ambitions—Barnes says:
Notice that when Jesus announced to the disciples that one of them was going to betray him, most of the disciples say “Surely not I, Lord.” Except Judas. Judas says, “Surely not I, rabbi,” which means “teacher.” Was that the deal? Is it that Judas thought of Jesus only as a teacher but not of the Lord of his life? We don’t actually know… What we do know is that for some reason Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray the Lord Jesus Christ.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by that rabbi/Lord distinction. You cannot have Jesus as teacher if you don’t have him as Lord. Jesus’ teaching not only carries no authority—it doesn’t even make sense, unless it is coming from the lips of the Lord and Giver of Life. The earliest written gospel, Mark, presents Jesus as a man who forgives sins. Good luck with that if you’re not always the offended party. And who alone could always be the offended party but the one who has final authority over your life. You cannot have Jesus the Rabbi without Jesus the Lord—anymore than you can have him as just the Savior. Jesus will not be rent apart according to the peculiar emotional or psychological or professional needs of individuals.
I was reminded of this when I read that Paul Verhoeven, director of Basic Instinct and Total Recall, is interested in bringing his just-released book, Jesus of Nazareth, to the big screen. Long story short, Verhoeven regurgitates the ancient canard about Jesus’ being the bastard son of a Roman soldier with exorcist cred, but with this twist—he was also “a militant revolutionary who urged his followers to arm themselves.”
You remember that proof text: “My kingdom is of this world, kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.”
Verhoeven gets one thing right in the snippet of the interview provided by John Nolte: “The suffering of Jesus is not the important thing.” Correct, as far as it goes. It is not the nature or duration or intensity of the suffering in and of itself that is the important thing about the Cross, but rather who was doing the suffering. Miss that, and not only does Jesus’ death become irrelevant, but also his teaching. Either Jesus is Lord, that is to say, God in the flesh who demands and deserves our obedience, or he is merely another victim of shifting political/ecclesiastical tectonic plates.
And that is why Verhoeven’s notions, all too common among the “I’m not a Christian but Jesus is my homeboy” set, are simply daft. An anti-Roman gun-slinging magician who everyone’s mischaracterized for 2,000 years until the guy who directed Showgirls came along is only to be pitied. Not only is he not to be worshipped—he has nothing to teach us. Circus acts rarely do.
But lest we get too self-righteous about it, M. Craig Barnes reminds us that the “Judas chromosome” is in every one of us. And it is never so much in evidence as when we crave the great teacher or healer or revolutionary. Everything, anything, but the Lord.