The Troubling Christ

This is an approximate transcription of a talk I gave in church today (Easter) at the Pioneer 2nd ward in Provo, Utah.

A still from “King of Kings.”

Many parts of the gospel of Jesus Christ are comforting and familiar and affirming. When we engage with scripture or with church activity, we are bound to find something of comfort — some kind of reassurance of God’s uncompromising love for us, for example. We will sometimes encounter topics in scripture that we already have a pretty good handle on. I imagine that one of the favorite things that the Holy Ghost probably whispers to us is, “You’re OK, you’re doing great.”

Along those lines, Bonnie D. Parkin, Relief Society General President in October 2005, in a General Conference, said: “Believe me when I say each of us is much better than we think. We need to recognize and celebrate what we’re doing right. Much of what we do seems small and insignificant—just a part of daily living. When we are called ‘to give an account to Jehovah,’ as the Prophet Joseph counseled, I know that we will have much to share.”

But I also think that part of churchgoing, part of engaging with the gospel, ought to, in some way or another, shake us a little bit. Challenge us a little bit. Just as there are things in church where we feel we’re doing great, hopefully there are things that we feel troubled by. Elder Holland, in the most recent General Conference, said, “‘Come as you are,’ a loving Father says to each of us, but He adds, ‘Don’t plan to stay as you are.’” This is an important part of the gospel.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma taught his son Corianton the principle of how Christ can “trouble us” in ways that are constructive to our spiritual health: “And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.” (Alma 42:29)

I see a distinction between feeling overwhelmed or shame and the good kind of “trouble.” And when I look at the life of Jesus Christ, whom we’re celebrating today on Easter, I see many examples of things that might productively or constructively “trouble” us.

We often talk about the Atonement as this event that happened — the suffering and the death and the resurrection — and it was certainly that, but it also was the culmination of His life. So I think one way to understand and apply the Atonement is to see Christ’s example and let Him “trouble us.” Let Him show us, through His example and His teachings, how we might not be on the right path.

I’ll share just a few examples of this.

1. He loved and interacted with outcasts and the unpopular and less powerful

Throughout the New Testament, who are the characters that Jesus Christ is kindest to? Who did he rebuke the most?

Elder Dale G. Renlund said, “The Savior’s mortal ministry was indeed characterized by love, compassion, and empathy. He did not disdainfully walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, flinching at the sight of sinners. He did not dodge them in abject horror. No, He ate with them. He helped and blessed, lifted and edified, and replaced fear and despair with hope and joy. Like the true shepherd He is, He seeks us and finds us to offer relief and hope. Understanding His compassion and love helps us exercise faith in Him—to repent and be healed.”

The people with whom Jesus Christ frequently hung around were people that others called sinners — and those who, in fact, were sinners. When He allowed a woman to wash His feet, a nearby Pharisee said, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7).

And yet this is the ministry that Christ had.

2. He preached and practiced nonviolence

Another way that Christ “troubled” the people of His time, and may still trouble us today, is in the way He preached and practiced nonviolence. Again from Elder Holland in this most recent General Conference talk:

“Someday I hope a great global chorus will harmonize across all racial and ethnic lines, declaring that guns, slurs, and vitriol are not the way to deal with human conflict. The declarations of heaven cry out to us that the only way complex societal issues can ever be satisfactorily resolved is by loving God and keeping His commandments, thus opening the door to the one lasting, salvific way to love each other as neighbors.”

Throughout human history, humans have tended to hurt each other. And this was one of the ways that Christ can be disturbing to that mentality.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an interesting example of this. We often quote Marin Luther King Jr. for his “I have a dream” speech and his great leadership as a civil rights leader. But one of his lesser-known speeches was a peaceful protest talk called “Beyond Vietnam.” He said that people would say, “Why are you talking about this? You’re a civil rights leader,” And he said:

“I … have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that He died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life? … We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

And he goes on. It’s a fascinating talk, and it’s a little sticky, right? You read these things and maybe it’s uncomfortable. And maybe that’s the point.

3. He undercut people’s idolatry and hypocrisy

A third way that Christ was “troubling” in a constructive way is He undercut hypocrisy and idolatry. It’s interesting to note that idolatry was a problem a lot in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. People were constantly worshipping God and then falling into idolatry.

I always grew up understanding that to be the worship of objects. It could be anything — it could be a metaphor for many things, the idolatry that people deal with. But an “idol,” in the pure definition, is not just an object, but it’s actually a religious object. And some of the most piercing criticisms that Christ gave were of people that claimed to be religious people — like all of us, right? We’re here (in church), and we might find something troubling in Christ’s message.

Idolatry is the worship of things that point to God, instead of the worship of God. And this was something that Christ spoke out against a lot. For example, in Matthew 23:

“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, … But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.”

Whew, right? That’s pretty searing language, and it’s important for us who are followers of Christ to ask, as His disciples did, “Lord, is it I?” Do I do that? It’s a difficult question to answer, wondering, do we practice a faith that is rooted in Christ? Or is it rooted in our own appearance? Our ego? It’s such a difficult question for myself, and for many of us.

4. He disrupted economic status quos that are unjust and corrupt

Another way that Christ was a troubler in a positive way was that He disrupted the economic status quos that were unjust and corrupt. And going along with the idea of idolatry, one famous example from the Bible is when He cleansed the temple: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves”  (Matthew 21).

In Mark 11 we see the result: “And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.”

So, wow, again, what an intense scene. And I wonder, if we would let Christ into our religious practices, what would He find? What tables would He overturn? What troubling things would He find in our own attempts to live the gospel?

In the Book of Mormon, Benjamin draws a direct line between personal salvation through Christ and our economic decisions (Mosiah 4):

“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?”

5. He invites us to cast aside our sins

And then finally, a way that that Christ can be a “troubler” is that He invites us to cast aside our sins. On Friday, I went to BYU and watched a film in the great Special Collections series at the BYU Library. Friday’s film was a silent film from the 1920s, directed by Cecil B. Demille, called, “King of Kings.” It’s about Jesus Christ and just shows many moments of His life.

There’s a scene in which Mary Magdalene approaches Jesus, and she notices something about Him, and as she goes to follow Him, there’s this cool special effect where different people come out from behind her, and it looks like seven ghosts coming out of her.

A still from “King of Kings.”

It’s a silent film, and on the dialogue cards it says what they’re saying to her as she considers following Jesus. One ghost pops up and says, “I am lust! Hold me fast, Mary, my arms are the gates of life!” Another one comes out: “I am greed! i drain hearts, but i fill thy purse — let him not destroy me!”

Another one says, “Keep me Mary, I am pride! Through me thou has enslaved kings!” And then more come out: “We are gluttony — indolence — envy — anger! We teach thee to forget, and to hate, and to consume!”

And then Peter, standing nearby, says “He doth cleanse her of the seven deadly sins!”

I like the wording of that dialogue — and the idea that our sins might want to stay in us. We might want to keep some of the things that we should purge from us through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. One of the greatest troubling things is to recognize that we have those sins and to use the Atonement of Jesus Christ to be cleansed from them.

I testify that that miracle of the Resurrection can be applied in our lives as well. Not only one day, but as we notice the things that are dead within us, or the things that are long gone within us, the things that we ought to have back in our lives — maybe our hope, or our charity, or our faith — He can resurrect that in us.

He is the Savior of the World and worth paying close attention to, even when it troubles us. And I testify of these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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