I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
-2 Corinthians 11:2-4 (NIV)
Everyone says you don’t use math again when you get out of school. A man in northern India might have a different opinion about that today.
The unidentified man was in the middle of his wedding ceremony this week when his bride-to-be in the arranged marriage, suspecting she had been misled by the groom and his family about his educational background, asked him what 15 + 6 was. The surprised groom answered 17, and the bride walked out. Walked out of her own wedding ceremony. Because her husband-to-be couldn’t add 15 and 6.
There may be some wives reading this who are wishing now they had asked their husbands a couple of questions during their own wedding (“How do you clean a bathroom?” “Where are the washer and dryer located?” “Do you know how to start a lawn mower?”). But to cancel your own wedding because of the groom’s math skills? I suppose, though, in fairness, her complaint was more that she’d been misled about his education level.
It’s still not as bad, either, as the other Indian bride who last month married a wedding guest after her fiancé had a seizure during their ceremony.
I suppose, for some people, one husband is as good as another.
The New Testament compares Jesus and the church to a husband and his wife more than once. That’s probably because the same comparison is made in the Old Testament between God and Israel. It works for a couple of reasons. For one, it suggests the kind of love God has for his people. For another, it reminds his people that we have to be faithful, that our relationship is disrupted when we choose to love something else more. So when Israel served other gods, it was like breaking marriage vows. And when the church wanders away, in belief or practice, from the good news of Jesus, it’s like a wife betraying a faithful, loving husband.
There’s a sense, though, in which the “marriage” of Jesus and the church hasn’t taken place yet. The engagement has happened, the plans are set, the invitations are sent and the reception is ready, but the marriage isn’t official until Jesus returns. That’s what Paul’s thinking of in 2 Corinthians — a church for whom he’s responsible when Jesus comes, a church in danger of forgetting her husband and uniting herself with something and someone else. Paul wants to be able to give this church away proudly to the Lord on that day. He’s afraid, though, that when Christ comes he’ll find a church that hasn’t been faithful. He’s afraid that by then the church will have long abandoned devotion to the Jesus that was preached to them in the gospel and taken up with some other Jesus, some different spirit, some alternative gospel.
“For you,” he says, “one husband seems to be as good as another.”
We live in a world that says, basically, that religion is interchangeable. Whatever your convictions may be, so this philosophy says, they’re just your perspective, or the perspective of your family or culture or whatever, on an ultimate and ultimately unknowable Truth. All religions are just aspects of this truth, then, and none are inherently better than any other.
While it’s certainly good to remember that none of us have God all figured out, Jesus makes something of a different claim about himself. Part of the Christian faith says that Jesus is unique, a revelation of God like none before or since. So the gospel, the story of Jesus, is always our story. And it’s decidedly different than other stories.
It’s been said that the church now lives in a post-denominational world, and in part I believe it. Few Christians today could articulate — or would in fact care about — the differences in belief and practice between, say, the Methodists and the Lutherans. That’s good in a lot of ways. It helps us get back to the story that makes us who we are — the gospel. It helps us to see that many of the historical differences between denominations really had more to do with how the story was told, and what was emphasized, and how it was adapted to the world around us.
On the other hand, this post-denominational world has made it as easy as ever for people to proclaim other Jesuses, other gospels, other stories and get a hearing.
We have been betrothed to Christ, and our lives and beliefs should bear witness to our faithfulness to him. There will be plenty of would-be suitors who’ll try to win us away to other gospels, other philosophies, even to imitations of Jesus himself. On the one hand will be those who will say it doesn’t matter if we believe in Jesus or not, or who don’t spend much time focused on Jesus at all. On the other hand will be those who tell us that only their limited perspective on Jesus, their narrow little gospel, is the right one. Some will tell us his resurrection and second coming are a figment of the primitive church’s hopeful imagination. Some will tell us that when he comes he’s looking for a sign on the door, or a specific understanding of Communion, or a particular translation of the Bible, or a strict definition of biblical inerrancy. Some will allure us with promises of wealth and prosperity, political power, even world peace. Some will urge us to be stricter in lifestyle, harsher in judgment, more sectarian in our beliefs.
Whatever, the answer is to remember the One to Whom we’re betrothed.
What every false gospel has in common is that it comes apart when held up next to the real one. The way to identify imitation Jesuses is to compare him with the real one. It doesn’t take a theological degree, or a book contract, or a large following. It just takes us knowing Jesus.
So may our churches lift him up in worship, in liturgy, and in teaching. May our lives reflect him, may our words and actions imitate his. May we reflect on him in quiet moments, speak to him frequently, speak of him often, and love him more. May we give him thanks for choosing us. And may we be found faithful when he comes to take us home.