The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
A few weeks ago, I went to a special gathering of leaders of the Episcopal Church, and this was meant to be a special invited group of people that were meant to unpack some of the work of the church and to share with one another the way they did the work of the church in their own lives. The theme that we were to speak about was the visionary statement made by the presiding bishop, Michael Curry. That our church was part of the Jesus movement. That we were members of the Jesus movement. That we weren’t simply an institution. That we are actually a people on the move. A movement. And as with many visionary statements that are made by church leaders, there’s always a time when you gather afterwards to figure out exactly what does it mean to be part of this movement? What are the details involved?
And so we were sharing different approaches and different ways in which we could think of the church. And one priest got up and said, “Well, I have a rather simple technique that I do. At every church I’ve served, I have this little rag doll Jesus.” And I have a picture for you right here in your bulletins. He continued, “I have this little rag doll Jesus about two feet tall and I have a member of the congregation take this Jesus doll with them the entire week and simply write down what they did with Jesus that week. And then the next Sunday, they get up and for two minutes they say and tell the congregation about all that they did with Jesus. Did they go to the store? Did they go to the office? Did they go to the health club? Did they go to a restaurant? Jesus would be with them. And just to talk about all the places that Jesus went with them.”
And he said, “You know it was amazing. When I first started doing it, I’ve noticed over the years that people have begun to venerate the little Jesus doll. There was a dressmaker in one congregation and she made these beautiful little sandals for Jesus to wear during the week she had Him. And one little girl, cornrowed Jesus’s hair when she had Him for the week.” And then one parishioner that he was seeing had recently been convicted of a crime. And in the week between his conviction and his sentencing, the rector brought him the Jesus doll. And he said, “I’ll never forget the way he took the Jesus doll and held onto it with all of his might.”
And this is seen by many people as powerful. As a way of thinking about what it means to have Jesus with you all the time. And certainly that is one of the major ways in which we were meant to think about Jesus, is that Jesus isn’t just for the part of ourselves that is devoted to religion. But Jesus is meant to be with us in our work and in our relationships. In our love life. In the things that we do to relax. Jesus is meant to be at the center of everything. Not just a segmented small part of ourselves. And while he was sharing this, Pastor Imogen actually remembered that her when her father came to see her and meet her in New York City, he showed up with this Jesus doll. And he didn’t explain it much to her. He just said he couldn’t have the Jesus doll in a bag or in a backpack. That Jesus had to sit alongside them as they went to the pub and enjoyed themselves together.
And so I came home with this idea that maybe we should have a Jesus doll at Christ Church Cranbrook. And I shared this whole story with Claire, my wife, because I use her as a sounding board. I was explaining the whole thing, and all of a sudden I looked, and Claire looked at me and she said, “Don’t do it.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Just don’t do it. This is not going to fly.” And I suppose that there is something to that. Right? I think something happens when you begin to carry around a doll. The whole visionary statement “We are the Jesus movement” diminishes a bit, if it becomes kind of known as “We are the Jesus doll movement.” Right?
That doesn’t quite resonate. It doesn’t quite suggest the bravery. I think that the Presiding Bishop is trying to convey by saying that we’re members of the Jesus movement. We are not merely an institution that is dedicated to self preservation, but we are actually trying to meet Jesus in the world around us. But I began to still think about it even though the person I trust the most in the world told me it might not be a good idea. And I need you to maybe think with me a little bit today about whether or not this whole doll idea is a good idea. And as I was thinking about why this practice caught my attention. I began to think about all the ways in which western civilization and western culture has written all of these stories about dolls that become real somehow.
In the many iterations of the famous Italian story Pinocchio, you have this little marionette, this little doll made of wood who becomes a real boy when he learns not to lie. And he learns to love Gepetto, his maker. He becomes a real boy. He becomes what he was meant to be. Not a facsimile, but the real article. And in that incredible book by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit, there is that wonderful story in which you have a little stuffed bunny who desires to be real and offers herself to the little boy. And over the years, as his love rubs off all of her velveteen and she gets worn out and finally has to be discarded because the little boy catches scarlet fever, she somehow through the magic of the fairy gets turned into a real bunny, because she has been made real by love.
And all of these things in western civilization and western culture, it has this kind of arch in which we move from being less than real to real. And we do it through some kind of active transformation. And that I think summarizes all of the aspirations of who we are. But Christianity actually tends to work in the opposite direction. You see, what’s transformative to us is not what we can do for ourselves alone. In fact the message of Christianity, what makes it so powerful is that it begins by communicating to us the simple fact that we cannot change ourselves. We cannot earn our way to God. We cannot become righteous on our own. It’s God who has come to us, and Jesus Christ who has given us the power to become born again anew.
It is God coming down to us and being in our midst. And opening our eyes to who He is and Christ Jesus that is the force of change. We do not earn our way to God, but God and God’s mercy has come to us. And that is the good news of Jesus Christ. But there is something to the fact that we begin with a small and imperfect understanding of who Jesus is. And for that reason I like the doll, because it reminds us that our image of Jesus is both tangible but limited. It reminds us that we meet Jesus where we take Him and where we go without any interruption. Without any segmentation. Without any compartmentalization of our lives. Because truly, Jesus becomes who Jesus is meant to be for us when we learn to see Him in everything. Not just in one part of our lives. But as the whole of our lives.
And not just in terms of the Jesus we know immediately, but the Jesus whom we are constantly meeting again and again as our faith grows. Truly there is maybe something behind this whole idea of getting to see Jesus, but then looking for Him in greater things.
In today’s gospel there is this incredible question. It was constructed by Matthew to bring to a point exactly what is going on with Jesus’s life at that point, and his way of telling His gospel. Jesus turns to His disciples and He says, “But who do you say that I am?” And their answer is that He is more than a prophet. That He is more than a priest. That He’s more than a rabbi. That He is the Messiah. The anointed one. The one that would bring unity and wholeness to our world. The one who was promised to lead Israel and to make Israel a light to the nations.
But that question “Who do you say that I am?” that’s a question that is directed as well to you and me. That is a question that you and I have to answer. That is a question that is the center of our lives. That is what Karl Rahner, the Catholic theologian and Jesuit called the categorical question. The existential question of our lives is what our response is to that question to us. Who do you say that I am? Is Jesus your Messiah? Is Jesus your light? Is Jesus your God? Is Jesus the center of your life? This is the key thing that you have to find out for yourself. And part of what it means to be a Christian is that we come to know that Jesus as Messiah through our life together, through the blessings of being members of the body of Christ.
And this is what Paul is saying today in his incredible words in the letter to the Romans when he says, “By the mercies of God present your bodies as a living sacrifice wholly and acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” For Paul, the center of what it means to answer the question “Who do you say I am?” is to actually offer your body back to God after God has already offered the body of Jesus to you. Christianity has an incredibly intricate theology of the body.
As Paul goes on to say there is the body of Jesus that is historical. That is the body that is flashing blood like yours and mine that now sits at God’s right hand having been raised from the dead and ascended. And then there is the body and blood that we participate in every week when we take part in the sacramental body of Christ when we have His body and drink His blood. And we recognize ourselves as broken pieces of the same loaf that has been broken for us, as broken pieces of one body that has been broken for us. And finally, we see in each of us today, members of the mystical body of Christ.
As Paul goes on to say in the reading today, “We are all members of Christ’s body. We all have a role to play.” And Christians have debated for lo these many years what it means to be members of Christ’s body corporately. Did it mean being members of the same church? Did it mean being baptized by the same baptism? And every time the church has been challenged and responded I think in a powerful way to the question “Who do you say I am?” that membership in the mystical body of Christ has expanded and grown larger and larger, and become more inclusive, so that now we see that each person that looks back at us is in some respects, in some mysterious way, members of the same body of Christ.
And so that is why I think we hold on to these tangible things, because having a little reminder of Jesus is an important thing. Because we are constantly reminded through our worship and action, through our readings, that we’re members of a body. And that embodied existence is always going to be larger than we can completely imagine. And becoming part of that embodied existence is everything to us. It’s the means of our salvation. It’s the means through which we see. It’s the eyes that God has given us to see God’s love in the world. It’s the hands of Christ that God has given us to do the good God has given us in the world. It’s the feet God has given us to go and proclaim the gospel of peace.
So join with me in a small experiment. Take this little card with you over the next week, and think to yourself, “Where am I going to bring Jesus today and where am I going to meet Jesus today? And how will that meeting transform me?” Amen.