Who is Jesus? For liberals, a political role model; for conservatives, the heavenly gatekeeper. But for Sara Miles, author of the new book Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), he’s “the Boyfriend”, a tangible and loving presence who empowers her–and potentially all of us–to embody God’s love through fellowship and service to one another.
Formerly a secular political journalist and restaurant worker, Miles underwent an unexpected conversion at the age of 46, when she took communion at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco and suddenly experienced a mystical awareness that the wafer was really and truly the bread of life, the body of God. She went on to become Director of Ministry at St. Gregory’s and start a food pantry that now serves up to 800 people each week. This story is told in her previous book, Take This Bread. (I would have liked a little more background in Jesus Freak for readers like myself who haven’t read her first book.)
Jesus Freak begins with the radical claim that Jesus empowers us to be Jesus. We have the authority to bring meaning, healing, nourishment and forgiveness to God’s people. The rest of the book shares anecdotes from her ministry: funny, poignant, madcap, heartbreaking stories about what it looks like “to live as if you–and everyone else around you–were Jesus, and filled with his power”.
In Miles’ telling, the Jesus-inspired community looks unconditionally inclusive and egalitarian. People of widely varying beliefs, abilities, and social classes find themselves bound together not merely by mutual tolerance, but by love and cooperation.
In her chapter on “Feeding”, for instance, she questions the divide between churches’ worship space and their community service programs. Why do the soup kitchen and the worship service take place in different locations, at different times, and serve non-overlapping groups of people? I’ve often wondered the same thing. Unlike me, Miles actually did something about it. The weekly food giveaway at St. Gregory’s takes place at the altar and becomes a ritual of sharing that harks back to the communal meals of the first-century church.
When Miles talks about “Healing” and “Raising the Dead”, she isn’t promising medical miracles, though she won’t rule those out, either. We may not always be able to cure physical ills, but we can offer something even more important. We can surround suffering people with an environment that gives their lives dignity, meaning and love.
For instance, toward the end of the book, Miles tells the story of Laura, a middle-aged woman who sought her counsel when dying of lung cancer. Over the last months of her life, Miles helped Laura’s family begin the process of grieving and taking care of one another. In a scene reminiscent of Jesus’ words from the cross in John 19:26-27, Laura arranged for her female companion to become her teenage son’s new mother. Miles was on hand not only to assist with the paperwork but, more crucially, to provide a spiritually meaningful context for the event, so that a sad occasion became in some way a celebration.
Finally, when Laura died, Miles had to help the paramedics hoist her stiffening, obese body onto the gurney from the floor where she’d fallen out of bed. Many another writer might approach this scene with disgust, despair, or pathos. Miles handles Laura’s body, in life and on the page, with tenderness and joy at being able to perform a last service for her. And if there’s a touch of humor, it seems like a joke that the dead woman shares. What is grace, after all, if not the erasing of shame, right here in the flesh from which we’ve been alienated since Adam and Eve first put on their legendary fig leaves?
I found this book to be a balm for the headache that theology often leaves me with nowadays. When doctrinal arguments become political weapons, the social gospel begins to look attractively simple. Visit the prisoners, give a cup of water to the thirsty–surely this is more straightforward, and better for my character, than reviewing yet another book on the “real” meaning of Romans 1:26-27. There’s something about theologizing, one could even say, that is intertwined with class privilege. It can be a diversion of energy away from the more urgent needs of people who don’t have a voice in the conversation.
At the same time, good works become a dry duty, another kind of works-righteousness, without a live connection to God’s love. I’ve bounced back and forth between Episcopal and evangelical churches in search of that encounter with the mysterium tremendum. Philosopher of religion and progressive God-blogger Eric Reitan recently noted that the common liberal dichotomy between Christian belief (bad, fundamentalist, divisive) and Christ-like action (good, crunchy, progressive) doesn’t hold up:
…I suspect that most Christians will agree that “having faith in Jesus” is much more than just believing in a set of propositions. It’s a way of leading one’s life. (Agreement among Christians is likely to break down as soon as we ask what way of life is implied by faith in Jesus.)
But even if faith in Jesus is much more than belief in a set of propositions, the way of life implied by such faith will certainly presuppose a set of beliefs. To have faith is, in part, to live one’s life as if certain things are true. In the broadest terms, having faith in Jesus means living as if Jesus’ life and ministry express the ultimate reality, the divine, in some unique and profound way. And having faith in Jesus as savior means living as if Jesus has secured the redemption of the world; as if the evils that shatter human lives and infect human hearts are never the final word; as if somehow, because of Christ, even the most devastating horrors and malignancies have been stripped of the power to deprive our lives of meaning and value….
Jesus is so real and immediate for Miles that she makes an end-run around theological debates. Perhaps because she wasn’t raised Christian, she doesn’t seem to carry around the baggage of guilt and fear, the need to defend her interpretive authority, or to tear down other interpretations of the Bible. She just goes out and feeds the hungry, and gives the glory to God.