Visiting with Jesus
I first caught a glimpse of him through the doorbell camera at church. He looked cold and a little scraggly, and when I went to open the door, he was shorter than I expected. But there he was: the Son of God in human flesh. We talked for a while, as anyone might when they have the chance to speak with someone so important and famous. We talked about theology, about the church, about the state of our world. Unsurprisingly, I thought about our conversation for the rest of the day and much of the following week.
I guess that’s what happens when you visit with Jesus.
Now, I did not actually meet Jesus. I actually met a 28-year-old homeless man named Bobby who believes he is Jesus. Bobby talked on and on about how he has been scientifically designed to be the second coming of Christ and how he is just now coming into a full understanding of who he is. Bobby is convinced he’s Jesus; I remain skeptical, primarily because the message that Bobby was proclaiming was at odds with the message that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed. So I’m pretty sure Bobby is not our Lord returned to St. Louis.
But when I met with Bobby, I did visit with Jesus. At least in the way that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25:31-46, where he says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Bobby was cold and hungry. Bobby needed a place to charge his cell phone for an hour. Bobby needed to talk to someone about all the things he has been thinking about since his uncle kicked him out of his house a couple of months ago.1 Bobby needed someone to love him. If we take Jesus’ words seriously, when I visited with Bobby, in some real way I was visiting with Jesus.2
Reflections on Bobby’s Visit
As I reflected on Bobby’s visit, my thoughts coalesced around two questions.
First, what does it mean to truly encounter Jesus in the lives and realities of the least of these? In chaplaincy and pastoral care training, you are taught to think about yourself as the presence of Jesus while you are ministering to someone in need. As I was talking to Bobby, I wondered how true that was when the person you are in the room with thinks that they are Jesus.
What does it mean, in light of Matthew 25, that we are showing love to Jesus in such situations? The traditional Christian answer seems a good place to start here: that we should show love, respect, concern, and care for those who are hurting, poor, or disadvantaged. Bringing a cup of cold water to someone who needs it is truly an expression of the love of Christ. Yet listening to someone—and then handing them a homeless aid kit and making sure they have some food that day—just does not seem sufficient. That leads to my second line of questioning:
How ought the church interact with people like Bobby? Is it enough to give him some help and then send him on his way? Should there be other help we offer Bobby?
There is a great and growing need for local churches to have staff and volunteers who are equipped as counselors—this is one of the clearest things I have learned in my time as a vocational minister. Mental health and spiritual health are intimately entwined—yet the church is underprepared to provide the kind of support and help that an increasing number of people need.
Of course, we must also wrestle with the reality that it is not enough for us to want to help people in Bobby’s position—Bobby actually must want to help himself for any meaningful life change to occur. That tends to be the difficult bit with all this, you see.3 It is great to offer people cups of cold water in the name of Jesus; it is much harder to convince them that they actually should take that gift and change their lives with it.4
As I try to help the least of these, I am always wondering how much of my effort is actually enabling rather than helping. Does loving Bobby mean just listening to his delusion, praying for him, giving him some food, and then sending him on his way? Is doing those things truly what is loving for him? Is that really the way that he needs to be shown love?
The truth is that I do not know. I really don’t. It is a tough nut to crack, and one I am going to continue to reflect upon in the days and months to come. And in the meantime, I am going to do the little that I am able to do for people who are in Bobby’s situation. I am going to continue to listen. I am going to continue to offer what limited resources I have. And in so doing, my hope and prayer is that I can continue to visit with Jesus.
1 In truth, Bobby needed to talk to someone much more qualified then I, because Bobby pretty clearly needs to speak with a mental health professional on a regular basis.
2 Though Bobby’s Jesus-hood is less about Bobby’s self-proclamations and more about the fact that he is my neighbor created in the image of God.
3 This is particularly difficult because many of our homeless friends actually view the world in such a way that living outside the bounds of “normal society” is actually preferential. Of course, not everyone who is homeless wants to be in that position. Plenty of people without homes would prefer to be part of “normal” functioning society. In my experience (and particularly in the cities of the West) homelessness is often chosen and embraced.
4 This is the example that Jesus gives us numerous times in the gospels: he heals someone or addresses their need, then expects them to live differently because of it. For example, see John 7:53-8:11.
Image courtesy of Rui Duarte.