It wasn’t that long ago that the evangelical world eagerly awaited the release of what was being lauded as “the greatest evangelistic tool of our time.” The anticipation built as a brilliant marketing campaign invited pastors and church leaders to pre-screen Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ movie, and its trailer spread virally online. An anti-Semitism controversy notwithstanding, evangelicals and Catholics worldwide pre-purchased tickets for opening night. I was one of those awash in buzz for the film, and our youth group was one of thousands that attended screenings opening weekend.
Now that the furor’s dissipated and another Holy Week invites further reflection, the fervor that surrounded the film begs several difficult questions: Why did the world have to wait for a Hollywood epic to glimpse Christ’s passion? Didn’t He challenge those who would be disciples to take up our crosses daily? Didn’t He charge us to model for unbelievers His incarnated love?
In other words, shouldn’t Christ’s passion be demonstrated tangibly everyday in our homes, communities, workplaces, and schools through our obedience of Him? Shouldn’t, then, Mel’s movie and other artistic statements like it, more appropriately serve as reminders of His love and not revelations of it?
Jesus gave the great commission and its corollary great commandment to actual human beings, not artistic renderings or other inanimate objects. But apart from this movie this movie, how many evangelicals regarded Mel Gibson as a great evangelist or even as a “Christian actor”? He was more commonly known as a devout Catholic who occasionally made films containing Messianic overtones and spiritual subtexts. All of a sudden he was credited with creating the greatest evangelistic tool of our time?
That’s because we’re still stuck in a world where the term “evangelism” means the proclamation of a tidy Gospel presentation, followed by an altar call, sinner’s prayer, and follow-up card.
Not so the Christ model. Contrary to conventional 21st century wisdom, Jesus chose to live among the people He would serve, learning their language, understanding their customs, practicing their traditions, and paying his cultural dues for thirty years before opening his mouth to preach. The almighty Maker of heaven and earth who measures the universe with a span clothed himself in the form of created man; chose to be born in a barn of an unmarried woman, at a time when unmarried pregnancy was a crime punishable by death; endured his childhood as a political refugee in Egypt; spent his adolescence and young adulthood in a Judean ghetto (“What good comes out of Nazareth?”); lived as a de facto slave to imperial Rome; and practiced blue collar work for thirty years before beginning his “ministry.”
When he came of age as a rabbi, his preferred ministry practice was to meet people’s needs before teaching them. He’d open blind eyes, treat 5,000 of his closest friends to dinner out of a little boy’s lunch sack, disrupt funerals to revitalize the deceased, and restock the booze at a wedding in order to relate to people. Only then would he preach, and then by talking about ordinary things that ordinary people would understand: money, farming, taxes. He wouldn’t manipulate his crowd numbers and chose to keep his immediate following small.
By most modern evangelical standards, Jesus would be voted least likely to succeed as an evangelist. History tells a different story, though, because for Him, evangelism wasn’t something He did, it is who He is. Reaching people was His life. Relating to and serving them was his methodology. Loving them was His passion, and He invented ways to do it.
That’s what the crucifixion represents, and what Mel’s movie depicts: Christ’s ultimate act of service. He laid down His life – His heavenly throne and all that went with it – to pay the supreme price for our sin because He loved us, even though we rejected Him.
St. Francis of Assisi once said his mission in life was to “share Christ and use words when necessary.” We evangelicals have it in reverse. We tend to use words to share Christ while our actions preach something altogether different.
Mel’s movie was indeed a triumph. Not just of great movie making or as a legitimate depiction of the crucifixion, but as an historical moment for the Church. It set a new bar for what can come from a crucified life, devoted to Christ, and passionate about serving others.
Mel earned the right to make his movie, and the respect of his would-be audience, because for the prior 25 years, as an actor and director he met audiences on their terms. After rediscovering his faith, he continued nurturing his craft and making good movies. The spiritual truths contained in many have been well received because they avoided the preachy trap. His resulting credibility as an artist, combined with the courage of his convictions and $30 million of his own money, produced a film about our loving Savior that the entire world paused to notice.
In the years since Passion, Mel’s personal life has been a bit of a train wreck, and any self-righteous delusions have been tempered. But the film remains a triumph worth celebrating, and a reminder of what is possible from an inspired, crucified life.
How is your youth ministry encouraging youth to take up their crosses daily, and how are youth leaders modeling this by example?