Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Is Always Ahead of Us
Gerrit Scott Dawson is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He received his D.Min. degree in 2002 from Reformed
JMF: I have your book here, Discovering Jesus, Awakening to God, and on page 19 you said, “You have dared to hope that the real God is more than an angry rule-giver or some benign force of positivity. Our hearts long for…” You list a number of things and one of them is, “A God who knows us utterly, loves us passionately, and transforms us continually.” I had to think how freeing it would be if everyone knew God that way.
GSD: We all have a yearning to know God. It’s in us from the very beginning, but a lot of us have had some bad experiences in churches and with God’s people, and a lot of us have some distorted views about God. Some of us think that God is always out to get us and that he’s just never pleased with anything that we do. Others of us think that God is no bigger than what I can find inside myself. Both those conceptions of God leave us still yearning for a real experience of the real God.
JMF: Don’t many people feel like a God like you’re describing and bringing out here in Discovering Jesus: Awakening to God (and you’re writing to Christians, for the most part) – don’t people feel that a God like that is too good to be true?
GSD: I think we do. Some of that’s from our upbringing, where being a Christian is more about being good than it is about being in a relationship with God. When we read the New Testament and go to the Gospel stories, we see this God who comes among us and knows us utterly. Think of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, and her response is, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.” Not that Jesus gave her a chronological list of all the events in her life, but that he so spoke the truth of who she was, in love, that she felt as if she were utterly and finally, finally known.
JMF: In this book, you go through Gospel story after gospel story to help illustrate that Jesus is presenting us with the kind of God that you’re talking about. He knows us completely and thoroughly and loves us unconditionally in spite of what he knows about us, which is far more than even the worst we know about ourselves, and he loves us unconditionally anyway.
GSD: Absolutely. That’s the God we meet in the Gospels. Encountering Jesus freshly, really picking up the Gospel stories again, and saying, “Who is this Jesus who was encountering people? How did he meet them? How did he touch them? Is it possible that that could also happen to me?”
Our belief as Christians is that the Scriptures are not a dead document, but they are a living witness to the person of Jesus Christ. Because we believe that Jesus is still alive, that he’s even now at the right hand of the Father praying for us and interceding for us, we believe that he still speaks to us. Often not audibly, but through his word. When he sends his Spirit, and the word is read, and we see that these Scriptures were written not just for the people then, but for us today, it gets exciting because we realize maybe God will meet us in the same way that he was meeting others when he came to us as Jesus.
JMF: Being encountered by a God who knows us thoroughly, loves us unconditionally, but he doesn’t leave it with just that. He does love us in spite of what he knows about us, and that love is unconditional, but he doesn’t leave us in that sinful condition – he also is the God who transforms us continually.
GSD: Absolutely. We see that in Jesus, in the way he called people to himself. For instance, in this book we talk some about the calling of the first disciples, where Jesus asked these fishers who fished all night long and are tired and they haven’t caught anything and they’re putting away their nets, he asked them, “Could you put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch?”
All the fishers knew that the fish were caught in shallow waters and they were caught at night, not in the day. But Peter says, “Well, all right, at your word I’ll do what you’re saying even though you’re not a fisher.” Suddenly, they catch so many fish in those nets that the boats are threatening to be swamped. It’s a moment where the dreams of a fisherman are all coming true. What does a fisher dream about but the great catch?
What’s so striking about this Gospel story is that Peter, in the midst of the biggest catch of his life and career, doesn’t care a bit about it. He falls down on his knees in the boat and he says, “Depart from me, oh Lord, for I am a sinful man.” What happened to Peter is he suddenly realized he was in contact with someone more than a man. Someone who was God himself come among us. He had that problem that we often have, and that’s realizing that if I’m in the presence of the Holy One, I’m in a lot of trouble because I’m sinful, because I’m weak, because I’ve done wrong things.
But it’s right here that Jesus meets him, and the first words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Do not be afraid.” He doesn’t reject Peter, he doesn’t deny the fact that Peter is a sinner, he knows that we’re sinners, but he’s not there to condemn Simon Peter, he’s there to say, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” And from that moment, Peter left his nets, left the greatest catch of his life on the shore, and went off and followed Jesus.
So Jesus met him where he was, told a sinner that he was forgiven, and then moved him on into a greater adventure. He said, “I can fulfill all your worldly dreams of a great catch, but I know what you’re really after, something of greater significance. Come follow me, and let’s see what happens when we bring this love and this grace to sinners.”
He still does that for us today. We have times, perhaps, in the middle of our lives where we’ve achieved highly in our careers, and we realize, “This is not what I want to do. I need something more.” Christ might say, “Come follow me.” Not that you necessarily leave your job, but that the focus of your life changes and he calls us to something more.
JMF: The beauty of this story that speaks to everybody, whether you’ve been successful in life or whether you’ve been a complete washout, or, as most people, a pendulum between the two, when Peter recognizes that this is something greater than he’s ever seen before, God has encountered him in some way and he immediately sees himself as a sinner and admits that: “Depart from me – I’m a sinful man,” he doesn’t really mean “depart from me” – he means “I’m not worthy.”
But Jesus immediately tells him not to be afraid and immediately takes up fellowship with him, and that speaks so much to our human condition at every level, whether we’re experiencing a wonderful thing or whether we’re experiencing a very fearful thing or we’re walking through a period of facing our sinfulness for whatever reason.
Sometimes in the middle of a tragedy, where we feel like, this came upon me because of my own stupidity and my own selfishness and I’ve been going the wrong way and I’m going to reap the fruit of that…even at that kind of a moment to realize that Christ is coming to us, extending his fellowship to us, that makes life something new and different from what it was, or would be, without him.
GSD: It does. To say, do not be afraid. We think about that wonderful story where Jesus comes walking on the water to the disciples in the middle of the night, and they’re terrified (even though they’ve been longing for him) because they think he’s a ghost, because, after all, who’s ever walked on water?
The first words out of his mouth are, in Greek, ego emei: “I am. Do not be afraid.” That’s really an emblem for the presence of God with us in Jesus Christ, is he arrives in our midst with all of this power and all of his revelation and speaks first to say, “I’m here, do not be afraid.” It’s not, “I’m here, get worried because I’ve come to condemn you,” it’s not, “I’m here, you aren’t adequate, you’re going to be kicked out,” but, “I’m here, be at peace. In me you have forgiveness and grace.”
JMF: Many people have the idea that Christianity is about a relationship with the law or with rules, that it’s about not doing this but doing that and praying so many hours a day or minutes a day, whatever the case may be in terms of rule-keeping. And then to find out that Christianity really is about a personal relationship with somebody who already loves you and has already done what is necessary to save you from all those things that destroy and hurt you, it changes the whole complexion of what being a Christian is all about. All of this judgementalism toward one another, and all the burden of rule-keeping that you can never measure up to, is transformed in one instant when you see God for who Christ reveals him to be.
GSD: It’s incredibly freeing. Maybe we can talk about another Gospel story that illustrates that. Remember in Luke 7 where Jesus has been invited to dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee? In those days those dinners were kind of open affairs. People from the city would come and almost watch a prominent dinner unfold. The Gospel story tells us that a woman of the city who was a sinner, which means she had done some notorious sin, came and stood behind Jesus, and she brought with her that alabaster flask of very expensive ointment. She broke the flask open and began to pour it on his feet and too she began weeping, and the tears and the ointment mingled together, and she wet his feet with her tears and she wiped them with her hair.
JMF: Just to make it clear to people who might be listening, they would have been reclining on a bench so that he could be propped up on an elbow facing the table…
GSD: Right. With his feet out to the side. She didn’t have to crawl under the table …
JMF: As a kid I always imagined it that way and thought, “how could that work? She’s crawling under the table?”
GSD: But still, it would have been a scandalous act, because a woman had her hair uncovered, and it’s quite distracting if somebody is weeping behind you. Simon the Pharisee is indignant about this, and he says, in his mind, how could Jesus accept the love of such a sinner? If he knew who she was and realized she’s awful?
Jesus gives a little mini-parable to this teacher of the law, a parable so obvious as to have been insulting to him. He says, Simon, if two men had a debt and one owed the equivalent of $50 and one owed the equivalent of $500 and you forgave them both, who will be the more grateful, who will love you more?
That’s so obvious anybody could get that, and Simon says begrudgingly, “I suppose the one who owed the most,” and Jesus says, “Exactly. This woman loves so much because she’s been forgiven so much.” And we note that he’s never spoken a word to her before. He simply declared her forgiveness already.
Simon saw her and wanted to remind her of all her sins and all the laws that she had broken. Jesus saw her and just by his presence was accepting her and forgiving her. Not that her sins were excused, but that he was recognizing her need and that he loved her.
He then lifts her up and says, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” He didn’t have to say to her, by the way, “sin no more.” She understood that. He had forgiven and accepted her, and so she loved much.
So too in Christianity. When we leave off legalism, the idea that we have to appease an angry God or somehow have enough achievements to impress God, and enter into a relationship of a God who already loves us and has already forgiven us in Christ, then it becomes not about law, but about love. We are ardent and desirous to come to him and unburden ourselves, even to weep over our mistakes and our sins not out of fear, but out of desire to have him heal us and reconnect us.
JMF: It even affects the way we view the events that happen to us in the course of life. If something good happens we think, “God must be blessing me because I did something good.” Or if a bad thing happens, we think conversely, “God must be punishing me because I did something bad.” And because there’s always something bad that we’ve done, we’re always waiting for the moment when the bad thing will happen that God will punish us with.
JMF: It prevents us from being able to think of a relationship with God where we can meet every circumstance with “Christ is with me in this present moment and I can proceed knowing that he is with me, that he loves me, and even if I bungle it, he will love me anyway, and I may have to struggle my way through it, but he’s not going to leave me or forsake me.” Even as we go through it, he will continue to love me and he will continually help me to become more like him in the course of it.
GSD: The problem is, even though we’re Christians, we live as if we’re living by karma, the idea that if you do something bad it’s going to come around and get you in equal measure. The rock singer, Bono, from the group U-2 that’s so popular, noted that it was a transformation for him when he realized that the universe works not by karma but by grace. That the God of Jesus Christ, Jesus himself, is not about karma, making sure everything is handed out according to what we deserve, which would be bad news, but that it’s about grace. Because one person has taken our sins upon himself, has paid the price not only at the external level, but in the depths of the depths he’s taken our lost and forsaken condition, made it his own, and healed it so that he can return to us grace in exchange for our letting go of our sin and our guilt. It’s fabulous.
JMF: As you go through the various Gospel stories in here that you cite as you walk through the four Gospels, is there one that stands out particularly that really touched you in a special way?
GSD: I wanted to talk some toward the end of the book, bringing up the story of Peter’s reinstatement. We talked about Simon Peter, who was called to Jesus when he was fishing. After the resurrection, when Jesus wasn’t with them all the time, and at the end of John’s Gospel, Simon Peter and his friends have gone fishing again. Jesus is on the beach cooking them breakfast.
He tells them, he calls to them to put their nets over on the other side and they catch, the Gospel tells us, 153 large fish. Suddenly they realized, this is déjà vu! We’ve been here before. This must be the Lord. And they come running in with great joy to see the Lord.
That’s when we have this encounter between Simon Peter and Jesus that’s recalling his terrible denials. Peter must have still be smarting over that, that the night of Jesus’ betrayal, three times he denied knowing him after promising he’d die for him.
So Jesus pulls him aside and he says, “Simon Peter, son of John, do you love me?” Peter says, “Well, Lord, you know I love you.” And he asks him again, “Do you love me?” A third time, “Do you love me?” Simon Peter says, “Lord, you know all things, you know I love you.” Jesus says, “Then feed my sheep.”
That story is the background for one of the most beautiful chapters, to me, in all of Scripture, which is in Peter’s first letter, chapter 1, where he’s writing to Christians who are under persecution, have been scattered, and are having a difficult time. He says, “In this hope you rejoice, even though you’ve been suffering for a while, but that the genuineness of your faith might be proved. For though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of joy.”
A long time ago, when I was struggling a lot with guilt and legalism, I was reading that passage and I was thinking, how does Peter know that? He’d never met those people. He’s never met me. How can he declare, “Though you have not seen him, you love him”?
Then it occurred to me. It was like the scales fell off. What if I simply accepted that I am what God declares me to be? What if I simply accepted that I have what he’s declared that I have? And I thought, I do love him. I don’t have to fish around inside myself for my feelings, to see if I’ve done enough good works, to see if I’ve prayed enough and had enough quiet times. It’s a fact. I do love him. His Spirit is within me. It’s a fact. He’s given himself to me, and I believe in him.
So for me, that was transformative. To realize that it wasn’t about my achieving anything, but my receiving what he had already declared to be true about me. It changed my life.
JMF: To accept what he has already said about you is true, this is something that’s a fact whether you believe it or not.
GSD: The beauty of it for me was to realize that. In Peter’s words, he declared to these people he’d never seen, “Though you have not seen him, you love him.” He was describing a reality that they could simply receive and live into. To know that, even before I have turned toward Jesus Christ, he has already turned toward me. Even before I’ve confessed my sins, he has already atoned for them in his cross and resurrection and ascension. Even before I have grasped ahold of him in faith, which I must do, he has already grasped ahold of me.
It’s the most marvelous and freeing experience to realize that even the faith that I have in him is his gift. He’s supplying everything to me. I grow and change and obey and live now based on what he has done, not on what I’m able to whomp up as my own spiritual experience and hope that if I really worship hard enough or pray hard enough I’ll get some kind of spiritual experience. Rather, this is a resting in what he’s already provided, and receiving it.
JMF: There’s a real you that he’s already made you to be, that you really haven’t even seen yet in its fullness. Isn’t it Colossians that speaks of the fact that we are already sealed with him in heavenly places. That new creation that we are, is not something that we see every day. We see…
GSD: The glass darkly.
JMF: Yeah. The down and dirty that we know we are.
GSD: I like 1 John 3, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared to us. But we know that we will be like him, for then we will see him just as he is.”
JMF: That’s when we can see ourselves as he’s actually made us to be.
JMF: And not only ourselves, but we can see others as he’s made them to be as well. This is something that we struggle with, isn’t it, that we see others as people who are in our way and people who are causing us trouble? We don’t see them as the new creation in Christ he’s made them to be.
GSD: Exactly. C.S. Lewis talks about the fact that if we could see others as what they will be when they’re fully glorified, the new lives in heaven, we would be tempted now to fall down and worship them. He says we’re surrounded by people who would potentially be gods and goddesses to us if we saw them as they really are. My sight is so poor that now I see you as the guy who cut me off in traffic, and what I need to do is see myself and to see you in Christ as one who’s been redeemed and transformed, glorified, and is on his way to full realization of that.
JMF: That is a source of great hope, when we realize that the future we have when we are actually glorified and with Christ, the relationships that we will be able to have that now are so strained (and in some cases even broken) can be completely renewed and made fresh and be good and real.
GSD: Which is a real incentive now, because if I’m going to have to deal with you for the rest of eternity, I might as well start forgiving you and loving you and getting along with you now, because we’re going to have a lot of time together.
JMF: Or stay away from you now, since we’ll be together for a long time (laughing).
GSD: That’s right. We’ll have plenty of time for that later (laughing).
JMF: Is there a project that you’re currently involved in that you can tell us about?
GSD: I’m working a bit on this whole question of, if Jesus is so great, then why am I so pitiful still? It occurs to me the more I probe and consider all that Christ is, and the more theology tells us how great is his salvation and how wonderful are his ways, I want to know why is it that I am, and people whom I pastor, are not seeing more transformation? Why are we not more vividly alive and joyous with this reality? Is it because the reality isn’t true?
I don’t think that’s the case. I believe it with all my heart that this is who Jesus is. Something is happening that is causing a clog in the pipeline. It’s keeping us from living out, living in, the reality of what Christ has achieved for us.
JMF: Can you give us any clues as to how you’re going to resolve that?
GSD: I wish I could tell you how exactly how to do it, we’d all be more successful. But it’s a real question where we turn to the ancient traditions of the church of Jesus Christ and the whole concept of spiritual ascension. How is it that I live now with the hope and the power of what is yet to come? I think that we’ll find that it’s as devastatingly simple as asking the Lord to do in me all that he has promised, and offering myself as a living sacrifice to him, not to gain his merit, not to win his approval, but to be available for his use.
JMF: Like you were just talking about, you’re really asking to be able to live in the reality of who he has already made you to be in Christ.
GSD: Exactly. One of the ancient spiritual masters talked about how great a ship is moored at a dock by such a thin rope. For us we have this great ship, the hope of the gospel, but these little pieces that we refuse to release, often wanting to hang onto my own little bit of righteousness, my own achievement before God, or my own pet sins, can kind of hold back the whole ship from leaving the harbor and sailing the seas.
The ancient paths have always been about affirmation and negation. Negatively saying no to the old life and positively saying yes to the new life. I think John Calvin encourages us to direct all our attention away from ourselves and toward Christ. The surest way to sink my ship is to take a look at myself, either to consider how great I am, which is false, or how wretched I am, which in Christ isn’t so, and get caught in that web of self. But the discipline of knowing about, looking at, and worshiping Jesus, I think is what seems to lead to transformation.JMF: We’ve been talking with Dr. Gerrit Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thanks for being with us.