What about Jesus? 

Chapter two of
Dear Kim, this is what I believe . . .                           by Bill Loader
Dear Kim,

There are so many questions you ask about Jesus. Let me begin by saying that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived at a particular time of human history which we know something about. It was the time of the Roman Empire and the place where he lived was Palestine. In other words, whatever else I or any other person may say, Jesus was a figure in human history, not a god nor a legendary or mythical figure. Nor is he someone made up by religious people; otherwise it would be too difficult to explain some of the contradictions which exist in the accounts of his life. And, apart from that, non-Christian sources of the first two centuries (for example, Pliny, Tacitus, Josephus) treat him like any other historical figure.

So much has been said about Jesus down through the centuries that it is often hard to get a picture of what he was really like. There is much legend and symbol that has grown up around him, but behind it all there is a real human person, Jesus.

Light shining through

Sometimes I think of human history as being like a very large rug with a light under it in a dark room. I’m thinking of the kind of rug where here and there the light could actually shine through - a holey rug! The light shines through at a number of places. I think God is like that light in human history.

The light breaks through at a number of points in human history where something happens or someone says some thing and people say: hey, that really opened up something for me; that was a revelation; I see life in a new way now; that was a God-moment; like, I caught a glimpse of what really matters in life. Or maybe they just sense something without being able to put it into words.

This has happened at many points in history and in many cultures. And it can happen for each of us. Occasionally it is so significant that we remember it as a turning point in our lives, when everything came together, when the penny dropped, when we saw the light. It may be prompted by a tragedy, a high point, or just some very ordinary occurrence or through something someone else said or did.

When an event like this happens for communities of people, they often celebrate it for years to come. It needn’t always be a pleasant experience. Australians and New Zealanders treat the disaster at Gallipoli during the First World War as an event like this. Legends build up around such experiences. So do rituals and ceremonies. And the funny thing is that it is often hard to put your finger on why the occasion was so important. Why, for instance, make such a big thing of one of the ANZACs’ biggest failures? Is it because people realised how much they needed each other? Is it because we all feel one with those who are hard up against it? Was that the revelation?

Religions often grow up around such events or stories, especially when the events happened long ago. In religions, people usually try to get back in touch with important events like this, to try to re-live them. They sing about them, talk about them, sometimes even dance them or try to re-enact them. In many religions you will find that they celebrate a series of major events like this. The Jews celebrate the liberation of their people from Egypt in the annual Passover meal. Islam celebrates the trials and triumphs of Mohamed. The Old Testament of the Bible includes accounts of such events which were significant for the people, Israel.

Jesus and the light shining through

When I look over the rug for signs of God shining through in human history, for me the brightest spot is the life of Jesus. All of the others are important, but, for me, it’s at this point where I see something unique and special. I use Jesus as my major clue for understanding God and the universe. When I say ‘Jesus’, I am really referring only to a short period of his life just before his death, three years or perhaps even less than a year, the period covered by the gospels. And I am referring to the impression he left on those around him, especially as it is preserved in what they remembered about him. The data base is fairly small, but big enough to get an overall picture. It is a composite picture about remembered history but painted in the colours and style of people living two generations later.

What do I see in Jesus? Before I answer that, let me recap: what am I looking for? I am looking for what God is like, what life is all about. I am wanting to get in touch with what lies behind the universe, what makes sense of it, what ultimately matters. These are all God-type questions. What do I see when I look at the data we have on Jesus?

The first thing that I see is that Jesus taught that God is loving and compassionate towards all people. Nothing stands in the way of that love and respect for people, not their race, their religion, their sex, their age, not even if they are people who are the worst rogues under the sun. Nothing indicates that Jesus was blind to all these differences or naively pretended everyone was good and therefore deserved loving. On the contrary his love was honest and straight. He came face to face with an immoral swindler, but was not prepared to write him off. He wrote no-one off. Contrary to the attitudes of many in his day, he treated women as equals, he welcomed outcasts, he valued people considered small and insignificant, including children.

Jesus lived what he taught

In other words, Jesus lived out in his life what he taught and what he believed about God. Without making a big thing of it, he claimed to be reflecting God’s own attitudes in what he said and did. You can see that in the stories he told. One tells of a father. This father had a son who wheedled out of him the share of his father’s fortune which he would have inherited when his father died. He went off with all this money, made a right mess of his life and then had the audacity to turn up again at his father’s homestead. What did the father do? Shut the door on his son or, at least, make sure first that he had mended his ways? No. The father did what any decent father would do: when he saw his son coming, he was filled with compassion, got up, ran down the road and embraced him. That’s how we ought to think of God, said Jesus. Jesus’ portrait of this father is provocative, because it broke the cultural norms according to which fathers should be seen to act with dignity and reserve. For Jesus, God does not play the power games of dignity and reserve.

Jesus used stories of human love and compassion like this as his model for God. God is not like an offended father or mother who says: ‘I never want to see you again’; or: ‘I’ll only accept you back if you make amends!’ Nor is Jesus’ picture of God one of a king or ruler obsessed with getting everyone to bow and scrape before him. Jesus does use the traditional language of king to refer to God; he even lives by a vision of a day when God will reign over all in the universe. But the picture of this reign is a picture not of subjugation to a tyrant, but of human beings living in a loving community, eating and drinking together in peace, enjoying each other and enjoying oneness with God.

The vision and the reality

Jesus appears to have used a common vision of how things could be when God reigns, as a blueprint for his own lifestyle. This makes sense because if you live by a picture of how it will be when God reigns, then that is the same as letting God reign in your life now. And letting God reign or rule in your life now is just another way of saying: living in a way that is in touch with God. Or we could say: letting God’s energy and spirit have its way in your life. In that sense we are also talking about what it means to live fully as a human being. Being truly human means letting the love and compassion of God that is within and behind the universe flow through your life.

 

You can see the way this works out when Jesus talks about various aspects of human life. People were concerned about what was right and wrong. He changed the direction of their thinking. They looked at the commandments. Jesus looked beyond them. So instead of just saying, ‘Don’t murder’, Jesus said: ‘Don’t write people off at all, not even by your thoughts.’ Similarly instead of talking about adultery, he taught that any sexual exploitation of women is wrong, whether it is in your action or just in your attitude. He attacked the divorce system of the day which drove many women into poverty. He called for straight honesty in relationships and went so far as arguing that no situation justifies your writing anyone off, not even if the person is your worst enemy. The attitude of treating others as people of worth runs through everything he said and did.

Putting this kind of radical love at the heart of his thinking about God and at the heart of his practical living brought Jesus into conflict with many of his contemporaries. He was a practising Jew, but sat lightly to many of its ritual and cultic rules, especially where human need was concerned. He wasn’t anti religious, but he saw rites and rituals as an aid to what was the central thing: helping people become one with God and live at one with others.

Jesus’ lifestyle and God’s lifestyle

Jesus probably had his own characteristic rituals and practices. One of them seems to have been giving meals a special significance as times of sharing and belonging together. The church’s practice of Holy Communion stems ultimately from Jesus’ own practice. He seems to have openly shared meals with all sorts of people, from the pious and respectable to the rogue and outcast. These were occasions of acceptance and celebration flowing from his strong belief in God’s love for all. Another of his characteristics was his simple lifestyle: he had a small band of women and men who travelled around with him and they all shared a common purse for daily needs. Jesus declared that when God’s reign comes it will be good news for the poor. People who were poor would have found acceptance and support in his company. His vision was of a changed society with no discards; what he hoped was also what he lived.

He appears also to have had the ability to heal people. Miracle stories are often legendary and it is always hard to tell fact from pious fiction. Some stories, like those about Jesus walking on water and stilling storms, probably reflect pictures people drew of Jesus after the event rather than actual occurrences. They are powerfully symbolic. But there is probably a kernel of stories that go back to Jesus’ activity as a successful faith healer.

The primary thing about Jesus was his claim to be living out the way God wants us to be. It was precisely because Jesus was truly human in this sense that we say he was truly God. He never said anything like: I am God. But it is not wide of the mark when people said that to meet him was like meeting God. After all, he was a window on what God is like. That is what they believed and what I believe. The earliest Christian writer, Paul, said: ‘God was in Christ’; and later Church shorthand simply said: he was God. But they never meant for one moment that he was not an ordinary human being like you and me.

Jesus’ public execution

Jesus stuck with his conviction about God. His life ended in a gruesome public execution. The Romans killed him by their usual method: crucifixion. They nailed him up on a wooden cross along with others they considered criminals, with the charges against them hung over their heads for all to see. It was a common method of deterring crime. For them he was probably just another statistic. Crucifixions were common.

The Romans had probably been fed information by the temple authorities in Jerusalem that Jesus should be considered dangerous. The present accounts of Jesus’ trial and death in the gospels are so much shaped by the Christians’ own later encounter with Jewish and Roman courts that it is almost impossible to reconstruct what really happened in Jesus’ last days. Maybe the Romans considered any movement that was growing in momentum as suspicious. The Jews had been producing a number of popular movements, many of which were directly anti-Roman. Perhaps Jesus’ rather confrontational approach to the hierarchical temple system in Jerusalem, where the rich and powerful held sway, tipped the scales against him. The Romans would have seen any destabilising of the temple as an action against their own interests.

It was a mixture of political and religious concerns that removed Jesus. Jesus and his message of love had the capacity to transform people’s attitudes, to offer individuals new hope and to set the agenda for a just and peaceful world. But he was snuffed out - almost by accident, a victim of the political and religious fears of his day. It is hardly fair to say the Jews as a people killed him; it was the political and religious authorities

The cross, a symbol of love

But when we look back, we see that the killing of Jesus becomes one of those big events where lots of things come together. Here was love which kept loving right to the end. One account of his death even has him pray for his killers while he hung on the cross; he kept true to loving to the end. This was a revelation of love. The cross became a symbol of this love. It became a symbol of God.

In a fascinating way it turned traditional values upside down. The Roman soldiers ridiculed Jesus by dressing him up as a king. The charge against him was that he was wanting to be a king of the Jews. That charge hung above him on the cross. It was false. Yet people soon realised that at another level it was true; Jesus had shown what being a king or leader really means. He showed what kind of king God is: not a king of power, but a king of love. This challenges all prevailing systems of power which think ‘might is right’. The powerful powerlessness of the cross has been an amazing symbol.

The cross, a symbol of evil

The other side of the coin is that the event of Jesus’ death has become a symbol of what is evil: the killing of love, wherever it occurs and whatever justification people use to excuse it. The justification in Jesus’ case was the need to keep law and order, to maintain stability on the eastern flank of the Roman empire. Sadly, people always seem to find a way of justifying the destruction of love and justice. The cry for law and order is frequently the impulse for actions which lead to the violation of human rights.

Jesus’ suffering was not greater than that of other human beings. Many have suffered far worse. But it is the fact that human beings conspired together to kill someone so unique as Jesus that is the horror of the event. People snuffed out the brightest and clearest expression of love that world had ever seen. It was a crime not only against him, but against all humanity, and ultimately against God. So, as well as being a revelation of the best in humankind, love, it is also a revelation of the worst in humankind, a symbol of evil.

The death of Jesus, therefore, is one of those events which makes waves. It continues to make an impact across history right into the present day. In one way it sums up what Jesus’ life was all about because it shows he loved to the end. It is a symbol of his life. Paul, later, could sum up all that Christianity was about by speaking simply of ‘the cross’; he preached ‘the cross’.

It has become a symbol of the central issues in all human life: do I kill the love which wants to be alive in me? Each of us knows how to crucify love in ourselves and in our world. So the words of the spiritual ask: ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’

Finding our way into the story

If we keep coming back to this event, we can keep in touch better with what is happening in our own lives and in our world. When they function well, Christian communities help us feel our way back into the story - whether we are on the side of the crucifiers or the crucified. That alerts us to what is going on around us and within us and we can get in touch again with what that love is all about.

A uniquely powerful event like this explodes into the world with so much energy that no human imagery of explanation can really sum it up. Little wonder that one of the earliest Christian responses was to say: Christ died for us, for our sins. The wrong we do, our lovelessness, has been foisted onto this human being. They experienced this event as a source of enormous healing for their own lives. The goodness concentrated in this event overflows to the benefit of all. It was like he died as a representative of all human beings.

In a world where temples and sacrifices were common it is not surprising that people began to speak of Jesus’ death as being like a sacrifice which removed guilt and impurity. They spoke of the healing power of his sacrificial blood. It is strange to our ears. They understood themselves to have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. This was their way of talking about the impact of Jesus’ death, or better of his life and death. It has been off-putting for many that some Christians have persisted in using such language in modern society where temples and sacrifices are no longer part of our common way of life. There are lots of other ways of talking about the impact of Jesus than to speak in the language of blood and sacrifices, but we can know what they meant and share their faith.

Resurrection

It is possible to think of Jesus and his impact as simply an event in history of enormous, even unique, significance. The first Christians went further than that. Their understanding of life included life after death, and especially resurrection. By resurrection they meant that a person begins a new form of existence at a different level of reality. Usually they envisaged this transformed life as entailing a transformation of the dead corpse into a new spiritual reality. This belief went along with the hope that ultimately everything would be transformed to the new level of existence. Some saw it all happening at a set time in the future. Others saw it as something which could start happening already in the present. The details of such beliefs are somewhat vague, but they form the backdrop for the earliest Christians’ first great claim about Jesus.

Our earliest Christian sources speak of Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, coming to a new startling belief: instead of remaining in the sleep of death like other human beings who had died, Jesus had been resurrected and Peter had glimpsed him in this new state. Unfortunately there is no description anywhere in earliest writings of what exactly Peter saw, but apparently others had similar visual experiences, women and men. Some accounts even have women as the first to have had the experience. The conviction that God had raised Jesus to the new level of existence became fundamental for Christian faith and turned dejected men and women, disappointed at his death, into enthusiastic propagators of Jesus and his message.

Inevitably this belief called out for further elaboration. The pictures drawn for us in the New Testament vary considerably. Sometimes we read of Jesus walking about and talking as though an actual resuscitation had taken place and he had a normal body of flesh and blood. Others are more careful and speak of appearances and revelations. In all four gospels there is an account of Jesus’ tomb being empty. The assumption here is that the corpse of Jesus had been transformed into the new reality. It is difficult to be sure whether this story grew out of the conviction that Jesus was alive or whether it represents memory of finding the tomb actually empty. I’m inclined to the former view; but on the central issue I want to affirm: I believe that Jesus is more than a figure of past history. I believe he belonged to God in his life and I find it hard to believe that he does not belong to God now.

Using very personal language of God, we could say that God raised Jesus from the dead and took him home. He is with God. One of the earliest claims was that God had given Jesus a seat on God’s right hand side in heaven. He was to reign as king. If we try to translate these images into other language we could say: Jesus is alive with God and God has identified him as key spokesperson and representative, who embodies God’s will and God’s being. God has said ‘yes’ to all that Jesus said and did. This is a way of saying that Jesus truly is what he claimed to be. What he said about God and what he lived out in his life is true. He is the place where the light shines through.

Jesus as good news

You can imagine that now the earliest Christian community had a message that had something extra. They still preached and taught what Jesus had said and done; but, added to that, they had the message of his death and his resurrection. In the years that followed they went out and about through their native Judea and Galilee, then spread north to Syria, across to Greece, over to Rome, south to Egypt, and finally throughout the Mediterranean world and also towards the east. They met many different cultures. They were safe most of the time speaking the common Greek language, but, even then, cultures differed considerably. How could they speak about Jesus to people with very different backgrounds from their own without losing the central thrust of what were Jesus’ concerns?

This continues to be a major task for people who are part of the continuing Jesus movement; otherwise the message of Jesus gets lost in a ghetto community with its own in-group language and strange ceremonies and institutions and loses relevance for the world around it. One of the reasons I’m writing this book is that I fear this has been happening too much in recent years.

How could people convey the magic of what Jesus was on about? The disciples tried almost everything. Many Christians became obsessed with Jesus as an authority and lost sight of his message. At worst they were in danger of heaping onto Jesus all the honourable titles they could lay hands on. But such devotion easily produced a Jesus looking quite the opposite of the Jesus of the earliest records: a stern royal ruler rather than a humble caring human being. This is just another version of people foisting onto God (Jesus, in this case) their own value systems. It is too easily forgotten that the earliest setting of royal imagery for Jesus is the imagery of irony: the crowned crucified Jesus.

Terms like Son of God and Lord became popular. They can carry positive and negative connotations depending of how much of the story of the real Jesus is remembered. Son of God came to be a way of saying that Jesus belongs to God’s family. That is an image which tries to grasp the intimate link between Jesus and God. If any human being is son of God, Jesus is and more. This fits well with his tender language about God being like a caring father and with his special closeness to God. On the other hand, it is quite misleading to take the language literally as if we must insert God into Jesus’ family tree. The wonderful legends of Jesus’ birth to a virgin should not be used in this way. They represent in a fabled way an attempt to say that God meant Jesus to be the way he was and had a hand in it from the beginning.

Other Christians soon used popular mythology as a way of expressing the truth about Jesus. Some circles used to speak of Wisdom (Greek: Sophia) as God’s partner and assistant in the creation and ordering of the universe. It is not always clear whether they were thinking of an actual being, like an angel, or just using personal imagery. Wisdom is often pictured as a woman. Some linked the figure with God’s Law or God’s Word, the Jewish scriptures. Others defined it in such a way that it represented what humans could grasp of God: the image or likeness of God. It was also seen as something like the meaning that holds all of reality together. For Christians Jesus was now the meaning that held the universe together. He was the image and likeness of God. He was God’s Word. As such they also found it easy to say that the one we see in Jesus was in the universe from the beginning. In the historical Jesus we see this one taking on human flesh and blood.

When words and explanations fail

In all these attempts categories failed to grasp adequately what had happened and what people believed. The event was larger and more significant than could simply be put into words. In the long run the Church fixed certain pegs of belief in the ground and left the rest to flap, so to speak, but the tent of faith it erected was enough to shelter what people cherished. Those pegs included: Jesus was a real human being, not just one on the outside. He really did live and die at a particular time and place in human history. It really was God whom people encountered in Jesus, not a second god, not an angel or some other kind of being.

For me, to say Jesus is human means I believe that he was not a walking encyclopedia, knowing everything from his birth onwards. He was a human being of his time, living under usual human limitations of knowledge and education. He doubtless believed in a world populated by demons like his contemporaries and probably believed the world was more or less flat, with the sky as a dome in which the stars and moon shone by night and the sun by day, the common Old Testament picture. His expectations about history were those of his time. He lived in a community which thought history was soon coming to an end. His healing practices reflect the methods of his world.

In his particular time and place and culture, however, I believe he was in touch with God like no one else I know. He expressed this reality in the world of his time and as a person of his time. He was genuinely human. I believe this also with regard to what he was able and not able to do. I cannot think of him as a human being carrying around with him, as it were, a divine power pack of cosmic proportions. He was not a superman.

Sinless?

Another motif commonly linked with the picture of Jesus is that of his sinlessness. People who preferred the language of sacrifice to speak of Jesus’ death highlighted this. A sacrifice had to be spotless and perfect. He was spotless and perfect. Others hailed Jesus as the righteous one as a way of declaring their belief that Jesus was truly speaking and acting in harmony with God. Unfortunately, later centuries extrapolated from this that Jesus was sinless in a statistical sense and even had to be - from the cradle. This gave rise to legends of his childhood where he acts in total maturity. Later, artists were even inclined to portray the baby Jesus with a grown up’s face.

To my mind nothing in the early tradition demands that we should believe Jesus was anything other than a normal child and adolescent. I find it quite compatible with my faith to believe that Jesus, too, will have had to learn by his mistakes and will have had the usual ups and downs characteristic of being human in this world. Certainly, the gospels do not shy away from picturing him as having experiences of human sadness and anxiety. The portrait of Jesus bent in agony in Gethsemane and of crying out words of despair on the cross should hold the peg firm against any attempts to make a superman out of him. Jesus struggled. And there, too, he opens a window for us. Yet, I still hear Christians saying (and singing) that if you’re on God’s side your life will be trouble free!

The Trinity

One of the structures linking some of these pegs, which the Church hammered in to hold together its belief, is the doctrine of the Trinity. It says God is three: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. On the surface it is a contradiction: how can three be one! Yet it is an attempt to hold together some essential ideas which don’t fit together well and yet which seem to belong. On the one side, all our talk about God in Jesus must never lead to the idea that there is more than one God. On the other side, Jesus cannot be described just simply as God; otherwise he is hardly a human being. The third figure, the Spirit, is also sometimes spoken of separately: for example, God sent the Spirit. The one we meet in all is the one God, yet the language allows for three figures to be spoken of.

In many ways the problem seems easier to solve with the Spirit which is perhaps best taken as just another way of speaking of God in a particular mode of relating. The word, Spirit (old English used ‘Ghost’), goes back to Greek and Hebrew words which mean spirit, breath and wind. Spirit can be a more intimate way of speaking of God, like God’s breath. Traditionally it is also a way of describing God’s creative power bringing about new possibilities and realising future hopes and visions.

With Jesus things are considerably more complicated. Is he a combination of a human being and something else, namely, God? Did he have two personalities? I find most of this rather meaningless speculation. Perhaps we shall never be able to offer an adequate explanation. I prefer to understand Jesus’ relationship to God, exemplified by his praying to God, primarily as one of total human devotion and to avoid theories which demand some kind of shared combination of beings in the human Jesus. It was precisely because he was such an in-touch human being that God shone through his life so brightly.

Yet in general people make no difference between Jesus and God when they think about the present living Jesus. One person prays to Jesus, another to God, the Father. Really both are praying to God. This has made it easier for people to say simply, Jesus is God. To be in touch with Jesus is to be in touch with God. Thinking of Jesus in history leads us to stress his humanity, while thinking of Jesus in the present leads to a stronger emphasis on his divinity. The creeds of the church seek to hold onto both aspects.

Some people get excited by abstract models of God as a single community of beings, but I must say I find this too abstruse. I’m happier with what some of the traditional structures are meant to affirm than I am with what people think they affirm when they work with them in a more literal way. A lot of the problems which have arisen in such speculative discussions have come about because of the popularity of one particular model of thought about Jesus in the time leading up to when the creeds were written, especially from the second century of Christianity onwards.

Just a set of good ideas?

I am also unhappy with attempts to reduce Christianity to just a set of good ideas like ‘love’ or ‘justice and peace’. I’m not against trying to abstract and summarise - I’m doing it here - but I’m convinced that events of deep meaning, like the event of Jesus, need to be left intact. They need to be left in their historical and cultural setting, because it is only there that we can encounter them in anything like their full depth. When you try to crystallise out from them a few central ideas, you lose something. This is so for many of our own personal life experiences. There are things we cannot put into words; the nearest thing we can do is say what happened, tell a story, try to re-present the event in some way.

Events are more than ideas. They have flesh and blood. We can read of events or see them on film or in theatre and feel caught up into them in a way that never happens with ideas on their own. They have a way of entering our experience; we can find ourselves entering them and becoming part of theirs. This is what I meant before in quoting the words of the spiritual: ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ When people think about that event, they often find that they are represented there in what happened.

For many, the story of how Jesus openly faced suffering, pain and death and then found life in the resurrection, has become a model for their own lives. Many would say it was only when they faced up to their own pain (or fear or guilt or hurt) that they came through to a new start in life. Jesus’ death and resurrection becomes a model of what works for their own lives. In the same way others have found that it was as they gave up hanging onto their lives selfishly and let themselves love that they moved from being dead to being alive. Jesus’ death becomes a model and also a stimulus which changes people’s life-patterns.

The impact of Jesus’ life left an impression on those around him. That impression has been preserved for us in the Church’s traditions. This is the only picture of Jesus we have, but it is one still capable of transforming people’s lives and attitudes. The lofty doctrines and elaborate imagery which arose over the course of time around this picture are important, but they should, to my mind, be seen as secondary to the picture itself.

Even that picture is a mixture of historical information and interpreting reflection. Already by the end of the first century, when most of the New Testament had been written, there was much which went far beyond what one could claim for the historical Jesus. And some claims have become very misleading. Yet careful examination of the earliest traditions about Jesus reveal enough information for us to be able to identify the contours of the Jesus behind it all. I want to say more about that in the next chapter about the Bible. It is our major source book for the picture of Jesus we have.

What about the Bible?


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