As a teenager I read the Gospels and was fascinated by what I read. In particular I was enthralled by Jesus and the way he treated people, angered authorities and the words he spoke. It was hard, and still is, to explain what I experienced in the Gospels. Jesus both attracted me a repelled me at the same time. He pointed me to something true and beautiful but something disturbing all at once. Most of all he challenged my perceptions of God, others and myself. If this is God, and this is how God acts and behaves, then what is expected of me? I wanted to follow and I wanted to run away. I feel this way to this very day.
Sadly, when I went to church this was not the Jesus that was presented. There Jesus was stern, judgemental and very angry with me and the world over our sin. They were also very sure about Jesus, his meaning, his message. Jesus looked and sounded very much like a 20th Century, white, evangelical. It was not a Jesus that I recognized from the Gospels and I wanted nothing to do with him.
But I still couldn’t escape Jesus. I was drawn to him, challenged by him, irritated by him and inspired by him, often all at the same time it seemed. So I read. I prayed. I worshipped. I associated with others who claimed to know and follow him. Yes I have caught glimpses over the years. Glimpses around the communion table as I feast on his body and blood in bread and wine. Glimpses as I find myself in the company of the poor, the lonely, the sick, the forgotten. Glimpses in people who so passionately and lovingly give flesh to the spirit of Jesus as they give of themselves. But my quest continues or perhaps his pursuit of me continues. But I often feel that the more I study the less I know. the more I try to figure out who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, the further I get from the truth. Yet still I am drawn back again and again, back to the table, back to the gospels, back to Jesus.
This semester I am very blessed to be teaching at course at Queen’s College on Jesus called Portraits of Jesus. I have have taught this course before and learned much in the preparation and teaching of it. Here are some of the things I have learned.
Jesus was a Jew. Thanks to scholars like John Meier this is pretty much an accepted fact among most Christians. But we always need to be reminded that Jesus was not a Pentecostal, Baptist or Roman Catholic. And as much as I want him to be he was not a progressive, low-church leaning, social justice minded, Anglican like me either. He was a good Torah believing Jew, shaped by his first century culture and religion. We need to pay attention to this reality.
Jesus doesn’t just belong to the Church anymore. I hope that Jesus will always be central to the life, worship, and theology of the church. If that stops can we truly call ourselves Christians? But we have to contend with the fact that Jesus is a cultural phenomenon, even a pop culture icon. Exhibit A is the Buddy Christ picture that accompanies this blog from Kevin Smith’s film Dogma. Jesus shows up in novels, music videos, songs, art, film, youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. He is a historical person so scholars like Reza Aslan can write books about him that we don’t agree with, but that’s ok. His name can be on the lips of hip hop artists, politicians and televangelists, all of whom I don’t have much time for, but that’s ok. I can write blogs about him that might appear unorthodox or even scandalous, but that’s ok.
There will be no consensus on Jesus. Evidence of this goes back to the fact that we have four gospel accounts. In the early church there was a great variety of opinion on Jesus. Literally millions of pages have been written about Jesus down through the years, all using the same sources, and all honestly trying to make sense of Jesus. So go ahead, read Crossan, Borg, and read NT Wright while your at it. Watch the Passion of the Christ and watch The Last Temptation of Christ too. You don’t have to agree with it all, nobody does.
We all recreate Jesus in our own Image. This is probably the hardest and most controversial lesson that I have learned. I am sure it will anger some, but I believe it to be true. Sure there are better, more historically accurate, or traditional views of Jesus, but I don’t think there is one view to rule them all. That being said we always have to hold our view of Jesus up to the scrutiny of the gospels, the theological tradition we find ourselves in, and to what historical research can teach us. But we must always know that Jesus refuses to stand still, refuses to be pigeon-holed or reduced to some safe, knowable formula.
Jesus should always keep the Church honest. If I was starting a religion I am not sure that I would pick Jesus or a character like him to base it upon. But Jesus is not the saviour or messiah that we think we but the one we (the church) deserves. He is our constant reminder of what love looks like, what God looks like. He challenges us with grace and forgiveness and stands as a prophetic witness of how we should treat the poor and the powerless, and that we should count ourselves among their number and treat with disdain the temptation of power, influence and riches.
But then again that’s just me and what I have learned so far. Check back with me later, it will probably have changed.