As a writer, I have the wonderful privilege of researching and meditating on one topic for months at a time. My latest project allowed me to focus on the grandest subject of all: Jesus. Growing up in the church, I learned his name as soon as I learned the names of my family members. But now, as an adult, what did I truly think about him? Which childhood impressions had been confirmed and which ones overturned?
As I reflect on what I learned in the process of writing "The Jesus I Never Knew," I have come up with a "top ten" list. Please forgive me if the form seems irreverent. David Letterman style, it begins with number 10 and works upward.
10. Jesus was a Jew
I knew that, of course. But the more I studied Jesus, the more I realized that his humanity had receded far away. Every week in church I would repeat the creed, which, significantly, hustles through Jesus' life. "… Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate," it says. Did anything happen in the interval between birth and death?
Somehow, everything Jesus said and did in 33 years on earth gets swept aside in the rush to interpret his life correctly. For me, as for many others raised in the Christian tradition, the man who walked the dusty roads of Palestine had been all but lost. I knew Christ—"Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made"—but not Jesus, or Rabbi Jeshua bar-Joseph, the Jew from Nazareth.
A remarkable change has taken place in recent years, I learned during my library research: interest in Jesus is resurging among the Jews. In 1925, the Hebrew scholar Joseph Klausner could find only three full-length treatments of Jesus' life by contemporary Jewish scholars. Now there are hundreds, including some of the most illuminating studies available. Modern Israeli schoolchildren learn that Jesus was a great teacher, perhaps the greatest Jewish teacher, who was subsequently "co-opted" by the Gentiles.
Jesus' true-blue Jewishness leaps out from Matthew's very first sentence, which introduces him as "the son of David, the son of Abraham." Roughly, that might parallel an American politician being introduced as "the son of Abraham Lincoln, the son of George Washington." Jesus grew up in an era of Jewish pride, when families were adopting names that harked back to the times of the patriarchs and the Exodus from Egypt (not unlike ethnic Americans who choose African names for their children). Circumcised as a baby, Jesus attended religious festivals in Jerusalem as a young man, and as an adult he worshiped in the synagogue and temple. Even his controversies with other Jews, such as the Pharisees, underscored the fact that they expected him to share their values and act more like them.
Growing up, I did not know a single Jew. I do now. I know something of their culture: the close ties that keep sacred holidays alive even for families who no longer believe in their meaning; the passionate arguments that at first unsettled me but soon attracted me as a style of personal engagement; the respect, even reverence, for legalism amid a society that mainly values autonomy; the ability to link arms and dance and sing and laugh even when the world offers scant reason for celebration.
This was the culture Jesus grew up in, a Jewish culture. Yes, he changed it, but always from his starting point as a Jew. Now when I find myself wondering what Jesus was like as a teenager, I think of Jewish boys I know in Chicago. When the thought jars me, I remember that in his own day Jesus got the opposite reaction. A Jewish teenager, surely—but the Son of God?
9. Yet Jesus did not act like a Jew
The very architecture of the temple expressed Jewish belief in a ladder of hierarchy reaching higher and higher toward God. Gentiles and "half-breeds" like the Samaritans could enter the outer Court of the Gentiles; a wall separated them from the next partition, which admitted Jewish women. Jewish men could proceed one stage farther, and then only priests could enter the sacred areas.
The society was, in effect, a religious caste system based on steps toward holiness, and the Pharisees' scrupulosity reinforced the system daily. All their rules on washing hands and avoiding defilement were an attempt to make themselves acceptable to God. Had not God set forth lists of desirable (spotless) and undesirable (flawed, unclean) animals for use in sacrifice? Had not God banned sinners, menstruating women, the physically deformed, and other "undesirables" from the temple?
In the midst of this tight religious caste system, Jesus appeared, with no qualms about socializing with children or sinners or even Samaritans. He touched, or was touched by, the "unclean": those with leprosy, the deformed, a hemorrhaging woman, the lunatic and possessed. Although Levitical laws prescribed a day of purification after touching a sick person, Jesus conducted mass healings in which he touched scores; he never concerned himself with the rules of defilement after contact with the sick or even the dead.
Indeed, Jesus turned upside down the accepted wisdom of the day. Pharisees believed that touching an unclean person polluted the one who touched. Yet when Jesus touched a person with leprosy, Jesus did not become soiled—the leprous became clean. When an immoral woman washed Jesus' feet, she went away forgiven and transformed. When Jesus defied custom to enter a pagan's house, the pagan's servant was healed. As Walter Wink puts it, "The contagion of holiness overcomes the contagion of uncleanness."
In short, Jesus moved the emphasis from God's holiness (exclusive) to God's mercy (inclusive). Instead of the message "No undesirables allowed," he proclaimed, "In God's kingdom, no one is any longer an undesirable."
Jesus' attitude convicts me today, because I sense a movement in the reverse direction. The church is becoming more and more politicized. As society unravels and immorality increases, I hear many calls that we show less mercy and more morality. Stigmatize homosexuals, shame unwed mothers, harass the homeless, punish law-breakers. I share a deep concern for our society, and obviously Christians need to be a moral voice. In doing so, though, we must follow Jesus' example, "loving the sinner while hating the sin." I am struck by the power of mercy as demonstrated by Jesus, who came for the sick and not the well, for sinners and not for the righteous. I spent half my life rebelling against the legalism of my childhood; when I tasted the first draught of the Living Water offered by Jesus, I knew I was changed forever.
8. Jesus lost the "Culture Wars"
Not long ago I addressed the topic "Culture Wars" before a large gathering that was tilted toward the liberal Democratic persuasion and included a strong minority of Jews. I had been selected as the token evangelical Christian on a panel that included the presidents of the Disney Channel and Warner Brothers, as well as the president of Wellesley College and Anita Hill's personal attorney.
To prepare for my talk, I went through the Gospels for guidance, only to be reminded how unpolitical Jesus was. Today, each time an election rolls around, Christians debate whether this or that candidate is "God's man" for the White House. Projecting myself back into Jesus' time, I had difficulty imagining him pondering whether Tiberius, Octavius, or Julius Caesar was "God's man" for the empire.
I was also struck by what happens when Christians lose the culture wars. In Communist countries—Albania, the Soviet Union, China—the Christians' worst nightmares came true. These governments forced the church to go underground. (A missionary in Afghanistan told me that after bulldozing the only Christian church in the country, the Afghans dug a huge hole underneath its foundation; they had heard rumors about an underground church!) In waves of persecution during the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Chinese believers were fined, imprisoned, and tortured. Yet, despite this government oppression, a spiritual revival broke out that could well be the largest in the history of the church. As many as 50 million believers gave their allegiance to an invisible kingdom even as the visible kingdom made them suffer for it.
When my turn came to speak, I said that the man I follow, a Palestinian Jew from the first century, had also been involved in a culture war. He went up against a rigid religious establishment and a pagan empire. The two powers, often at odds, conspired together to eliminate him. His response? Not to fight, but to give his life for these his enemies, and to point to that gift as proof of his love. Among the last words he said before death were, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
After the panel, a television celebrity came up to me whose name every reader would recognize. "I've got to tell you, what you said stabbed me right in the heart," he said. "I was prepared to dislike you because I dislike all right-wing Christians, and I assumed you were one. I don't follow Jesus—I'm a Jew. But when you told about Jesus forgiving his enemies, I realized how far from that spirit I am. I fight my enemies, especially the right-wingers. I don't forgive them. I have much to learn from the spirit of Jesus."
7. Jesus was a poor salesman
Sometimes I wonder how Jesus would have fared in this day of mass media and high-tech ministry. I can't picture him worrying about the details of running a large organization. I can't see him letting some make-up artist improve his looks before a TV appearance. And I have a hard time imagining the fundraising letters Jesus might write.
Investigative reporters on television like to do exposes of evangelists who claim powers of supernatural healing with little evidence to back them up. In direct contrast, Jesus, who had manifest supernatural powers, tended to downplay them. Seven times in Mark's gospel he told a healed person, "Tell no one!" When crowds pressed around him, he fled to solitude, or rowed across a lake.
We sometimes use the term "savior complex" to describe an unhealthy syndrome of obsession over solving others' problems. Ironically, the true Savior seemed remarkably free of such a complex. He had no compulsion to convert the entire world in his lifetime or to cure people who were not ready to be cured.
I never sensed Jesus twisting a person's arm. Rather, he stated the consequences of a choice, then threw the decision back to the other party. For example, he once answered a wealthy man's question with uncompromising words, then let him walk away. Mark pointedly adds this comment about the man who rejected Jesus' advice, "Jesus looked at him and loved him."
In short, Jesus showed an incredible respect for human freedom. Those of us in ministry need the kind of "Savior complex" that Jesus demonstrated. As Elton Trueblood has observed, the major symbols of invitation that Jesus used had a severe, even offensive quality: the yoke of burden, the cup of suffering, the towel of servanthood. "Take up your cross and follow me," he said, in the least manipulative invitation that has ever been given.
6. No one knows what Jesus looked like
John's gospel records this hyperbolic comment: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." After spending time in seminary libraries browsing through the thousands of books on Jesus, I had the eerie sense that John's prophecy was coming true.
And yet, here is a strange thing: with this preponderance of scholarship, we still lack certain basic information about Jesus. The four Gospels skip over nine-tenths of his life, omitting much that would interest modern readers. We have only one scene from his adolescence and know nothing about his schooling. Details of his family life are so scant that scholars still debate how many brothers and sisters he had. The facts of biography considered essential to modern readers simply did not concern the gospel writers.
We also know nothing about Jesus' shape or stature or eye color, and thus, as a writer, I could not begin where I normally begin in reporting on a person—by describing what he looked like. The first semirealistic portraits of Jesus did not come until the fifth century, and these were pure speculation; until then, the Greeks had portrayed him as a young, beardless figure resembling the god Apollo.
I once showed to a class several dozen art slides portraying Jesus in a variety of forms—African, Korean, Chinese—and then asked the class to describe what they thought Jesus looked like. Virtually everyone suggested he was tall (unlikely for a first-century Jew), most said handsome, and no one said overweight. I showed a BBC film on the life of Christ that featured a fat actor in the title role, and some in the class found it offensive. We prefer a tall, handsome, and above all, slender Jesus.
One tradition dating back to the second century suggested Jesus was a hunchback, and in the Middle Ages, Christians widely believed that Jesus had suffered from leprosy. Most Christians today would find such notions repulsive and perhaps heretical. Was he not a perfect specimen of humanity? Yet in all the Bible I can find only one physical description of sorts, a prophecy written hundreds of years before Christ's birth. Here is Isaiah's portrayal, in the midst of a passage that the New Testament applies to the life of Jesus:
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness… . He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Evidently our glamorized representations of Jesus say more about us than about him.
5. You might not have wanted Jesus at your backyard barbecue
In writing a book about Jesus, one impression struck me more forcefully than any other: we have tamed him. The Jesus I learned about as a child was sweet and inoffensive, the kind of person whose lap you want to climb on, Mister Rogers with a beard. Indeed, Jesus did have qualities of gentleness and compassion that attracted little children. Mister Rogers, however, he assuredly was not.
I realized this fact when I studied the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the persecuted. Blessed are those who mourn." These sayings have a soft, proverbial ring to them—unless you happen to know someone poor, persecuted, or mourning. The homeless huddling over heating grates in our major cities, the tortured prisoners whose pictures are distributed by Amnesty International, the families of the Oklahoma City bombing victims we see interviewed on television—who would think of calling them blessed, or "lucky"?
In all the movies about Jesus' life, surely the most provocative—and perhaps the most accurate—portrayal of the Sermon on the Mount appears in a low-budget BBC production entitled "Son of Man." The director, Dennis Potter, sets the Sermon on the Mount against a background of violence and chaos. Roman soldiers have just invaded a Galilean village to exact vengeance for some trespass against the empire. They have strung up Jewish men of fighting age, shoved their hysterical wives to the ground, even speared babies in order to "teach these Jews a lesson." Into that tumultuous scene of blood and tears and keening for the dead strides Jesus with eyes ablaze. "I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you," he shouts above the groans.
I say it's easy to love your own brother, to love those who love you. Even tax collectors do that! You want me to congratulate you for loving your own kinsmen? No, Love your enemy. Love the man who would kick you and spit at you. Love the soldier who would drive his sword in your belly. Love the brigand who robs and tortures you.
Listen to me! Love your enemy! If a Roman soldier hits you on the left cheek, offer him the right one. If a man in authority orders you to walk one mile, walk two miles. If a man sues you for your coat, give him the shirt off your back. Listen! I tell you, it is hard to follow me. What I'm saying to you hasn't been said since the world began!
You can imagine the villagers' response to such unwelcome advice. The Sermon on the Mount did not soothe them; it infuriated them.
I came away from my study of Jesus both comforted and terrified. Jesus came to earth "full of grace and truth," said John: his truth comforts my intellectual doubts even as his grace comforts my emotional doubts. And yet, I also encountered a terrifying aspect of Jesus, one that I had never learned about in Sunday school. Did anyone go away from Jesus' presence feeling satisfied about his or her life?
Few people felt comfortable around Jesus; those who did were the type no one else felt comfortable around. The Jesus I met in the Gospels was anything but tame.
4. Jesus is not the church
George Buttrick, former chaplain at Harvard, recalls that students would come into his office, plop down on a chair and declare, "I don't believe in God." Buttrick would give this disarming reply: "Sit down and tell me what kind of God you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in that God either."
Many people who reject Jesus are rejecting not Jesus, but a distortion of him as presented by the church. To our everlasting shame, the watching world judges Jesus by a church whose history includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadores in Latin America, and a slave ship called the Good Ship Jesus.
In order to get to know Jesus, I had to strip away layers of dust and grime applied by the church itself. In my case, the image of Jesus was obscured by the racism, intolerance, and petty legalism of fundamentalist churches in the South. A Russian or a European Catholic confronts a very different restoration process. "For not only dust, but also too much gold can cover up the true figure," wrote Hans Kung about his own search. Many abandon the quest entirely; rebuffed by the church, they never make it to Jesus.
I often wish that we could somehow set aside church history, remove the church's many layers of interpretation, and encounter the words of the Gospels for the first time. Not everyone would accept Jesus—they did not in his own day—but at least people would not reject him for the wrong reasons.
Once I was able to cut through the fog still clinging from my own upbringing, my opinion of Jesus changed remarkably. Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, merciful, slippery, loving, irreducible, paradoxically humble—Jesus stands up to scrutiny. He is who I want my God to be.
3. Yet the church is Jesus
What I have just longed for, nonetheless, is not only impossible; it is unscriptural. Jesus planned from the beginning to die so that we his church could take his place. ("Once again," as Robert Farrar Capon reminds us, "God was—and still is—throwing sinkers.") He stayed just long enough to gather around him followers who could carry the message to others. Killing Jesus, says Walter Wink, was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.
The church is where God lives. What Jesus brought to a few—healing, grace, the good-news message of God's love—the church can now bring to all. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies," he explained, "it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds."
As I worked through the Gospels I concluded that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith—not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles.
It seems odd to admit such a notion—I have never read a book or article designed to answer doubts about the Ascension—yet for me what has happened since Jesus' departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if Jesus had stayed on earth to direct us?
"It is for your good that I am going away," Jesus told his disciples, who had the same question. "Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you." I find it much easier to accept the fact of God incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church—and in me. Yet that is what we are asked to believe; that is how we are asked to live. Jesus played his part and then left. Now it is up to us, the body of Christ.
2. Catholics are better at calendars than Protestants
The church I grew up in skipped past the events of Holy Week in a rush to hear the cymbal sounds of Easter. We never held a service on Good Friday. We celebrated the Lord's Supper only once a quarter. Roman Catholics did not believe in the Resurrection, I was told, which explained why Catholic girls wore crosses "with the little man on them." They celebrated Mass daily, a symptom of their fixation with death. We Protestants were different. We saved our best clothes, our rousing hymns, and our few sanctuary decorations for Easter.
When I began to study theology and church history, I found that my church was wrong about the Catholics, who believed in Easter as strongly as we did. From the Gospels I also learned that, unlike my church, the biblical record slows down rather than speeds up when it gets to Holy Week. The Gospels, said one early Christian commentator, are chronicles of Jesus' final week with extended introductions.
The author and preacher Tony Campolo delivers a stirring sermon adapted from an elderly black pastor at his church in Philadelphia. "It's Friday, but Sunday's Comin' " is the title of the sermon, and once you know the title you know the whole sermon. In a cadence that increases in tempo and in volume, Campolo contrasts how the world looked on Friday—when the forces of evil won over the forces of good, when every friend and disciple fled in fear, when the Son of God died on a cross—with how it looked on Easter Sunday. The disciples who lived through both days, Friday and Sunday, learned that when God seems most absent he may be closest of all; when God looks most powerless he may be most powerful; when God looks most dead he may be coming back to life. They learned never to count God out.
Campolo's sermon skips one day, though. The other two days, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, are perhaps the most significant days on the entire church calendar, and yet, in a real sense, we live our lives on Saturday, the day in between. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda and inner-city ghettoes in the richest nation on earth? Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. It's Saturday on planet Earth; will Sunday ever come?
Perhaps that is why the authors of the Gospels devoted so much more space to Jesus' last week than to the several weeks when he was making resurrection appearances. They knew that the history to follow would often resemble Saturday, the in-between day, more than Sunday, the day of rejoicing. It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the day with no name.
1. Jesus saves my faith
"Why am I a Christian?" I sometimes ask myself, and to be perfectly honest, the reasons reduce to two: (1) the lack of good alternatives and (2) Jesus.
Martin Luther encouraged his students to flee the hidden God and run to Christ, and I now know why. If I use a magnifying glass to examine a fine painting, the object in the center of the glass stays crisp and clear, while around the edges the view grows increasingly distorted. For me, Jesus has become the focal point. I learned, in the process of writing this book, to keep the magnifying glass of my faith focused on Jesus.
I tend to spend a lot of time pondering unanswerable questions such as the problem of pain or providence versus free will. When I do so, everything becomes fuzzy. But if I look at Jesus, clarity is restored.
Jesus gave no philosophical answer to the problem of pain, but he did give an existential answer. I cannot learn from him why bad things occur, but I can learn how God feels about it. I look at how Jesus responds to the sisters of his good friend Lazarus, or to a leprosy patient banned from the town gates. Jesus gives God a face, and that face is streaked with tears.
Why doesn't God answer my prayers? I do not know, but it helps me to realize that Jesus himself knew something of that feeling. He prayed all night over his choice of disciples, and still that list included one named Judas. In Gethsemane he threw himself on the ground, crying out for some other way, but there was no other way. At its core, Gethsemane depicts, after all, the story of an unanswered prayer. The cup of suffering was not removed.
I can worry myself into a state of spiritual paralysis over questions like "What good does it do to pray if God already knows everything?" Jesus silences such questions: If Jesus saw the need to pray, so should I.
Mostly, Jesus corrects my fuzzy conceptions of God. Left on my own, I would come up with a very different notion of God. My God would be static, unchanging. Because of Jesus, however, I must adjust those instinctive notions. (Perhaps that lay at the heart of his mission?) Jesus reveals a God who comes in search of us, a God who makes room for our freedom even when it costs the Son's life, a God who is vulnerable. Above all, Jesus reveals a God who is love.
On our own, would any of us come up with the notion of a God who loves and yearns to be loved? Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus' message, but in truth, love has never been a normal way of describing what happens between human beings and their God. Not once does the Qur'an apply the word love to God. Aristotle stated bluntly, "It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus"—or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter. In dazzling contrast, the Christian Bible affirms, "God is love" and cites love as the main reason Jesus came to earth: "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him."
I remember a long night sitting in uncomfortable Naugahyde chairs in O'Hare Airport, waiting impatiently for a flight that was delayed for five hours. Author Karen Mains happened to be traveling to the same conference. The long delay and the late hour combined to create a melancholy mood. I was writing the book "Disappointment with God" at the time, and I felt burdened by other people's pains and sorrows, doubts and unanswered prayers.
Karen listened to me in silence for a very long time, and then out of nowhere she asked a question that has always stayed with me. "Philip, do you ever just let God love you?" she said. "It's pretty important, I think."
I realized with a start that she had brought to light a gaping hole in my spiritual life. For all my absorption in the Christian faith, I had missed the most important message of all. The story of Jesus is the story of a celebration, a story of love. It involves pain and disappointment, yes, for God as well as for us. But Jesus embodies the promise of a God who will go to any length to get his family back.
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