Competing images and ideas of Jesus lie behind a lot of news headlines in this nation. Different public figures and activists have astonishingly different ideas about Jesus: Mike Pence’s Jesus is clearly different from Pete Buttigieg’s; Betsy DeVos’s Jesus is clearly different from that of the founder of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign—William Barber III. Advocates for migrants and refugees point toward Jesus’s teachings about loving our neighbors. Other Christians apply that only to people they actually know. Christians primarily focused on a Jesus they believe will soon return in judgment feel free to pillage and abuse the planet because this will all come to an end soon, anyway. Some folks conjure images of Jesus breaking rifles across his knees while others claim that Jesus rallies folks to violence for the sake of defending their version of faith and country.
Rather than defending or criticizing different understandings of Jesus at the moment, I just want to point out that the disparate views of Jesus are bewildering. And have been so since the first people who called themselves disciples. Understandings of Jesus have always spanned a broad gamut.
Today’s reading from Luke, for example, catalogs several different ways Jesus was understood in his time and place. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible expands on the list: “The historical Jesus…defies any classification. He was an itinerant missionary, a public preacher, a composer of parables, a healer, an exorcist, an interpreter of Torah, and an eschatological prophet who became, even before Easter, the focus of Messianic hope.” (“Jesus Christ” article).
And nothing about Jesus became agreed upon after Easter. Varied understandings of Jesus abounded—as did versions of Jesus’s life and teachings that survive only in fragments. Likewise, the only reason Paul wrote any letters is because others disagreed with his understandings of Jesus. Our faith tradition was profoundly shaped by Paul simply because he knew how to write during a time most people were illiterate. Later on, church leaders argued about the content of creeds because folks believed many different things. Church and government officials sought to impose an orthodoxy of belief that would serve, at least in part, as a tool of social control. But uniformity of belief has never really existed, regardless of how many wars have been fought between Christians to impose it. This congregation, of course, springs from a stream of belief that has known much violence at the hands of other Christians, in part because of nonconformist ideas about who Jesus is and what he calls us to be.
Who is Jesus? The conversation is endless.
Some people find it helpful to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. The two scriptures we’ve heard today touch on those two ways of considering Jesus. The passage from Luke shows us the living, breathing Jesus asking his disciples what folks are saying about him. This is the Jesus that some saw as rabbi, healer, companion, and (possibly) an envoy from God to free Israel from tyranny. This is the Jesus the disciples loved and the authorities scorned enough to put him to death.
The notion of a post-Easter Jesus—the Risen One—“refers to what Jesus became after his death in Christian experience, reflection, and tradition” according to Marcus Borg (Speaking Christian, 89). Paul describes the risen Christ in many places such as today’s passage from Colossians. The post-Easter Jesus assumes a universal and cosmic role as an agent of creation; as a Presence that holds all things together; as an image of God; as a sacrifice for reconciliation and peace between all creatures.
Christians generally believe in the human, historic Jesus. God dwelling among us as a human. The Divine pouring themselves into a body.
Christians also generally believe in the Risen Christ, the post-Easter Jesus. Cosmic and eternal. The Divine Life permeating all.
The church universal, as it has evolved, asks people to embrace both, somehow. Walking that path asks us to surrender reason and wonder at mystery and live with paradox. And perhaps to remember that “In the ancient world, the sphere of the divine and human was not as separate and alien from each other as we see them now,” according to Gregory Riley in a book called One Jesus, Many Christs. Ancient minds would not have puzzled over what is human and what is divine as much as we do, he asserts (4).
The paradox and puzzle of Jesus, though, can be a great gift to us…a prompt and a challenge to explore a relationship, a person, a Presence that accounts for us being here today. Perhaps Jesus is a friend we seek to know better. A challenger we seek to follow. A peacemaker we seek to emulate. A redeemer we seek to praise. A judge we seek to placate. A shepherd we seek to trust. An advocate for the poor we seek to proclaim. A Divine Presence we need to open ourselves to. Or all of those things…and more.
Who is Jesus? Historically, that is a powerful and open-ended question. A question that, at its best, invites reflection and new insights and astonishing spiritual development. And it’s a question that, at its worst, has helped create war and violence and hate and division.
Let us be people willing to engage this question, wrestle with it, and grow through it. Let us be people who welcome the witness and words of Jesus into our lives as the comfort and challenge of love in our aching, joyful lives. And let us be people who find the face of Christ in all, so that we may compassionately serve our aching, joyful world.
Scripture: Luke 9: 18-20; Colossians 1: 15-20
~Rev. Ruth Moerdyk