What is Jesus?
July 30, 2010



Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.

***

I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

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After Easter
April 1, 2010

When I hired my neighbor’s trusty yard man to clean up my lawn while I was sick a couple weeks ago, my flowering quince shrub went from looking like this sad, ugly old thing…

(Before)

to this beautiful masterpiece…

(After)

That’s right, he mowed right over it. Not sure exactly why…or how. The thing was 4 feet tall with 1/4-inch-thick branches, not easily mistaken for grass. I didn’t ask him to mow it down. I thought it was just fine the way it was. In fact, just a couple months prior I had spent nearly an hour pruning away interfering branches to open up space for new growth.

But maybe he had some greater insight. I did in fact trust that he had more experience with mowing than I, so I assumed he could set my yard on the path that it should go…Just like many of us do (or did) with our spirituality. We often entrust it to those we think have a higher perspective.

—————–

According to Christian tradition and its calendar, Easter is supposed to be the time when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a season that reflects reports that he endured great stress after his Last Supper (Maundy Thursday — downer), was crucified (Good Friday — worse downer), died, was buried three days, rose again (Easter Sunday — yay!), and then ascended bodily to heaven (Ascension Day – um…yay?).

So Jesus dies, and his disciples are all up in arms about what they’re going to do now. Some of his followers had held out hope that he would rise up as a physical warrior king and crush the Roman Empire to make room for Israel, apparently God’s “chosen kingdom.” Then he dies. Oh that’s great. But then he rises again and physically appears to them like, “HA!…Gotcha! April fools! I was just kidding. I’m alive!” So now their hope is restored. Maybe Jesus really will solve all our problems!

And then he leaves. Goes up to Heaven where all the saints and pretty angels are…and leaves his followers to continue his work, but he says he would be coming back soon. My hunch is that, judging by what we still do, his followers would not let themselves get down again because they knew he would return, just like he said, just like he miraculously did when he rose again. And then he really would stay a while and take care of all the outstanding issues. So they waited, and in the meantime started telling stories about him, saying that when he returns — any day now! — everything will be taken care of. Maybe they even wrote a little pamphlet declaring “88 Reasons Jesus Will Return in AD 88.” (Must see the link.)

And nearly 2,000 years later, Christians are still doing the same thing. Holding out hope that Jesus will come back any day now and set everything right. There’s nothing wrong with hope. In fact, some would say that’s what Easter is really all about…hope that someday soon all our problems will be solved.

But what about after Easter? What happens after we’ve raised our hopes to a singular high point in the year and the next day all hell breaks loose? But, Christians say, “Jesus defeated hell when he was crucified and rose again.” Well, what happens when life takes your beautiful flowering shrub and mows it down? Oh, that’s right: Just hope in our fairy God, our vending-machine God, our doctor God, our daddy God, our He-Man God, our professional gardener God…

Yes, hope can get us through those tough times, and we need hope; it’s miraculous. But I think Christians have been placing their hope in the wrong thing. I’m not saying placing hope in Jesus is altogether bad, but placing our hope in an idea that someone will magically come down from the sky and solve all our problems is fuel for an existential disaster. And in fact our world today, especially the third-world, proves that in some sense.

In his Insurrection talk at our Journey warehouse recently, Pete Rollins mentioned this concept, which is known as deus ex machina. It’s a storytelling device that artificially causes something to come out of nowhere to tie up all the loose ends in a plot. Pete used the example of J.R. Ewing in Dallas. When the character died, all the show’s rating tanked. So a few episodes later, the writers brought him back to life. “Just kidding! It was all a dream!” And the ratings soared again.

I think it bears reminding that Jesus told his followers things like, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world,” and “You will do greater works than these miracles I’ve performed.” Because he knew a movement couldn’t survive around one man. A true revolutionary movement has to be carried inside a multitude of men and women. As one line from an Agents of Future song goes, “The Kingdom of Heaven is sewn in my skin.”

Especially around Easter, people think we’re supposed to be all happy waiting for Jesus to come back and solve all our problems… Well, we’ve been waiting since about AD 33. It’s time for everyone to deeply realize that we embody God now. In original Pentecostal theology at least, that’s a major reason why God sent the Holy Spirit to live in us. Not just to feel all fuzzy, talk to each other in gibberish, and jerk our bodies around like we’re possessed. Jesus left it up to us. We must solve this world’s problems, not sit on our asses waiting for our deus ex machina…or a great yard man.

So this Easter — and continuing after the colorful season is over, into the heat, through the fall, and through the cold — maybe try something different: Try putting hope in yourself. Resurrect yourself. That’s the message I now get from reading Jesus’ take on how we fit into the Easter situation (Jn. 14:12). There and in other places, I read that he put his hope in us. Maybe we should try doing the same.