People who ask themselves in some moral dilemma, “What would Jesus do?”are no more naive than the rest of us, but maybe have greater confidence than most of us, in the contemporaneousness of Jesus. I use that word deliberately so that it’s clear I am not challenging his relevance. I suppose the classic Christian teaching is that Jesus was raised from death to be re-united with God, and is therefore as up to date as God. I agree with this of course -I’m nothing if not orthodox- but I just have this difficulty that when I imagine Jesus in contemporary society I imagine him as a first century Jew let loose in the here and now, with the wisdom and manners of his time and place.
There is every evidence from the gospels that Jesus was immersed both in the traditions of his people and in their contemporary troubles as a country conquered by a world empire. He is not at all like the Dead Sea Scroll people fleeing corrupt society for the desert caves, nor like a pharisee calling for holy living to maintain religious independence. He seems to have been an artisan with a passionate commitment to the immediate justice of God. His understanding of the economic life of ordinary people is seen in his parables, and his compassion for human need in his healing work.
Indeed the whole Christian doctrine of incarnation, that Jesus is the wisdom of God made flesh, depends on particularity: Jesus must be of his time and place, otherwise he is neither flesh nor fowl. “The Wisdom was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his splendour – the splendour of the Father’s only son- full of kindness and truth”, this is either a historical statement or it is mythology. Jesus can no more be separated from his environment than any other being. He was and is, Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps then we can square the circle by saying that Jesus WAS a man of his time and place, but that NOW after his resurrection he IS as timeless as God and can relate equally to all times and places. That sounds a shrewd move, until we ask who exactly he is now. If we say he is the same as he always was, then he is still Jesus of Nazareth; if we say he is different, we risk making the incarnation irrelevant.
Traditional theology found a way out of this problem by telling a mythological story. God’s Son is “begotten” in eternity by God and shares God’s life; as part of a Trinitarian mission to rescue humanity, he is made flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, living and dying as a human being, but raised from death with a body (and soul!) marked by his incarnation, to continue his existence as the eternal Son of God. Even this story is carefully adjusted to avoid the notion that the Trinity learned something new through the incarnation.
I’m not sure if this helps me imagine a Jesus who might show me how to deal with Brexit or Donald Trump or my neighbour’s constantly barking dog. Certainly we could admit that the language of Jesus guiding our decisions is itself mythological and really means no more than taking his story into account in our living. That would give us some clarity: the Jesus we know is back then; we as modern disciples are the crucial link between Jesus of Nazareth and his contemporary relevance. Guided by the Spirit in the community of believers, we can say, “Jesus tells us to dump Trump.”
Amen. But it’s still not quite good enough. Believers want to speak about the agency of Jesus in their lives, as well as their own agency. St. Paul’s teaching about Jesus Messiah as a body in which each believer is a function, is a radical way of describing what’s happening in the life of believers: as they choose to share their lives with Jesus, they become the flesh of God’s Son, who continues his ministry in the world through them.
This kind of sharing is the basic mystery of Christian faith, and Paul’s body metaphor is a way of pointing to it. There’s no way I can prove that Jesus acts in the world through me. In fact, as aoon as I write these words, I can see how ridiculous they are. Through me? Jesus? Aye, right. I can just about believe that Jesus acts through Muriel who runs the church drop-in cafe for people who struggle with addiction, but that he can act through me is surely stretching a metaphor too far. And yet, yet, sometimes I want that to happen. I have a rough idea of what Jesus of Nazareth wants me to do, and I go for it, blindly, hoping that my sinfulness will not mess it up. At such moments I’m taking a risk based on the story of Jesus. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus is also taking a risk, entrusting some aspect of his ministry to me, and hoping I won’t mess up. The situation I’m trying to describe is very near the heart of faith, which is however not a solemn mystery, but more like a very robust joke, well actually an appallingly vulgar joke, in which something holy is placed next to something filthy, as when the creator put the organs of sexual love beside the organs of urination.
What I’m trying to say is that I often end up playing the role of asshole in the body of Christ.