Sceptical readers – and they’re the kind I want- will have noticed that in my blogs on reclaiming Jesus I have drawn my evidence of Jesus’ character from the memories of his life and teaching contained in the gospels, that is, from who he was. But of course the relevance of Jesus for Christian believers depends on who he is: namely, the risen Jesus, the Son of God. Indeed the story of Chrstian faith as told in the book of The Acts of the Apostles, starts with the bodily ascension of the risen Jesus to the “right hand” of God, where he is installed as the agent of God’s universal rule. In time this picturesque story was transformed into the doctrine of the Trinity whereby God is defined as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Jesus becomes the only begotten Son, one person with two natures, divine and human, at some distance, you might say, from the carpenter of Nazareth.
So if I declare myself Christian, am I thereby declaring that Jesus is alive?
I think so. To believe otherwise would be to make nonsense of not just of traditional doctrine but of Easter for example, and of Holy Communion.
But exactly what do I mean when I say that Jesus is alive? I’ll start by saying what I do not mean.
1. I do not mean that the corpse of Jesus was reanimated, stuck around his old haunts for forty days, then took off into the sky like a rocket. The bones of Jesus or their residues, are in Palestine.
2. I do not mean that Jesus is present with me or anyone else as a supernatural quasi- physical presence, a spook, intervening in worldly events, by for example, curing disease.
3. I do not mean, nor does my church, that bread and wine “really” change into the body and blood of Jesus at Holy Communion.
4. I do not mean that at some point in the future chosen human beings will be rapt into space to meet Jesus
So what’s left? Well I have absolutely no trouble singing:
“Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine
He comes to bless the here and now
and dwells in every place and time
(part of an easter hymn by Brian Wren)
For the Christian tradition, the fundamental fact about Jesus is that he is God. He did not become God when he was raised fom death, but was always God in his human life and death. God is the goodness which does not belong to the universe, but which is giving birth to the universe and in which the universe exists. Although that suggests that God’s goodness is utterly separate from the universe, the truth is that this goodness is not isolated but shared. Shared goodness requires a partner, which is the universe and all its creatures. We should interpret cosmic evolution as the process of that sharing. I cannot know how that goodness is shared by galaxies and black holes, but I can glimpse it to some degree in the ecosysstem of which I am a part, and in the creatures with whom I share this life. With creatures who possess the capacity to choose, however, God’s sharing is limited by their willingness. All people have the special dignity of this relationship to eternal goodness, choosing whether and to what degree they will share it.
Jesus is the human person by whom God’s goodness is completely received. Or to put it another way, God is the one whose shared goodness is completely given to Jesus. In the adventure of sharing Jesus’ human life and death, God learns something new, just as God has always been learning through the sharing of her life, for sharing means the willingness to engage with what is not oneself: in God’s case, with her creatures. In Jesus God experiences the splendour and the agony of goodness in this world, while in God, Jesus experiences the goodness that goes beyond the worst the world can do. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus mean what God has learned through sharing his life and death; and what Jesus can teach his human brothers and sisters through sharing the creativity of God. Jesus is alive in God, whose shared life is also called the Holy Spirit.
This theology is my way of explaining my sense that Jesus is more than a historical person, that he is present to me in my relationship with the planet, my neighbour, the church, my mortality, when I choose to open my life to his; and that the gospels were written by people who already knew this. They could have simply recorded the life of Jesus as a past event which had a great influence. Instead they chose to trust the story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and to imagine the life of Jesus as God’s life on earth. They did so because it seemed to make sense of the faith community in which they lived and of their own experience as disciples of Jesus.
It’s the same for me. In my life I have known so many acts of kindness, compassion, honesty, doubt, humour, and courage, by good people that I am happy to imagine them as the physical presence of Jesus in my life. That is not to diminish the individuality of their actions: the more truly they are themselves, the more they are also Jesus. Of course, all this could be described without bringing Jesus into it at all. As a believer I have to use my imagination to see it this way, and I have no evidence to prove that I am right to do so. But maybe I am right, just as I may also be right to hear in the despair of the poorest families in Dundee, the anger and grief of Jesus’ demand for justice; or to feel in the beauty of a fresh morning in the Tay Estuary, the humour of Jesus who tells me I’m lucky that God makes his sun rise on the bad as well as the good. Above all, I may be right in imagining that when I’ve done things that damage others or myself, Jesus tells me that God is not interested in my sins, they are forgiven so that they can be left behind, as I once more open myself to the goodness that is God.
That may seem an awful lot of imagining, but through the disciplines of the Christian community – worship, prayer, bible reading, care of the sick and the poor – it has become second nature. It occurrs to me that this second nature, which is never a secure possession but always a gift, never perfectly formed but always existing in tension with my arrogant first nature, may be the promised salvation which made me a disciple in the first place.