When I speak or write the name Jesus, who or what do I mean?
Well, for a start, I can say what I don’t mean.
1. I don’t mean some kind of supernatural person who appears to me. I know from the Bible and some contemporary sources, that some people say they have experienced this, but I interpret these as sudden and dramatic realisations of truth, if they are sincere, and as duplicitous stories designed to gain credit with vulnerable people, if they are not. I do not think that Jesus manifests himself as a quasi physical presence. Luke, the author of Acts, wrote up Paul’s conversion as a dramatic incident in which he was thrown to the ground and heard Jesus speaking. But when Paul describes the same conversion, he uses the phrase, “ it pleased God to reveal his son in me.”
2. I don’t believe in a Jesus who hovers invisibly in churches or in the houses of believers. Most descriptions of him doing so are related to worship in which the language is picturesque and persuasive, designed to enhance the faith of the participants. St.Paul wrote of the assembly of believers as the “body of messiah” certainly as an image of how the assembly should function, each member honouring the abilities of the others, but also as an image of the presence of Jesus is each member and in the whole assembly. But all of that is a statement about an embodied Jesus.
3. I don’t believe in a Jesus who in his historical ministry, walked on the water and raised the dead. The gospel writers to greater or lesser degrees wanted to depict Jesus as the presence of God on earth, and miracles are a way of doing so. This is not to say, that Jesus was not a healer, but rather that he was not a person through whom God channelled supernatural power into the world.
4. I do not believe in a Jesus whose tomb was empty because his body had taken off like a rocket into another dimension. I mean that the bones of Jesus are in Palestine, as my late daughter’s ashes are in Scotland, while I believe that both of them are resurrected.
5. In other words, I do not believe that there is or was anything about Jesus that contradicts the scientific picture of the universe, although he adds to it. The great truth of Christian faith is that the definitive presence of God in the world is precisely in a human person, living in a specific time and place, subject to all the limitations of human beings including death.
There are reasons why the church has preserved the ways of thinking about Jesus which I have rejected:
2. The church wants to be seen as a dispenser of miracle or of miraculous truth.
3. The church wants to preserve a theology of God’s generosity in which the whole event of Jesus is seen, not as the life of a religious genius or communal superhero, but as a gift of God to the world. The language of Jesus being “sent by God” of his “coming down” into the world, describes spiritual rather than physical realities. Some clumsy elements in the Bible, such as the virgin birth of Jesus, or his ascension into heaven, encourage a physical interpretation, but we have stay true to our ordinary knowledge that God doesn’t get virgins pregnant, and bodies don’t zoom off into the stratosphere. But in this case, it seems to me that the conviction of God’s generosity is essential to our faith, and that the language of Jesus’ coming down from God cannot be ignored. It needs interpretation, but it should not be dismissed.
The only brief way of pointing to my interpretation of this language is the statement that we always live and move and have our being in God who is love. The great teachers and prophets of humanity, and supremely Jesus, knew this truth, that contrary to atheism God is real, that contrary to religion we do not have to seek God, for God is here, where we are, and God’s love is available to all. We need to “change our hearts”, “waken up” to the goodness that can be done to us and by us, now.
It’s not easy to believe that and to put our trust in it. The story of Jesus, ending as it does in torture, death and failure demonstrates that truth, but still offers the joyful news that Jesus is alive in God and that God is alive in him.
The preceding two paragraphs are compressed and need to be unpacked, which I hope to do in this series of blogs.