Faces of Jesus/Interpretations Collage by Project Odessa Life
As our weekly Bible study at St. James’s has studied the Revelation to John, we have been confronted with several images of Jesus—many of which make some of us uncomfortable and do not seem to ring true to the Jesus we believe is worth spreading “Good News” about. In Revelation alone, Jesus is referred to as the “King of kings,” “Lord of lords,” “Alpha and Omega,” “sacrificial lamb,” “Word of God,” “Faithful and True,” but more problematically, a warrior dressed in a robe dipped in blood with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth.
Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus is the “cornerstone,” “firstborn of all creation,” “head of the church,” “holy one,” “judge,” “light of the world,” “prince of peace,” “son of God,” “son of man,” “Word,” “Word of Life,” “Emmanuel,” “I Am,” “Lord of all,” “true God,” “author and perfector of our faith,” “bread of life,” “bridegroom,” “deliverer,” “good shepherd,” “high priest,” “mediator,” “rock,” “resurrection and life,” “savior,” “true vine,” and “way, truth, and life.” And this week in the excerpt of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes the day of the Lord’s coming in terms of a thief in the night.
Not so many years ago, a group of people gathered over the course of several years in what was called the Jesus Seminar. Their purpose was to discover the historical Jesus (as opposed to the images of Jesus that had perhaps been imposed on the historical person over the last two thousand years). They arrived at a list of ten essential acts of Jesus:
Jesus of Nazareth was born during the reign of Herod the Great.
His mother's name was Mary, and he had a human father whose name may not have been Joseph.
Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.
Jesus was an itinerant sage who shared meals with social outcasts.
Jesus practiced faith healing without the use of ancient medicine or magic, relieving afflictions we now consider psychosomatic.
He did not walk on water, feed the multitude with loaves and fishes, change water into wine or raise Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem and crucified by the Romans.
He was executed as a public nuisance, not for claiming to be the Son of God.
The empty tomb is a fiction – Jesus was not raised bodily from the dead.
Belief in the resurrection is based on the visionary experiences of Paul, Peter and Mary Magdalene.
The Jesus Seminar was (and continues to be) met with plenty of criticism—my own being that those involved were no more capable of escaping their biases than those with whom they disagree about Jesus. My image of Jesus is shaped by scholarship as much as it is shaped by what I heard, read, and saw illustrated of the man as a child; the same is true with every one of us. The relativism is inescapable, and yet our conversations about Jesus cannot stop at a broadly sweeping statement that Jesus can be “all things to all people,” or some such nonsense. We sort of domesticate him by buying into such thoughts.
It may be a more prudent exercise regimen for us to encounter the Jesus we find, engage him, and avoid the temptation to nail him down (pardon the pun). For instance, this last Sunday in the lectionary Jesus told the particularly troubling parable about the ten virgins. The parable seems to imply, among other things, that some will be locked out of the kingdom of heaven for some reason. I addressed this in my sermon, so I won’t do it now, but I will say that the temptation exists with such passages to say something like: Matthew wrote this decades after Jesus’ death, Jesus likely never told this story, and we should confine it to the people who are attempting to put words in Jesus’ mouth.
I understand the argument. I read books, and I’m not stupid. While that is a possible, historical scenario, we and two thousand years worth of those in the great cloud of witnesses read and wrestled with this parable and somehow it remains canonical.
I am more interested in discovering what an encounter with Jesus in even the most troubling parable reveals about God than I am in sleeping well at night by foolishly thinking I hold all of the knowledge.
If the Bible is a collection of writings pertaining to our relationship to God, all of the attributes placed on God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are worth the wrestling match they entail. Their meaning for me will change throughout my life, just as will my relationship with my mother or father or brother or husband.
Jesus goes by many names, many titles, many qualities…which ones incite your curiosity? Which ones trouble your mind? Which ones fill you with joy? And which ones confuse you? Don’t be afraid of them, and don’t reason them out of existence; each one can bring about transformative discoveries for your relationship with the Living God.