A teenage girl walked in to a jewelry store, having decided to buy a pretty cross necklace, though she wasn’t particularly religious. She asked the clerk to see the choices and pointed to some and asked, “Why do those crosses have a little man on them?” “That’s Jesus,” said the jeweler. “He died on the cross.” “Ew, gross,” the teen said.
Of a saint it used to be said each time he left home to go and perform his religious duties he would say, 'And now, Lord, goodbye. I am off to church.' It's difficult, if not impossible, to be neutral about Jesus in this country. Indeed, in his great book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, by the chair of the religion department at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, subtitles it, "The Story of the Transformation of Jesus from Divinity to Celebrity." He tells us that before the Revolutionary war, it was God the Father that was emphasized, and further that religion wasn't such a big deal as it seems today, only 1/5 of the population of New England and the Middle Colonies were even members of a church and in the South (primarily Anglican Country) only about 1/8 were affiliated with a church, partly because the African slaves, which were about two out of every five inhabitants, weren't converted yet.
“Today, things are very different. Church membership is the norm- roughly three out of five Americans are affiliated with a church- and Christians of all stripes lavish their love on Jesus. In most European countries, Christianity is pass’ and Jesus a mere curiosity. In Sweden, for example, there are roughly twice as many atheists as there are active members of the Church of Sweden. In England, more than half of the population claims no religious affiliation, and more than one out of five deny that Jesus existed. In the US, by contrast, more than two out of every three citizens say they have made a ‘personal commitment to Jesus Christ; and approximately three out of four report they have sensed his presence.”
Asking, "Who is or was Jesus?" is not an easy question and has as many answers as answerers. Even asking whether one "Believes IN Jesus," or more difficult for some of us, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?" has many interpretations, because the Bible itself has many ways of understanding, some what I might call open and some closed among a continuum of other approaches. There's "Do you have a friend in Jesus?" and the bumper sticker, "Jesus loves you, the rest of us aren't so sure." Who Jesus is depends ultimately on the person asking the question more than the answer one might get from a preacher, let's say. It depends on what era of history it is asked, what country. Who Jesus is depends on what psychological stage of faith one is at, and what, finally, we intuit of this Jewish mystic, prophet, rabbi, guru, incarnation, messiah, third of the Trinity, or even Hindu Avatar or Buddhist Bodhisatva. For billions of people, Jesus is at the center of Christianity and salvation assured only by believing in him. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and You Will be Saved" reads the church sign I pass just down the road on the way to here. I find I no longer can fully comprehend what that means anymore, and further that that statement tells me much about that church and why I wouldn't want to go there! It is not that they are wrong, but that that Jesus no longer has meaning or value for me.
Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong in another great book, titled, Jesus For The Non-Religious, writes: “I have sought to understand Jesus as a boundary-breaker, as one who calls people to step outside the circles of their security systems. His was a life that recognized that fear stifles humanity, builds protective walls, creates defining prejudices and erects religious systems designed to give security to chronically frightened people. To walk the Christ path is to be empowered to step outside and beyond these various human security systems. It is to walk beyond all religious forms that bind our humanity in order to enter the religion less world of a new humanity. It is to seek divinity not externally but as the deepest dimension of what it means to be human. It is to enter divinity only when we become free to give ourselves away. It is no longer to speculate about who or what God is but to act out what God means. It is to look at the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and to see in that the presence of the divine. ‘God was in Christ’ is not a doctrine that leads to theories of incarnation and trinity; it is an acclamation of a presence that leads to a wholeness, a new creation, a new humanity and a new manner of living.”
Language, especially religious or spiritual language has to make sense to us if we are to truly understand it and deeply communicate with one another from our very deepest selves. We have to be in some sort of relationship. Are we using the language of faith or of academic history? Are we going to be literal or figurative, metaphoric or magical? Liberal or conservative? We even have to agree on our concept of something as fundamental, if you'll pardon the pun, as reality. That's one reason why conservatives and liberals, whether it be in religion or politics have problems communicating and understanding each other; they have dueling realities. Think of the concept of what is considered real or true in different times, say 2000 years ago and today. I will argue that reality, like religion and even politics, depends on belief, not scientific fact. What do we mean when we say God speaks to us? Or that God WANTS us to do something. Or perhaps more importantly, we might ask why God DOESN'T talk to us and clear up all the confusion? Carter Hayward, the radical, feminist, Episcopal priest and writer, in her also recommended book, Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right writes: "...I am proposing in these pages that "those who are right" (of whatever religion or politic) tend to espouse authoritarian, moralistic, and adversarial relationships with those whom they believe to be "wrong" and, in so doing, tend to promote their own ideologies of self-absorption. It is my belief-and it is the basis of this book-that many of us who are caricatured by the Right as being heretical, or wrong, need to be evermore public and enthusiastic in living relational spiritualities that are mutual, passionate (fully embodied and present), forgiving, and nonviolent." With Hayward, I believe that Jesus, and religion, is about relationship and especially the radical power of love for one another, for ourselves, our neighbors, and yea, even our enemies, but ultimately the spirit of love, the religious dimension, the sacred power of the GOOD that calls us to live lives of deep sharing and meaning. The teachings OF Jesus are about our mutual responsibility for one another to make up the whole, the ONE, and that means things like taking care of one another- the poor, the homeless, the sick, the suffering. Jesus sounds suspiciously like a liberal! Hayward says, "Through his teaching, healing, and prophetic resistance to state-sponsored and religious-based legalism that disregarded human need, Jesus reflected the incarnate (embodied) Spirit of One who was not then, and is not ever, contained solely in one human life or religion or historical event or moment. God was JESUS' relational power, more specifically his power for forging right (mutual) relation in which Jesus himself and those around him were empowered to be more fully who they were called to be. We today are also empowered by this same mutual relation." None of this requires supernaturalism or a suspension of reason. W e are not asked to believe, as Lewis Carroll once said, "six impossible things before breakfast." Indeed, Professor Prothero begins the book, American Jesus, with the Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, who he calls the first American Biblical scholar when Jefferson went through the New Testament with a razor and cut out the parts that were supernatural, not consistent with reason: for after all, Jefferson was also our only true Enlightenment President at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. The book also talks about the important part Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists played in teaching about the human Jesus and went beyond Christianity to a more universal religious search for truth, meaning, and a new way of interpreting the Bible through one's own intuition, feeling, thinking, reasoning. Jesus is seen as true prophet teaching love and social justice, not doctrine and dogma. After Jesus' great "Sermon on the Mount," the crowd's reaction was that not only were his words life and even religion changing, but that he taught as someone "with authority," even though he wasn't officially licensed or ordained to do that! If there is one thing we could probably agree with was that Jesus must have had great charisma, that he preached that love is more important then Law, and at the center of leading a religious life. Carter Hayward writes: "Despite the widespread institutionalization and co-option of Christianity by dominant economic and political forces in the West (increasingly, throughout the world), many JESUS-people, or Christians, have struggled courageously to be a Body of Lovers of this earth and its human and other creatures. This root of Christian vocation-the call to love radically, passionately, and steadfastly-with our whole heart and soul, mind and body-is the foundation of JESUS' own faith and work and of his invitation to the rest of us to "go and do likewise." This is why it matters what we think and teach about JESUS CHRIST." At a time in our country and even in the world, when there is so much poverty, war, sickness, injustice, environmental danger, the teachings of Jesus call us to mutuality with these issues, not doing away with programs that help these issues to have a balanced budget. At a time when there is so much alienation, depression, despair, there is only one hope, that we live in mutual relationship with the interdependent web of ALL life, that we truly and deeply love. Indeed, one might say that personal salvation is selfish, that no one can be saved until we work together to save everyone, and it takes more than right belief, it takes right relation! There's no evidence that Jesus wanted to start a new religion, especially one that would persecute his religion, which was Jewish! So one can be an ethical atheist in right relation with the world and be as or more "religious" than someone who claims to believe certain doctrines, but does nothing to help save the world or to truly love all people. Jesus was not out to see how many friends he could accumulate on Facebook; he taught that the important thing is to BE a friend, to all, not just those who are like you or in your tax bracket. We are all One, but we have forgotten our connections, our mutuality, our interdependence. Let us remember then, that what we do and how we live and love, affects the whole world, and we have the whole world in OUR hands. Jesus tells me so.