“Don’t Know About Jesus”

Jn 1

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

One of the most common objections that I hear to the Christian religion doesn’t come from atheists.

Instead, it is addressed to me by people who believe in God. They tell me that while they don’t question the existence of a Supreme Being, they can’t understand faith in Jesus.

They may admire Jesus as a man. They see that Christ was open to all sorts of people—especially those who were poor or sick or scorned by society. They believe that Jesus was right to value love for one’s neighbors.

What these critics of Christianity object to, though, is the idea that Jesus was somehow divine. They question whether Jesus had magical powers. They wonder whether Christ had supernatural knowledge, knowing everything like God does.

Perhaps we Christians shouldn’t be surprised when people raise such questions. If Jesus is the true and only Son of God, we would expect that unique–and uniquely complicated–things could be said about him.

In fact, the New Testament is filled with questions people asked about Jesus while he was alive. The Gospel today has such a person, Nathanael, wondering how any religious leader from the humble village of Nazareth could be worth following. But then he meets Jesus and immediately blurts out, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

Jesus himself doubts whether Nathanael has good reason for this extraordinary affirmation; the man seems only to have been impressed by the fact that Christ detected in him a spiritual yearning.

Yet Jesus realizes that Nathanael has unwittingly happened upon a truth about Christ’s identity. So Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. You will see heaven opened.”

When people met Jesus, the heavens opened. He gave them a unique connection with the divine.

Yet Christians found it hard to describe this connection. For example, the Creed says that Jesus was “very God of very God….” Jesus incarnated the divine Spirit. As a result, he sometimes displayed extraordinary spiritual insights—such as his perception of Nathanael’s inner longing.

But while our speech about Jesus tests the limits of our language, it is also important to recognize what the classical understanding of Jesus does not say. It doesn’t say, for example, that Jesus knew everything—that he was omniscient as God is.

For if Christ had known everything as God does, he would not have been “made man,” as the Creed also says. He wouldn’t have shared the physical qualities and limitations of human beings.

For the same reason, Jesus wasn’t all-powerful as God the Father is omnipotent. He seems to have some powers of healing. But other holy men and women have been able in some cases to heal the sick; this quality in itself doesn’t prove Jesus had divine powers.

As for unusual events in Christ’s life like the report in the Bible that Jesus walked on water: well, whatever we make of these happenings, we should recognize that the Church has always understood the importance of the miracles of Jesus to reside in the ways they direct us to the Divine. Whether or not there was an occasion when Jesus walked on water, his whole life pointed beyond himself to the loving power of God.

The true challenge of the identity of Jesus lies elsewhere. The true challenge is to see how Jesus of Nazareth–Jesus the Messiah brings us to God. Christians are people who perceive in Jesus the divine light. And once they have that perception, they are able to find God’s peace in their hearts.

This is the vital difference that Jesus makes. Notice that Nathanael saw something special in Jesus because Jesus first saw something special in him. Christ marks us as his own.

Rather than speculating endlessly about the human and divine natures of Jesus, then, we might be better off considering what we could call an experiential approach to Christ.

For some people, this means seeing Jesus as a brother or friend, as in the old hymn that begins, “What a friend we have in Jesus…” The mere mention of the name of Jesus gives a “blessed assurance” that someone cares for them.

Some people identify with Jesus as a role model: when they face some crisis in life, they ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Because they have studied Christ’s teachings, they can determine the choice they need to make.

I, myself, would choose a third way of identifying with Jesus. For me, a mystical attachment draws me away from the life of Jesus in our human world to the spiritual realm where he reigns in glory. Sometimes, I recall the divine Christ several times a day to remind myself of my own spiritual nature and my own destiny beyond this life.

We see from these examples that the identity of Christ is not merely an abstract topic for debate among theologians; it is an essential part of our spiritual life. Who Jesus is makes us who we are –“Christians,” believers in the Way of Jesus Christ.

Whether our feelings about Christ are emotional or ethical or meditative, we find that we have been given a spiritual identity.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the intellectual theology is complicated, the commitment is simple. We can spend a lifetime pondering how Jesus could be both divine and human.

The practical consequences of our belief, however, are clear. As the baptismal vows state, we try to put our “whole trust in grace and love.”

This is the entry-point for every person, young and old into the Christian religion. As Nathanael discovered, Jesus the incarnate Son of God, human and divine, leads us to grace and to love. As another creed says, “That is all ye know, and all ye need to know.”

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

One Response to ““Don’t Know About Jesus””

  1. Jane says:

    I like your description of the meditative Jesus. I feel like I’ve had the same kind of experience (a few times really, only), although I have never been able to say how as precisely as you have here.

    I’m interested, though: what do you mean by “destiny beyond this life”? It’s something I struggle with every day.

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