I’m attempting here to join the dots and link a number of things I’ve written about.
When we talk about Jesus we need to know which ‘face’ of Jesus we are talking about. Is it Jesus the man from Nazareth? Is it the Risen Lord? Or is it the Cosmic Christ? In a sense they are one and the same. But in another they not. If we asked a question, we might get slightly different answers from each of them. [See ‘Which Jesus?’, ‘Which Jesus: a further thought,’ ‘The Cosmic Christ’.]
While we can in theory distinguish between them, in practice they overlap. So the earliest followers of the man from Nazareth, knew that he had been killed, but they also knew that he had overcome death because he was still present with them, appearing to them, teaching and guiding them. They knew that the man from Nazareth and their now Risen Lord were one and the same and so in the Gospels where they later wrote down Jesus’ words and actions, its not always clear whether it’s the man from Nazareth or the Risen Lord that they are speaking about. That would not have been a distinction that would have made any sense to them: to them they were one and the same.
Once those who actually knew the man from Nazareth began to die out, it became important to record his words and actions not least because otherwise those who continued to experience the presence of the Risen Lord would not be able to make the connection between the two and thus name it. Hence the Gospels were written down, where previously memory had sufficed, and they have served as a crucial reference point ever since.
Today we are faced with a similar problem. The majority of people claim to have had an experience of ‘something greater to and beyond themselves’, although most are cautious about talking about it. Many would not use religious language in describing it, but the accounts that people give sound much the same whatever language they use. My personal experience has led me to assume, using the Gospels as my reference point, that at least some of these experiences that I have had are actually encounters with the Risen Christ, and my assumption is that that must be true for others too. But it took me a long time to make that connection, and I doubt if many people do, not least because we do not expect there to be one. I believe that the Risen Christ is alive and well and appearing to people of all faiths and creeds on a regular basis, while remaining mostly unrecognised. Roy Gregory and I edited ‘The God you already know’ partly out of this conviction.
This year alongside my Bible reading I have also been using ‘The World Religions Bible’ edited by Robert van de Weyer. It contains readings from a dozen faith traditions, one for each month. I’m only half way through but already it is obvious that there is a great deal of common ground in their wisdom and teaching. We should not be surprised. The Prologue to St John’s Gospel tells of the Word of God [the Cosmic Christ] that “through him all things came to be, without him no created thing came into being. In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it………He was in the world, but the world, though it owed its being to him, did not recognise him.” So the Cosmic Christ is the light of every human being: the divine spark within everybody. It is not then surprising to find this common ground. The man from Nazareth, the Risen Lord, ascended back into heaven whence he came, to sit at God’s right hand as the Cosmic Christ, where He is the indwelling light of every human being. Again, the faces overlap, are one and the same, but are known across the earth by a variety of different names.
But there is more. John’s Prologue makes it clear that the Cosmic Christ is involved in the creation of everything. Every thing in the universe has the Cosmic Christ’s fingerprints all over it. So it is that the Celts argued that there are in fact two Bibles. The Good Book and Nature. The Cosmic Christ meets people of any and no religious belief system, through the natural world, again, without necessarily being recognised.
To me this is a source of wonder and awe. But everything has its downside. One of the downsides of the overlapping, is the loss of the full humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. We project the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ, back onto Jesus of Nazareth, and lose something of his humanity. It gives us the glories of John’s prologue and the Birth stories of Matthew and Luke, but we forget that he was a human being exactly like us: born like us, he grew up just like us, he faced all the problems and opportunities that we face, he faced suffering and doubt as we do, and had a faith journey just like ours.
There seems to be a human tendency to do this with any figure whom we deem to have done great things: we tend to read that greatness back into their story, as being present from their birth and childhood: and we see echoes of the greatness to come, that were almost certainly not obvious to people who knew them at the time. We put them on a pedestal, and in doing so make them different from the rest of us, when in reality they’re not. In doing so we encourage ourselves to forget that we too can do great things.
We have done that to Jesus of Nazareth. Believing him to be the Risen Lord and the Cosmic Christ its inevitable and to some extent right that we do that. But it comes at a price. He ceases to be a fully human being just like us. He becomes somebody who has done something for us, rather than somebody who shows us the way. Following Jesus is about living a life modelled on his. He has shown us that this is both possible and what God calls us to.
I have been mulling for some time about Jesus spiritual life. I do so as someone who tries to take my own spiritual life seriously, and who often finds himself in conversation with others about theirs. My assumption is that Jesus’ spiritual life must have been much like ours.
Thus I assume that Jesus of Nazareth must have had the equivalent of a spiritual director: someone who encouraged and nurtured his faith in God, and from whom he learnt much about the Jewish scriptures and traditions. It seems likely that this would have taken place as a member of a group of young men who met regularly together as part of their training as young Jews. I assume that at least some of the first disciples whom he called in Galilee were probably part of that group, and who had already seen him as their leader. Hence the ease with which they left everything to follow him when he called them to do so. [See ‘Did Jesus have a spiritual director?’]
I notice that Jesus rarely began his teaching of his disciples or the crowds who gathered to hear him, by quoting Scripture. He did so the few times he preached in the synagogue, but hardly ever otherwise. Instead he told stories and gave spiritual teaching. Now where did he get those stories and that wisdom from? Some of the stories have scriptural echoes, others seem to have been drawn from his observations of everyday life. But I think that good spiritual teachers, ones who speak with authority as Jesus clearly did, speak primarily not from what they’ve read, or learnt from somebody else, but from their own experience. They speak from an inner knowing that only comes from their own experience of God. Much of Jesus wisdom and insight would have come from his own experience. [See ‘The Spirituality of Jesus’.]
I remember, many years ago, reading a novel about Jesus life before he embarked on his public ministry. The writer suggested that the story of the Good Samaritan began its life as something that happened to Jesus himself. He was beaten up & robbed on the road to Jerusalem, and was rescued by a foreigner, someone he’d been taught to view as an enemy, rather than by those he’d thought would be his friends. This experience affected him deeply, and changed his view of who were his friends, who indeed were God’s friends. Subsequently he found that non-Jews were often more receptive to his teaching than fellow Jews were, and he went out of his way to be alongside people whom his community saw as outsiders. This new way of seeing the world had its origins not primarily in traditional teaching but in his own personal experience of life.
We will never know if this is historically accurate, but it seems likely to me. The story of the Good Samaritan has a lot of incidental detail that’s not essential to its meaning, and that suggests to me that it may well derive from personal experience. There is a second story that Jesus told that sounds similar. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. I suspect that this too may come from Jesus’ personal experience. I have a hunch that maybe he ran away from home as a young man, not only to escape from his family, but also maybe from God? Why else would he also talk about the story of Jonah, who fled from God’s call to preach to Nineveh? Did Jesus feel a call to preach to the Jews and wanted to avoid it? It might explain why Jesus went to John for a baptism of repentance? Why else did Jesus feel the need to repent, of what? Interestingly the words spoken to the Jesus at his baptism could well have been the words that the father said to his prodigal son.
I wonder if Jesus fled from both his earthly and heavenly Father, and was overwhelmed when he found himself loved and accepted by both in such similar fashion. Maybe that’s in part why he addresses God as Father, and taught his followers to do likewise? And if Jesus saw the story of Jonah as a model, it might explain why he expected the people of Jerusalem to repent at his preaching as the people of Nineveh did at Jonah’s preaching, and why he felt that God had abandoned him when they didn’t.
I’ve been thinking about the Beatitudes recently. Luke’s version sounds simpler and thus more original. ‘Blessed are the poor, the hungry and those who weep’. After his baptism we are told that Jesus was led into the wilderness for a time. He must have been poor: there’s no indication in the Gospels that he ever earned his living and he’d squandered his inheritance. So he knew what poverty was, and he must have wondered as he pondered the call he heard at his baptism, ‘how is this going to be funded?’ He must also have known hunger in the wilderness: there was no food to be found there. Its not difficult to imagine that he spent time weeping there too: both tears of repentance at his attempts to avoid God, and tears of joy at knowing himself forgiven. The temptations that we are told that he faced there speak to these words too. The temptation to rule the world and become rich, to turn stones into bread to release his hunger, and to call on God to perform a miracle as outward proof of his forgiven and accepted status. So Jesus knew all about the realities of poverty, hunger and sadness. He also knew, from experience, that they were the source of blessing for him. So he was able to speak the Beatitudes from deep personal experience. I suspect much of his teaching came from the same source.
Why do I think all this is so important?
I believe that ‘the God Whom we already know’ is the God whom Jesus of Nazareth knew.
I believe that what John’s Gospel says about Jesus, namely that he was with God from the beginning, that he laid that down to be born as a human being, and was then returned to God at his death, all that is also true of each of us too.
I believe that Jesus of Nazareth/the Risen Lord/the Cosmic Christ has shown us that this is true, and that this is the core of the Good News of the Gospel.
I believe that we are called to imitate Jesus of Nazareth, by heeding whatever God calls us to be and do, as he did, by trusting our own experience of God as he did, by trusting the Risen Lord to guide and uphold us, and by trusting that the Cosmic Christ is present in everyone and everything we meet .
What’s different about Jesus of Nazareth, is his calling, his vocation. Each of us has a distinctive vocation from God that no-one else has. Jesus had a distinctive vocation and fulfilled it. So do each of us, and our task is to fulfil it as well as we are able.