People in church circles often talk about Jesus as if it’s perfectly obvious who they are referring to, but increasingly I find myself wanting to ask ‘which Jesus are you talking about?’ I know that my question will baffle them: ‘there’s only one Jesus’ they will reply, and of course in one sense they are perfectly correct, but in another they are not. Jesus is known in at last three, distinguishable manifestations. There is a sort of ‘trinity’ of Jesus.
First there is Jesus the first century Jew who came from Nazareth, and who lived and taught in Palestine before being crucified by the Romans at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities.
Secondly, there is the risen, resurrected Jesus, the Christ who made himself known to his friends and followers in the days and weeks after his death, and to whom they continued to pray, confident in the knowledge that He was still with them and would continue to guide them. The guidance that He gave was in significant ways other than that offered by Jesus the Palestinian Jew: for example he called Paul to take his Gospel to non-Jews, and in a vision to Peter, exempted them from commitment to the keeping of the Jewish Law.
His earliest friends and followers who had personally known the physical Jesus of Nazareth made no distinction between that figure and the Christ who continued to guide them after his death: for them he was obviously one and the same. So in the Gospels which tell of the story of Jesus the Christ they were not concerned to distinguish between words uttered by Jesus of Nazareth and those spoken later by Jesus the Christ. Such a distinction would have seemed meaningless to them. But for the future generations of followers, who had not known the physical Jesus of Nazareth, but who certainly felt they knew the Risen Christ, the distinction became increasingly important. Not least because the Risen Christ continued to lead his followers into ‘all truth’ as he had promised, and that frequently meant going beyond the letter of what Jesus of Nazareth had taught, while remaining consistent with its spirit. We call it interpreting ‘Jesus for today’s world.’ So the church has opposed slavery, embraced the equality of women, and will soon acknowledge the equality of gay and transgender men and women. Jesus of Nazareth didn’t do any of these things specifically, they weren’t live issues in his time and culture, but they all follow from his Gospel of ‘love one another.’
Thirdly, in addition to the physical Jesus of Nazareth, and the Risen Christ experienced by millions since, there is the Cosmic Christ Who is described as having metaphorically ascended into heaven there to sit at God’s right hand in glory. It is this Cosmic Christ of Whom John speaks in the first chapter of his gospel where John describes Him as the Word of God Who ‘was with God at the beginning, and through Whom all things came to be; without Him no created being 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.’ This Cosmic Christ has existed from the very beginning of everything, has been involved in the creation of everything, and is the light of every single human person who ever was and ever will be, both here on earth and beyond. This is quite a leap from the physical Jesus of Nazareth, although less of one from the Risen Christ.
So when people speak of Jesus I need to ask which member of the ‘Jesus Trinity’ they are talking about? The physical Jesus of Nazareth, who partakes of our humanity by being born into a particular culture at a particular time, with all the limitations of that time and culture? The Risen Christ, Who transcends death and is our hope and intimation of life beyond death, and Who guides those who seek His guidance in this earthly life? Or the Cosmic Christ pre-existent from the beginning, intimately involved in all creation, and Who indwells, and is known by, all human beings, even those who don’t name Him as such, whether living or dead?
I need to ask my question, of them and indeed of myself, because the answer will greatly influence what is said. For example should we be telling non-Christians about Jesus of Nazareth about whom they may know very little or nothing? Or should we be inviting them to articulate and trust their religious experience, with the assumption that it may be the voice of the Risen Christ speaking to them? Or should we rather be assuming that the Cosmic Christ will have made Him/Herself known to them already, and our task is to acknowledge and affirm the Cosmic Christ in them, and learn from Her/Him?
Three very different, although not necessarily mutually exclusive, approaches. One of the supplementary challenges is to find a way of holding these three different approaches in a creative tension, which does justice to each of them while affirming all of them. To be true to the principles for which Jesus of Nazareth lived and died; under the guidance of the Risen Christ in the context of the time and culture in which we find ourselves; as we allow ourselves to be drawn into the greater vision offered us by the Cosmic Christ.
Love is the glue which will hold these three together in creative tension, so much attention needs to be given to the task of building loving mutually tolerant communities of which we seek to be loving, mutually tolerant members. Jesus of Nazareth commanded us to love one another, not to agree about everything, or to know all the answers !
This of course is pretty much what we have to try to do anyway with a traditional view of The Trinity, but for me it sharpens and clarifies the task.