Sunday, May 12, 2002

Encounter: Who Was/Is Jesus, Buddha, Krishna? Part II

A few weeks ago while on a retreat, I sat beside a small lake early one morning in the middle of a pine forest in East Texas and engaged in a fantasy. I imagined that a man was standing beside the lake looking out over the water not far from me. He'd been fishing and after a time he turned and started walking slowly in my direction carrying his rod and tackle box with him. When he was within speaking distance, he paused, and though he was an ordinary looking man, as I looked at him I realized he was Jesus. I imagined that I offered him a place beside me on my bench and that we sat there together silently looking out over the water. After a time had passed, I turned and asked him, "Who are you, anyway?" He didn't answer, but I thought his eyes smiled as he glanced at me briefly and then he looked again out over the lake and we both continued to sit in silence.

The historical Jesus, the man who was born in a small Palestinian town 2000 years ago the son of a poor carpenter and who lived thirty something years and was finally executed as a criminal, is dead. After that, there is much disagreement and continuing controversy. Even during his own lifetime there was no agreement about who he was and after his death, many doubted what his friends said about him. During the few years of his public life recorded in the gospel accounts and in the years following his death, many titles or names were given to him. Those titles had their origin in the cultural and historical environment of which he was a part and are not comprehensible to people today except from within the theological framework of the Christian church; Son of David, Son of Man, (his own name for himself) Lord, Son of God, Lamb of God, Redeemer, Messiah.

"Who do you say that I am?" That was Jesus response to Peter's question. I could tell you many things about myself. I could send you my resume and photos, write an essay, answer questions from a panel, submit to psychological testing and fill out questionnaires. None of those things would reveal who I am. The only way you can really know who a person is is to be in a relationship with that person on a daily basis over a long period of time. See how they react in various situations, get their opinion, observe their behavior, interact with them in work, family, social settings. No single answer can satisfy the question, "Who are you?" because answer to who I am, who you are who he is is going to depend on what you or I invest in the relationship and where you or I are coming from. Often we do not even understand ourselves, much less another person. But I can say who you are to me and you can say who I am to you insofar as our experience together allows.

In the first chapter of John, two of John's disciples saw Jesus walking by and followed him. When Jesus saw them following him, he turned to them and said, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." Even after being with Jesus continually for the next two to three years, his disciples still were confused about who he was. He created controversy wherever he went for his defense of the marginalized in society and for violating the religious laws of his days. The Roman government accused him of inciting insurrection. Another time, John sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus who he was. Jesus' answer was, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Matthew 11:4-5) In Jesus' first sermon at Nazareth early in his ministry, he said this about himself, quoting one of the prophets.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

Several years ago Time magazine devoted its cover story to "Who Was Jesus?" Many people were interviewed for the story; novelists, historians, philosophers, church leaders, theologians, poets. All of them had different answers. A prophet, a social activist, a teacher, a great moral leader, a rabbi. Interestingly, only one person of the many interviewed and quoted gave the definitive orthodox answer given by the Christian church for all its history and that answer was given by a Mormon. Jesus is the Son of God who was crucified, died and resurrected on the third day who is come to save the world. That is a theological answer that can only be given intelligibly from within the context of the Christian church and it is fascinating that, at least in this article, the church was unable to give it. That is because the church itself is in turmoil today over the question, "Who Was Jesus?" which probably accounts for her struggle on many other fronts.

Today one part of the church has focused so exclusively on the post-Easter titles given to Jesus as a kind magical incantation that bestows immunity against the world's problems and guarantees a reserved seat in heaven that it has virtually ignored his life and teachings. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved!" as if believing, like Alice in Wonderland in six impossible things before breakfast is all it takes. But what does it mean to "Believe in Jesus"? The other part of the church is embarrassed about the "cultural baggage of Easter" and resurrection talk and has focused almost exclusively on social ministry and self-improvement as the way of faith. But Christians certainly don't have a monopoly on good works and self-sacrifice, not self-improvement has always been the center of all religious discipline, Christian or otherwise. And that doesn't address the fact that for all Jesus' life and teaching and good works, he was rejected by even his own friends and died a criminal and outcast from both religion and society. Not much of a reward. His good deeds died with him, like Caesar's if nothing else happened, just one more good moral man.

So the only way we are going to know who anyone is is to follow them around. "Come and see." Then each of us has to answer the question for ourselves and each of us is going to have somewhat different an answer. If we follow Jesus around, we are going to find ourselves in situations where we are challenged to sit on the side of the marginalized of society, those whom the world rejects. We are going to find ourselves at odds with the religious and political establishments of our day, at odds with anything that measures itself by the standards of popularity, material well-being and power, at odds with the powers and principalities, wherever they may be. If we walk too closely behind him, we may also find ourselves marginalized because we just don't fit in and he told the disciples that unless they were willing to give up everything, absolutely everything, they couldn't follow him and they had to be willing to carry their own cross as he carried his and to be sure and count the cost before they made their decision.

In a repeat episode of NYPD, Detective Andy Sipowitz is trying to console an aged friend who is distraught because his wife is dying of cancer. Sipowitz tells him that he never did believe in God, but he has lost both his son and his wife and recently Sipowitz has had a dream in which he was talking to his son. He tells him that somehow, he believes he will see his son and wife again, he doesn't know how, but somehow he believes this is true. This is probably as close as any of us ever will come to understanding anything about resurrection. A deep and abiding sense, a hope against hope that, in spite of anything and everything, in spite of all our failures and losses, the last word is not in, everything will be redeemed and forgiven and somehow we will know peace and joy once again.

At the end of the story in John 21 when Jesus made breakfast for the disciples by the lake after a night of fishing, Jesus had some final words for Peter as they walked together beside the lake that early post Easter morning.

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me." (John 21:18-19)

In my fantasy by the lake that morning, I imagined that after the man sat silently beside me on the bench for a time, he got up and before he left, he turned and said, "Don't ask me to try to explain that part about the resurrection to you now. You'll only understand that after your own resurrection."