June 28, 2015

In 2003, I was working on a book titled “A Doubter’s Guide to God.” That year, I attended a workshop taught by an essayist named Phillip Lopate, and I submitted a chapter for him and my classmates to critique. Lopate wrote these words on the essay: “I’m not sure yet what role Jesus Christ has in the God search.”

Since then, Lopate’s query has stared at me with eyes as hungry as those of a cat before mealtime. As a result, I undertook a study of Jesus.

First off, I found problems with the credibility of the gospels. The fact is this: More than 40 years passed between Christ’s death and the appearance of the first gospel – that of Mark – and more than 100 years before John. That’s plenty of time for the story to twist and turn in the telling. So what did Christ in fact say and do?

Between 1985 and 2006, a group of about 150 scholars and laypersons called the Jesus Seminar sought to answer that question. The group decided that the parables and sayings most likely to have come from Christ were those that cut against the grain, that surprise and shock, and that contain exaggeration, humor and paradox. The statements deemed least likely to have come from him are those in which he makes claims for himself. John was labeled the least trustworthy of the

Gospels, with such statements from Jesus as “I am the way, the truth and the light” failing to convince members of the seminar.

The seminar came under attack by more conservative Christians, proof (if we needed it) that politics color perceptions of Christ. In 2012, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that in a study of 1,236 people who claimed Christianity to be central to their personal identity, “liberals were much more likely to attach greater weight to teachings and tenets involving issues of fellowship, whereas conservatives were somewhat more likely to attach greater weight to teaching and tenets involving issues of morality.”

So today I want to talk about my own personal Jesus. I’ll admit right off the bat that I have some reservations about Jesus the Miracle Worker – though his miracles are no doubt the main course for many Christians. A 2009 Harris poll showed that 76 percent of Catholics, Protestants and Jews believe in those miracles – but just 63 percent of the Jews polled took that position compared with 95 percent of the born-again Christians. I have find it refreshing to discover that although Mennonites aren’t entirely dismissive of Jesus’ miracles, they are in general not as interested in them as they are in his words and less spectacular deeds.

On the other hand, I admit that Christ as a mere teacher and doer doesn’t quite live up to my hope; some part of me still yearns for signs and wonders, for a Jesus who is as constant in my life as my shadow.

The only waking experience that contains even a whiff of wonder occurred in the late 1980s. A friend walked out of my life and I seethed with rage and hurt for months. Then, one night in a hotel in Washington, D.C., at a conference of research magazine editors, I was twisting my sheets and trying to sleep. So I prayed. Perhaps God was doing a bed check that night, because it became clear to me that my friend’s departure wasn’t the problem. My rage was. In the months ahead, when I became swollen with anger, I’d stop whatever I was doing and pray to be rid of it. And the anger left me. Slooowly. That’s as close as I’ve come to a sense of the almighty as a healing force, a miracle maker.

I typically think of Jesus more as a role model. And what attracts my attention here is his unpredictability . . . his complications. There’s so much more complexity than I understood when I was a child.

You might expect God’s son to be a stickler for the rules, for example. Yet Jesus broke rules and acted contrary to expectations. When his disciples hiked through a field picking corn on a Sabbath or when he performed a healing on that day of rest, the pharisees challenged him. In response, Christ took a stand that said, in effect, Human need trumps rules.

And he doesn’t just test the nerves of pharisees. At times, he frustrates his disciples. When a woman buys an expensive ointment and pours it on his head, some of his followers protest. We really could have used the cash she spent for other projects. He’ll hear none of it. He praises what she has done as “one of the good works” and then adds, “She has done what was in her power to do. . . .”

In fact, Christ, in some instances, proves surprisingly flexible. One story has a Canaanite woman approaching him and asking him to exorcise her daughter. Jesus says, “Look, m’am, I was sent to Earth to help these Jews – they’re my children. I can’t take care of everybody. If I did, it’d be like feeding my dogs instead of my children.” She says, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” With that, he admits that she has “great faith” and heals her child.

He apparently loves to eat and even imbibe a bit of wine. One scholar speculates that during Christ’s ministry, he might even have developed a paunch. The scholar writes, “Capernaum brought him times of plenty, and – as his message became more and more popular – little requirement for manual work.”

Christ is most famous, of course, for his principles. An aristocrat asks him how to inherit eternal life, so he ticks off a few of the commandments, then adds something about selling everything he has, giving it to the poor and following him. A lawyer who’s trying to trip him up is told that the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything you’ve got and your neighbor as much as yourself.

Of course it’s well known that Jesus is an equal opportunity savior. He pals with people without regard to nationality, class, occupation, gender, physical condition or disability. He even loves Romans – he singles out for praise the faith of a centurion whose servant he then heals.

It’s always puzzled me that he seems to have some hang-ups about family – including the very definition of the word. When someone tells him that his mother and brothers are standing outside the rim of a crowd, waiting to see him, Jesus corrects the speaker, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.”

Besides his principles, there are other constants in Christ’s character. He is incredibly sensitive to those afflicted in health or spirit; a sick woman has only to touch the hem of his garment for him to experience a loss of power. He is also respectful of those who give abundantly from the little they have. He supports those who willingly shed the character armor of a former life and demonstrate a faith that leaps without knowing where it’ll land. He wants humans to risk connection, to each other and to a God they can’t know through the senses.

Charles W. Hedrick, author of When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus, describes Christ as a “multi-sided human being who simply cannot be reduced to a one liner and do justice to all of the fragments.” Yet when I pressed him about the matter of Christ’s essence, he said, “If you push my back to the wall, I would say the one saying of Jesus that reflects him at his finest would be ‘love your enemies.’”

I used to be cynical about that statement. Today, as I meditate on it, it seems as inscrutable as a koan: Most of us find it as hard to imagine loving an enemy — really LOVING an enemy – as to hear the sound of one hand clapping. This is not a simple call to live-and-let-live. It means reaching down into yourself when you’re around someone who hates you, or vice-versa, and bringing up water to share rather than sand to throw in his face or salt to rub in his wound. And to NOT do this ironically. Or with a sneer. Or from fear that God will punish you if you don’t. Or from desire for a gift from God if you do.

Related to that brand of love is Christ’s ability to take a fall for something he never did and accept being known as someone he is not. In Luke 22:37, he says, “. . . I tell you these words of scripture have to be fulfilled in me: He let himself be taken for a criminal.

In Christ’s calm acceptance of the betrayals of Judas and Peter; in his staying the hand of the disciple who cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave at the moment of his arrest; in his refusal to answer Pilate’s questions directly or to taunt Pilate; and in his utter silence in an appearance before Herod, his perspective seems to have changed from just a few days before when, entering Jerusalem, he banged around the temple turning over tables. He seems to know now that on a planet rife with hypocrisy, his words and deeds must align.

To answer Lopate’s question then: the place of Christ in my God search is at least threefold: first to model for me the possibility of displaying a seemingly unattainable kindness and patience in certain circumstances, a kindness I need to reach for even if it remains beyond my grasp; second, to remind me of the sheer difficulty of my displaying anything other than judgment, outrage or snarky contempt about a certain person or groups (generally out of earshot of the person or group); and, third, to shame me into at least faking kindness and patience, under the childish notion that Jesus sometimes gives his students an “E” for effort and that grace can, maybe – just maybe – be earned.

To my mind, the most stunning fact about Christ is his choice to hold his tongue those last days on Earth, at a point when anybody else would have been kicking and screaming, blaming and bargaining. Is it because Jesus knew his role in God’s script that he acted this way? To say that makes him less, I think.

In the end, I don’t think that the “why” of Christ’s behavior matters.

For me, the lesson of his behavior at the end of life is the sometimes eerie power of doing nothing.

God the father, betrayed by humans again and again in the Old Testament, becomes violently upset. God the son, betrayed by the political and religious establishments, and one of his own disciples, stands still and takes it. Here’s the message I take from this: The path of love requires, in stressful moments, standing beside still waters and quieting one’s soul.

I think that there is a second lesson here, too. If a volatile and angry God can do an about face, then by implication, we should, in facing our own flaws and despite repeated failures, strive for the same.