“Christ, though, is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying ‘I am here’, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how ‘ungodly’ that clarity often turns out to be.”
–Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
I grew up with a whole lotta Jesus. Jesus saved me. Jesus heard and interpreted my prayers to the Big Guy in the sky. Jesus related to what I was going through. Jesus would eventually be the one to usher me into heaven. Jesus had the starring role of my religious life. Jesus was that fair-skinned-white-robed portrait, looking kind and clean like a tour guide who wouldn’t roll his eyes when I strayed away from the rest of the group.
As a child, I remember several occasions where I was up in my room and very upset. My dad would come to me and listen for a bit while I ranted and cried. In the height of my emotional upheaval, he would say, “Let’s pray.” I know my dad wanted to be helpful, but it wasn’t. I would sit next to him anyway while he prayed that God would help and that blah blah blah, in Jesus’ name, Amen. This continued until the day arrived when a combination of courage and rebellion came over me. In the midst of my rant when dad asked me to sit down to pray, I yelled back, “I don’t want to pray! I want to be angry!” It felt so good to say, so liberating. I think that was the beginning of the end of my interest in tour-guide Jesus.
I don’t mean to pick on my dad. He has several wonderful qualities. But I don’t think it’s coincidental that in my mind Jesus was like my dad. We do it all the time with anything relating to God. We base our image on something we already know. Have you ever heard someone first, make a mental picture based on the voice, only to be shocked by how the person actually looked? We hear something about Jesus and in time have Jesus firmly pictured in our minds which may or may not be based on much more than an impression someone else had given us. When my life became increasingly complicated, I didn’t need the Jesus I thought I knew. I benched Jesus and forged ahead.
In my 20’s, I began to study Jesus from a Jewish perspective. I learned more about the context of the bible, the gospels in particular. And I found a whole new Jesus. This Jesus was gracious, loving, forgiving, AND confrontational, offensive. He was aloof, witty, sarcastic, and often asked more questions than gave answers. He got under one’s skin, that “shard of glass” as Christian Wiman writes. This was a Jesus I could relate to, learn from, and be helped by. This was a Jesus worth following.
Throughout the gospels and even beyond, the question is continually raised about who Jesus is. Is he the son of God, meaning that he is also divine? Is he the Messiah, rescuer of the Jewish people? Is he the Christ, bringing restored life for all? Is he a good teacher worth our time and attention? Jesus claimed all of the above. But there are occasions where he instructed people NOT to tell others who he is. When given the opportunity to properly introduce himself to a big audience, he chose instead to stay silent. While Jesus seemed to be clear about his identity, he didn’t spend a whole lot of time explaining it to everyone else. This, I believe, is crucial. Jesus is more concerned about what you think about him, than he is about telling you what you should think.
If we believe that Jesus was sent by God, we are given a window into the Great Unknown of God. Early in Luke’s account, Jesus goes to the synagogue, opens the scrolls of what we know as the Old Testament, and reads from Isaiah:
The Lord has put his Spirit in me, because he anointed me to tell the Good News to the poor. He has sent me to tell the captives they are free and to tell the blind that they can see again. God sent me to free those who have been treated unfairly and to announce the time when the Lord will show his kindness. (Luke 4:18-19)
After reading, Jesus sits down. The place is utterly silent and all eyes are on him. He says, “I’m that guy.” These are ancient words that the Jews had been faithfully reading for years while anticipating its fulfillment, and he quietly announces that it is done. What??? So maybe he is crazy. But when you look at the life of Jesus through the lens of this passage, his words and actions take an interesting turn. He’s not being ambiguous or aloof, but rather working to bring good news, to set people free, to help them see what they have been unable to see. And that requires his being present with each person he meets, confronting them with where they are. “Who do you say I am?” The gospels are full of these stories.
There’s no formula for experiencing God in spite of what religious people keep saying. It’s work. Others can’t answer the question for you. If they try to, ignore them. We often start with a big question: Why am I here? What do I want? How do I find contentment? What fear is holding me back? What if I die? The questions are great. But Jesus compels us to take an additional step. Who do we think he is? Jesus then becomes not the parameters of the exploration as some Christians might suggest, but the rudder of your exploration as you move ahead. The rudder helps you stay your course, reminds you that you are loved, exposes your self-centeredness, draws you to something beautiful and complicated and totally worthwhile.
This is the Jesus I am getting to know, reminding me that I am loved by God and challenging me to be increasingly awake to the reality of God. It is work, frustratingly so. But as I continue to wrestle with who he is, I find my life becoming increasingly focused and meaningful. I am getting to know peace and contentment. Love is more compelling. Some people want easy answers, but easy answers rarely bring lasting change. “Who do you say I am?”