True Identity

 Among the things that distinguish the gospel record from a fairy tale are the authentically human reactions of those who follow Jesus. When Jesus describes the meaning of his ministry in terms of eating the bread of his body and drinking the wine of his blood, as recorded in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, some disciples seem confused or repulsed. Some who expect a military Messiah to save them from political and economic oppression may not be able to imagine the importance of a sacramental meal of bread and wine.  Others who do not appreciate the symbolism of bread as flesh and wine as blood may wonder whether Jesus is advocating a strange new form of cannibalism, as did some of the early Church’s enemies. In any case, there is no sweetly idealized response to Jesus’ teaching, but rather a thinning of the ranks.  When Jesus proves himself to be something other than what was imagined, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” “Who is this Jesus?” they must have asked. “We thought we knew what he was all about. but we were wrong. He didn’t meet our expectations or fulfill our hopes.” 

 Who is this Jesus?

 When I was five or six, Jesus was the figure on the wall of my Sunday school room in the famous framed painting by Warner Sallman, entitled “The Head of Christ.” He had an angelic aura of grace and power, and looked sincerely toward his heavenly Father for guidance. My Sunday school teachers taught about the difference between right and wrong, God’s justice measured out for the disobedient, and God’s love for those who would simply trust and obey. At the end of one particularly moving Sunday school lesson, I remember praying, “Lord, make me like Jesus,” not really understanding exactly where that might lead, but wanting desperately to do the right thing.

 By the time I moved into my teen years, Jesus was the religious rebel who disobeyed the elders’ worn out rules, who knew that the Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath, who criticized the religious leaders’ long rambling prayers that displayed a lot of show and little substance. Jesus was the star of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, a superstar who liked lively music, who hung out with authentic people, even if they might be a little sinful, who could shock the older generation out of its complacency by dressing differently and speaking contrary to expectations.

 Now, having passed my 50th birthday, the Jesus of the Bible is starting to look rather young through my eyes, or maybe he just appears young through my new reading glasses. Sometimes, he seems more impatient than I would like, too hasty in pursuing a course of action. I find myself wondering how he might have responded differently if others had not crucified him in his early 30s. Would a 50-year-old Jesus have turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple? Would he have provoked the wrath of the religious leaders so freely and so often?

 Jesus fulfilled an earthly mission and ministry nearly 2000 years before I was born, yet my understanding of him continues to grow and change.

 My journey toward understanding is just a little microcosm of the sort of thing you would find if you look at the whole scope of Christian history. In the early centuries of the Church, much energy was devoted to answering questions about Jesus’ identity.  How is Jesus related to the Father and to the Holy Spirit? The Church answered, “In God, we have three persons of one substance.” Well, if that is so, then how are the human and divine present in Jesus? The Church answered, “In Jesus, there is one person in two natures: fully human, fully divine.”  In the time of the Reformation, the question was posed: “Where do we continue to hear the voice of the living Christ?”  The Church answered, “We hear the voice of the living Christ through Scripture, as interpreted through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Eighty years ago, when the Nazi regime began to bleach from Jesus any resemblance to a Jewish rabbi, the Reformation spirit rose again in people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and the German Confessing Church, in essence saying that the real Jesus is found not by setting aside the Bible, but by looking more deeply into it, that Jesus is the Lord of culture, not a slave to it. Each generation of Christians has the opportunity to appreciate Jesus in a fresh cultural light, but also the responsibility to correct misconceptions of who is He is, in light of what the Bible teaches.

 Remember how I said that “The Feeding of the Multitude” is the only one of Jesus’ miracles recorded in all four gospels? Scholars find more support for its central place in scripture by looking back to the art of the early Church. It’s said that one of the most popular visual representations of Jesus in the early years of the Church was the Feeding of the Multitude, and that long before images of Christ crucified became popular, Christians were picturing him breaking the bread.  Cynthia Campbell, recently retired President of McCormick Seminary in Chicago, finds in this fact a fundamental insight.  She says that from the beginning, Christians knew that bread and Jesus go together.[1] While our perception and understanding of Jesus may grow and change, may we never forget that those who need to eat must go to the One who feeds. When we ask, “Who is this Jesus?” he says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty … the one who eats this bread will live forever.

 [1] Cynthia M. Campbell, “Essential Question,” The Christian Century, 22 Aug. 2006, p. 16.


~ by JohnH1962 on August 26, 2012.

2 Responses to “True Identity”

  1. Yesterday’s Gospel reading at St.B was also taken from John 6. (very interesting). Many of HIS teachings remain a mystery to me. I know that I believe; and, that, as I grow in Spirit and in Age, I approach the Scripture differently. HE is the bread of my life.

    I enjoyed reading the process of change in your interpretation of the Scripture. My process goes further back another 20 years —– that doesn’t make me any closer to understanding —- just different.

    Thank you for sharing. gail

  2. Gail, thank you for taking time to read, and for your feedback. I’ll see you and Steve among the Presbyterians soon!

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