Jesus Who?

This post was inspired by Pastor Ellen (one of my last remaining Methodist Pastors) who emailed me the following question as she prepares for a class:

Did Jesus know who he was and what he was going to do on earth? At what point did he know if he did? How does that connect w/fully man and fully God?

It’s a question that we’re dealing with right now in my Systematic Theology class, and one we dealt with last semester in my Early/Medieval Church History Class. And once again, I’m on the verge of throwing up my arms and yelling, “WHO CARES?”

Ok, it’s not that I don’t really care. I think maybe I just don’t care quite as much as most of Christendom throughout history.

I think we’re a little over-obsessed with the whole “Who was Jesus” question. Maybe we miss the boat sometimes when we spend all our time, energy, intellect, councils, and creeds trying to figure out the nature of Jesus’ humanity and divinity, and to what extent, and in what way, and when, and….

Jesus didn’t really tell us that we had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who he was.  In  fact, of all his many teachings and acts, Jesus only brought up the question once.  But he did spend a LOT of time telling us other things we should do, like “feed my sheep” and “love one another as I have loved you.”  And Jesus’ disciples certainly didn’t acknowledge him as divine, or messiah, or much of anything else when they first chose to follow him — unlike today, where we expect people to confess him as divine savior as a precursor to following him.  I imagine that Jesus’ disciples followed him because he seemed somehow interesting or compelling to them — or maybe because they had heard about how awesome he was from others.  Some probably even followed him for the wrong reasons entirely.

I wonder if you really have to understand who Jesus is to recognize the value in what he told us to do, and then to just do it.  And then, long into your journey, if you decide, like Peter, that Jesus is the Son of God, good for you.  If, on the other hand, you stick with Jesus’ own preferred designation of himself (Son of Man)…great!  Jesus didn’t criticize or disown the other disciples who didn’t (or couldn’t) answer the question.  But please, please, please…let’s not waste any more time on councils, creeds, theological tomes, or debates while we could actually be doing the work Jesus asked us to do…whoever he was/is.

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6 Responses to Jesus Who?

  1. Hi Neal,

    I always appreciate your perspective and honesty.

    It took me a while to come to the essentially the same conclusion that not everyone needs to be a theologian. Of course, it’s obvious when put that way, but for the intellectually-oriented among us, we can indeed get so absorbed in all this stuff and start thinking that everyone should be that absorbed.

    But you’re right, our Lord doesn’t demand a perfect understanding of who he is as a precursor to following him. If he did, I think none of us could be saved. And indeed this is why we have the creeds–as a simple, memorizable formulation of the faith that we can profess even if our understanding is incomplete. He calls each of us and meets us where we are, be we fishermen or Pharisees.

    Comparatively speaking, the Church was not absorbed with christological debates for that long. I mean, they took up a short period compared to the overall life of the Church, and once we settled them, we formulated it in the creeds so that even Joe the Tentmaker can profess that faith to the extent that he does understand it.

    And it’s not like the whole world was put on hold for the debates–life went on, people kept working, the Church kept administering the sacraments, kept clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, kept preaching and witnessing, in addition to those attending these councils.

    I also tend to think it is easy to lose sight of the practical implications of these finer theological points, but you’ve probably noticed that often the argumentation supporting one or other side during the debates revolved around practical implications in terms of how we can be saved and also how we should worship God.

    Finally, I am reminded of St. Paul’s exhortation about the members of the body of Christ. Not everyone is called to be a theologian, but I think some are–and we have gifts appropriate to our callings. We can have our theological debates and love our neighbor at the same time.

    Peace, bro.

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  3. Pastor LN says:

    Oh, Neal! We live in the same spiritual neighborhood and so I find myself wrestling with the temptation to simply let it go vs. pursuing the issue! Ultimately, the question becomes…why do we want to know? Is it for the sake of dogma, is it a ruse for justifying faith or the lack thereof? Or is it to know Jesus better, understanding the this could be a side trip on the path to wisdom?
    Ever the psychologist, I am using current profiling techniques in my class to get a fix on Jesus as he was in an effort to move my people past the Jesus they’ve created in their own image. That said, I anticipated this question so I polled you and a few other brainiacs to get a span of opinions (which, we know are like…shall we say belly buttons?).
    I love your rant and I agree…what Jesus did is so very important and often gets overlooked by pamphlet-toting Jesus freaks and textbook-toting academics alike.
    But to step completely away from the conversation, from the searching, from the pursuit of knowledge is to alter the trajectory of the Kingdom in a most dangerous way. Better, I think, to see that the ingredients of your argument are not mutually exclusive or finite. The argument, in and of itself, points to that truth.

  4. Ralph Intagliata says:

    Thanks for letting me join your conversation. I am a Presbyterian lay leader in Chicago where our two small congregations are shedding their buildings in pursuit of a new “mission-focused” purpose. Theologically, we align with your viewpoint of focusing on the here and now rather than debating if Jesus was or wasn’t the Son of God. However, I personally believe that now is the time for Christianity to transform, not only to be relevant, but to honor the teachings of Jesus. I believe Jesus called us to transform our faith into one where Jesus is recognized as our complete brother – no different than us physically but also highly attuned to his world and God’s world, and always exhorting us to be in this world, to be present to all things in the world with the power of love as our guide. Not cloistered like monks in our church buildings.

    I do believe that the world we know is not all there is. I also believe there is some chance that some part of us may go on after death, although since I’ll never know that until it happens, I would never state LAD as a fact – just a view I prefer to hold.

    I have friends and family say that if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, then there is no purpose to their faith. Having studied Jesus’ own words, this seems short-sighted. Who has more faith? The person who believes Jesus is the only Son of God or the person who doesn’t but follows him anyway? Faith is not something but some way. Now it’s time for us to transform our religious institutions that are unknowingly (or knowingly) keeping people apart. They call it Faith but maybe it’s Arrogance. In the purest of virtues espoused by Jesus, he frequently told his disciples to not tell people about his “miracles” and then tells his disciples they will do things greater than he. It’s a lot easier to believe Jesus is God than to accept the mantle he laid at our feet.
    It is time to take back Jesus from those who have kidnapped him, from those who broke the commandment and made Jesus an idol. Jesus may indeed be with us now in some unknowable form. But if so, then so might my brother Carl, who died 20+ years ago. My faith is that what we do makes a difference and that I am called to make a difference. Sometimes that Faith is sorely tested. And then Love breaks in and I notice that people in my world are as amazing as Jesus –and that the kingdom indeed is at hand.

    Many people believe this and then there are also many people that believe Jesus is the Son of God. So maybe the real question is “What is God calling us to do?” Is God Calling us to continue to promote that Jesus is God’s one and only child on earth? If so, why? And if you even try to answer this question you start to get into a view of a God just like us! Judging, assessing, evaluating, interfering, manipulating, bribing, forgiving etc.

    On the other hand, is God Calling us to “renounce” Jesus? Blaspheme that he was, and always will be, one of us regular humans? If so, why? There are a LOT of good reasons for this:

    1. I’m pretty sure Christianity is the only major religion that credits it’s leader with supernatural powers. And we do this blithely, with no regard to what we know. What we know is “the world in which we live today, the physical/metaphysical/spiritual/etc. world, is basically the same as it was 2000 years ago.”

    If the worlds are basically identical, then we should be experiencing God’s grace and wrath to roughly the same extent as 2000 years ago. I suppose you could argue that case but it’s my view that it’s not. If God came down to earth as Jesus then, why doesn’t he do it now? When I ask people this question, a common initial response is that Jesus was a one-time save and after that, no more miracles – we gotta live by faith alone. Again, this thought pattern yields a God that is playing some big mind game on us. Like there is something that God wants.

  5. Hi again, Neal. Just wanted to say that Ralph makes my point better than I could have–what you think about our Lord has dramatic impact on how you practice the Faith.

    Ralph also highlights why having both oral (passed down by word of mouth) and written Tradition is indispensible. 2000-ish years from the facts, you can pick up a text and come up with all sorts of strange ideas about what it means. However, if you have the complement of the understanding of the Faith passed down from those same people who wrote the texts, you have not only a more reliable understanding of the texts but also a more holistic understanding of what these people thought because without a doubt their in-person actions and teaching far exceeded what little they wrote down in letters to various communities of the time.

    Professing the Faith that has been passed down to you is far less arrogant than claiming that you can trash that Faith and come up with your own, IMO.

    BTW, you might be interested in a recent Q&A between Pope Benedict and his local priests in Rome. I thought this was one good tidbit (of many):

    “We must not forget that we do not propose reflections, we’re not offering a philosophy, but we are proposing the simple proclamation of God who has acted – and who has acted also with me.”

    Christianity does not just offering a nice way to live, as if Jesus Christ were just one other sociologist/philosopher. Christianity is first and foremost about the Good News that God became man that we, too, might become like him.

  6. Interesting thoughts, Neal. Progressive though I am, I do think that coming to terms with the way in which Jesus of Nazareth was a definitive physical manifestation of God’s love is absolutely central to Christian faith. Absent that, Christianity is just an interesting set of ancient stories.

    Given that the entirety of the Gospel of John is dedicated to expressing a series of narratives on exactly that subject, I think we do have something to work from.

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