I had a “coming to Jesus” moment when I met Jesus again for the first time. The book by the late Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994), opened a new chapter in my spiritual journey. It was a liberating experience when I, for the first time, allowed Jesus to be an authentic, legitimate human being. I had always professed Jesus was human, but I did not really believe it (which, by the way, is true of every evangelical I know). I thought I believed Jesus was human, but in my heart I knew Jesus was more God than human.
What I really believed is what I think every evangelical believes, whether they are aware of it or not – namely, that Jesus was God walking around in the flesh.
Most evangelicals are not actually Trinitarians. They are actually Tri-theists because what they really imagine are three distinct, separate persons who are at the same time one person. When one questions the contradiction of that claim by pointing out that it defies logic and common sense – and asks “How can that be?” – the response is typically some variation on this: “I can’t understand it. It’s a mystery. But the Bible teaches it, so it must be true.”
I don’t think the Bible teaches that at all.
“I understand ‘Christ’ to be a reality connected to the man, Jesus, but greater than the man, Jesus.
As I began to read Borg, Richard Rohr, Walter Wink and others, a whole new world opened up to me. (I listed books that have been most influential in my Christian journey in Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls) published by Nurturing Faith.) When I allowed Jesus to be human, which means letting him be a man with limitations and imperfections (not sinless or perfect), I began to see that living like Jesus is actually a real human possibility. I began to see that the character and passion of Jesus, which constitutes the Christian’s window into the character and passion of God, is within human grasp and experience.
Two commonly accepted ideas of contemporary, mainline biblical scholarship helped me arrive at this place.
First, I realized that the Gospel stories are not historical reports. They are spiritual proclamations that communicate truth pertinent to a disciple’s spiritual and moral transformation. Some stories contain echoes of memories of actual conversations, events and experiences, while other stories are mostly or perhaps entirely metaphorical, symbolic and parabolic. Gospel stories were passed on orally for years and underwent a number of changes before they were ever collected, redacted, edited and composed into what constitutes a Gospel.
Second, in the evolving, growing experience and tradition of the early disciples, their worship and understanding of Christ became a much larger reality than the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is how I imagine it. When the first disciples witnessed Jesus alive they immediately worshiped him as Lord and Christ (Messiah). These first Jewish disciples, however, did not imagine Jesus was God. They knew there is only one God. But they viewed Jesus as God’s chosen agent of redemption par excellence. Jesus instantly became God’s quintessential representative disclosing God’s character and passion, and God’s human savior for humankind and creation. This is reflected clearly in Luke’s account of the earliest preaching in the book of Acts. Consider Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:
‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know, this man handed over to you . . . you crucified and killed . . . But God raised him up, having freed him from death . . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah [Christ], this Jesus whom you crucified’ (2:22-24, 32-33, 36).
The first disciples made a clear distinction between the man, Jesus of Nazareth, and God, who worked through the man, Jesus. Jesus was killed by the powers that be, but God raised him up, and in raising him up “made” (declared or appointed) him Lord and Christ. Paul states something very similar in Romans 1:3-4 where he says that Jesus “was declared Son of God with power . . . by resurrection from the dead.” The early Christians viewed God’s resurrection of Jesus first and foremost as God’s vindication of Jesus. This lead almost immediately to their veneration of Jesus, and their earliest of confessions, “Jesus is Lord.”
I suspect that the title “Lord” was used as a kind of subversive counterclaim to Caesar who claimed that title for himself. The title “Christ” I imagine was used as a subversive counterclaim to the Jews who were expecting a Messiah/Christ who would use force to deliver them from Roman oppression. However, in the course of the developing worship and evolving liturgy of these early Messianic communities, both titles – Lord and Christ – became “more” – i.e., larger and universal and interchangeable with terms and titles that referred to God and the Spirit of God. This is why Paul in his letters could use “Christ” and “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably with “God” and “Spirit of God,” and talk about “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus.” It’s anyone’s guess how Paul and others might have imagined the specifics of this connection between “Jesus” and “Christ” in their thinking, and scholars speculate about and argue various points of view.
“Becoming who I am – a son of God like Jesus – is a real, human possibility, and that keeps me going.”
I understand “Christ” to be a reality connected to the man, Jesus, but greater than the man, Jesus. I let “the man, Jesus” be a man, and that has helped me to meet Jesus again for the first time, and actually see the life and teachings of the human Jesus and the character and passion of the human Jesus as real possibilities for my human life.
The late Clarence Jordan, a Baptist before his time who founded Koinonia Farm, an interracial community in Americus, Georgia, once said in a sermon that by deifying Jesus we “effectively rid ourselves of him even more than if we had crucified him.” In deifying him we can build our cathedrals to him. We can gather on Sundays and sing songs to him and express our belief in him and feel like we have done all we need to do. By deifying Jesus we can avoid his very extraordinary human life who, though not being perfect or sinless, beautifully embodied God’s love and passion for the broken and downtrodden.
Ironically, when I believed Jesus was God I didn’t take him seriously. But when I let him be an imperfect, but courageous and compassionate human being, I discovered a compelling interest in becoming like him. When I believed Jesus was God, he was so “high and lifted up” that he was beyond my reach. When l let him be a human being I awoke to my responsibility to carry forth his agenda (as in Luke 4:18-19). I could no longer hide behind his deity.
I am still far away from being like Jesus, from embodying or incarnating the character and passion of God to the degree that Jesus did, but I can no longer be dismissive of his life. The life of Jesus is a human possibility for all of us. The Christ self is the true self of every human being. Becoming who I am – a son of God like Jesus – is a real, human possibility, and that keeps me going.