A holistic, inclusive, compassionate, justice oriented Christian vision would be adopted by more Christians if more Christians more carefully understood and distinguished between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. The appearance stories in the Gospels (probably a late developing tradition for they are absent from Mark, the first Gospel written) function to bridge the gap between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the living, cosmic Christ, linking the two together. Christ, however, is not Jesus’ last name. Jesus is not the same as Christ, though Jesus is included in the cosmic reality of Christ.
In his excellent work, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox describes it this way,
“Christ” means more than Jesus. It also refers to the new skein of relationships that arose around him during and after his life. . . . Paul frequently speaks of the Christ who dwells within him and within the other followers. When for example, he writes that among those who share the Spirit of Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for are all one in Christ Jesus,” he means something more extensive than the historical Jesus (Gal. 3:28). The Easter cycle, with all its harshness, joy, and impenetrability, tells of this enlargement of this historical Jesus story into the Christ story.
This cosmic, collective, corporate divine reality known as Christ is not limited to Christians (we who are followers of the historical Jesus). Christians know and experience the character (love, compassion, goodness, etc.) of the cosmic Christ through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Spirit of Christ is not limited to Christians. According to Cox “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.”
The Apostle Paul rarely references the historical Jesus. He speaks mostly of the cosmic Christ to whom we are united and in whom and through whom we live. We are in Christ and Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20).
In the Christ hymns/litanies of Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, the cosmic Christ precedes the historical Jesus. In Colossians the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, which was personified as a woman (Sophia) in some texts, is applied to Christ. Christ here is creator and sustainer of everything and the reality in whom all things will be gathered up and reconciled to God (“through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”). The language here is poetic, mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic as all religious language must be.
What a big picture, grand story, universal, inclusive, kingdom of God kind of Christianity we would have if more Christians understood and made these distinctions! It is the cosmic Christ in whom we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christ is the light that enlightens every person (John 1:9) and is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that enlightens the whole world to spiritual reality (John 16:7-11). Christ is the fullness of God who will ultimately gather up everything in himself/herself (Eph. 1:10) and draw all people into conscious oneness in God (John 12:32).
Franciscan theologian and mystic Richard Rohr expresses this beautifully,
The eternal Christ Mystery began with the Big Bang where God decided to materialize as the universe. Henceforth, the material and the spiritual have always co-existed, just as Genesis 1:1-2 seems to be saying. Although this Christ existed long before Jesus, and is coterminous with creation itself, Christians seem to think Christ is Jesus’ last name. What Jesus [the historical Jesus] allows us to imagine – because we see it in him – is that the divine and the human are forever one. . . . God took on all human nature [Jesus is the archetypal, representative human being] and said ‘yes’ to it forever! In varying degrees and with infinite qualities, God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation. To allow such a momentous truth, to fully believe it, to enjoy it in practical ways, to suffer it with and for others – this is what it means to be Christian! Nothing else will do now. Nothing less will save the world.
What a difference this vision makes in how we see the world and our place in it, and also in how we interpret and apply scripture. The Gospels, for example, blend and interweave together memories of the historical Jesus and proclamations of the living Christ. When we understand this the Gospels make so much more sense.
For example, consider the saying of Jesus in John 14:6, which is not an actual saying of the historical Jesus, but a saying attributed to Jesus as the living Christ by the Johannine community: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not true of the historical Jesus, but it is true of the living Christ, in whom and through whom we all live, breathe, and have our existence.
We know the cosmic Christ through the historical person of Jesus, but the cosmic Christ can speak, draw, enlighten, touch, and transform people through means, methods, and mediators other than the historical Jesus. Brother David Stendle-Rast says it like this:
Our knowledge of Jesus is mediated through others. The Christ is us we know firsthand, even if we have never heard of Jesus. . . . In this sense one doesn’t have to be a Christian to know Christ. You know Christ when you know your Self [the true self, the Divine Self, the Spirit of Christ within].
We can come to know and experience the Christ Self in us through a number of different ways. For Christians, Jesus is the way and truth that leads us into a relationship with the Divine Life.
Consider also the story of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:45-52. It is highly improbable that the historical Jesus walked on water. This story is rooted in the church’s proclamation of the living Christ, rather than memory of the historical Jesus. Some Gospel stories are clearly rooted in the history of Jesus of Nazareth; other stories (like this one) are predominantly related to the church’s proclamation of the cosmic Christ.
Mark’s storm on the sea draws from a rich tradition in the Hebrew scriptures, where 1) the sea is associated with evil powers, and 2) God rules the sea. According to an ancient creation myth that shows up in the Psalms and the prophets, when God made the world and separated the waters from the dry land, God had to combat and subdue monstrous forces of chaos that lived in, or were identified with, the waters of the sea (Ps. 89:8-10; Isa. 57:8-10). Rahab was one of the names of the primal sea-monster, or perhaps a personification of the chaos itself, which God had to subdue. See especially Ps. 107:23-29, which may have been used to shape Mark’s story.
Also, Mark’s version clearly draws from the Hebrew imagery and language (“I am”; “fear not”; going to “pass by”) of theophany. God identifies God’s self to Moses as “I am.” “Fear not” was the first word generally spoken by God or an angel when God or angels appeared to humans. The “passing by” imagery comes from Exodus 33:18, 19 where God passed by Moses when Moses said to God, “Show me your glory.”
Clearly, Mark’s story draws upon Hebrew imagery to connect Christ with God’s engagement in the world and God’s people. We could call this story a Christophany. It is a story about the living presence of Christ with the church in times of distress and hardship.
It is a story for all time, but think how appropriate this proclamation would have been to the Christians community Mark was addressing during and in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. All chaos was unleashed. But have faith, the living Christ is present in the storm.
The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus, the man Jesus whose life gives us a full picture of what a human life immersed in God, full of divine love and compassion looks like. The post-Easter Christ incorporates the human Jesus, but is a much larger and more expansive reality.
As a Christian I understand the cosmic Christ through the lens of the historical Jesus. I experience the Spirit of Christ as the spirit, character, passion, and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus provides my “objective reference point” (Steindl-Rast) for making sense of the Christ Spirit, the Christ within, the Spirit at work in the world, my faith community, and in my personal life. My true self, my authentic self is the Christ Self, the Divine Self living in and through me.
Christ in me is my hope of glory (Col. 1:27). It is also the hope of the world. If only the Christ within every human being could be brought to conscious awareness and the divine love (which was incarnate in the historical Jesus) within each one unleashed, the kingdom of God would come on earth.