What is Joy?

Posted: December 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

What is Joy?

One of the long-term debates within biblical scholarship is between scholars who argue ‘for’ or ‘against’ Jesus of Nazareth shared a similar vision of the expected ‘kingdom of God’ with that of John the Baptiser.

Generally speaking, when we ask what was John’s vision or worldview? Tradition has it, that it was a vision shaped by the themes of personal crisis, judgment, and renewal, coupled with the belief of an imminent divine intervention. A worldview that could be said to have generated the charismatic, spirit focused faith response and maybe even the prosperity gospel movement where the marker between faith and non-faith is the prosperous result. Be a good Christian and you will prosper in every way. God gives out Harley Davidsons to good Christians. Going back to the Tradition we find that this is not new because it rings bells in line with the thinking of Israel’s prophets,
such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah. Not as the charismatic or prosperity gospel sort of response but in terms of the world in crisis, based on judgment and thus an imperative need for renewal.

On the other side of this debate are those like me who claim that this was the difference between John and Jesus. Whereas John’s worldview begins with doom and gloom and the evidence of the past to shape the future, Jesus’ worldview concentrated not on the past nor the future, whether near or distant, but on “God’s present and collaborative kingdom” here and now. (Crossan 2010:93).

And, let’s be clear here; opinion continues to be divided. Sometimes even heatedly divided! At the everyday level we approach each moment with blind acceptance of what is without critique or with total disbelief that what we have just seen or heard is true, or we approach it with a healthy dose of both ends and everything in between.

So, is this comparison between John and Jesus possible, helpful or justifiable? Our practice would say it is so long as we don’t get caught by an extreme stand.

When we apply this thinking to who Jesus was because, in the end, the comparison attempt is an attempt to discover who Jesus was so that we can understand who he is for us. When we go to the theological colleges we find that the ‘orthodox’ view, taught in those colleges and from most pulpits, is the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus as the real Jesus. In the end, all we need to do is to believe and Jesus will sort it out. It will be all right in the end. Under this process lies the return of Jesus, the life after death question and ultimately the apocalyptic Jesus is the logical answer to a John worldview. The difficulty of difference between John and Jesus is removed in the interests of common thinking.

Rex Hunt and John Smith of Australian note put together a handbook on progressive Christianity some years back called “Why Weren’t We Told?” and in it, Rex wrote a short cameo on ‘John and Jesus’. He stated that he does not accept that the apocalyptic Jesus is the real Jesus and asked who John the Baptiser or ‘dipper’ was.

Smith responded with a suggestion that from all that we know and do not know, scholars suggest John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero “whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus.” (Smith 2002:109). From John Dominic Crossan we learn that John seems to have spent most of his youth living in the desert wilderness, along the Jordan River. He offered baptism as a cleansing from sin in that river location, which, according to Crossan, “baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before God’s firestorm came.” (Crossan 1991:235). Note the negative approach; Be saved by baptism from the fallen state you are in and do it before the end arrives.

But is this a concern for extremes anyway? Am I painting the difference between John and Jesus? Maybe we could put it another way? Maybe this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed, that the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade had come to an end. The thing in common with Jesus may have been the shared understanding that sociologically, religiously and politically the temple, the religious institution has seen its days and was in need of renewal, revolution and redirection.

One of the affirming arguments for this view is the stories and the poems, both modern and biblical, that have always presented John in colourful terms. The poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well in his poem ‘The Man Who Was a Lamp’:

“John expected an ax[e] to the root of the tree
and instead, he found a gardener hoeing around it.

He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.

He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.” (Shea 1993:177).

So we are left with two different worldviews and maybe the similarities between John and Jesus as well as the differences between them, suggest that its less about a different world and more about seeing the world differently?

Maybe joy is when someone discovers they have experienced renewal.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and advent comes before the celebration we call Christmas. Indeed, Advent has become “a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas.” (Gomes 2007:214). In traditional Christian language, Christmas is about the birth of a baby we call Jesus or Yeshua. Historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago that: “The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished…” (Miles 1912/76:157). This is less about claiming a supernatural Jesus or arguing that tradition has it right and authentic but more about the claim that Christmas is about the birth of a human child which is already special, sacred and divine in its human-ness.

As such Christmas is the most human, and easily the most popular festival of the year, involving nearly all the population. And the baby is the most loveable! There is no need to worry about the secular, commercialization taking over Christmas because it can’t take away from being human whereas it can question, challenge and take over from a supernatural or non-natural deistic claim.

And this brings us back to the fact that much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity did not come from the human Jesus. Or as I might say, the pre-Easter Jesus. It came from Greek thinking centered on a divine Christ as defined by the emperor and various church councils.

And what happens when the human Jesus meets Christianity? According to many of those who call themselves ‘progressive’— and they don’t mince their words—there is a crisis! We have experienced this in the life of our congregation when the Presbytery asked us what we were going to teach in our proposed school? As if there was something they might not agree with or like too much. This human Jesus is seen as a challenge to the growth of the orthodoxy, faith communities that grow from a human Jesus might be a challenge to the institutional status quo.

For those of us who consider ourselves progressive, even if we are not sure of that word. We feel the crisis as having identified several barriers that prevent an honest understanding of Jesus.  These barriers appear as ignorance and as popular images of Jesus. They appear as fear of the gospels losing their authenticity as inerrant and infallible. And sadly as Bob Funk said; they appear as a self-serving church and clergy. They promote spirituality as self-indulgence. (Funk 1996:47).

So, what does our story of John and Jesus have to say? Perhaps as Rex Hunt suggests there are two signposts and they are highlighted in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision that we find in the comparison between the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’.

The first signpost is credibility. As David Galston writes; Whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, “ it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.” (Galston 2012). Jesus was human like anyone. He was a homeland Jew not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish roots.

So a possible Jesus “is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.” (Galston 2012). And let’s be careful here as there are still some unresolved issues associated with all this.  As David Galston, says: “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit.” (Galston 2012).

This should not be seen as a barrier to faith or to an understanding of being a follower of the Jesus Way because we can be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. As David Galston says; “This simple foundation is the honesty involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).

Maybe joy is when someone discovers the possibility of renewal.

The second signpost is methodology That is, what makes the best sense of the available data. And those of us who have been engaging in progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences and maybe those of you hearing many of my sermons will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for the historical or human Jesus. Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Literary Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism and latterly what is termed seeking the Voiceprint of Jesus.

Such tools enable us to realize, for instance, that the gospel writers were a few generations removed from the human Jesus. They inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview. So put simply, an honest progressive methodology is: “check out things for yourself, make sure you interpret things correctly and learn for yourself.  Instead of jumping to conclusions about a subject or about other people, first, ensure you are reading the situation correctly.” (Galston 2012).

Attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus means developing a mature, critical mind that no longer employs the methodology of believing “the biblical narratives literally—narratives that… were not intended ‘literally’ in the first place.” (Galston 2012).

And be clear this is not only a challenge to old traditions. It is a challenge to recent institutional claims such as that of former Pope Benedict xvi in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers renewal is in being skeptical.

Let’s also be clear that all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, is so that we can live in our contemporary situation with integrity and truthfully? And what will this look like? Well again, David Galston’s comments might be helpful. He says; “Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.” (Galston 2012). Walking the Jesus Way is possible, by carrying forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement… Or as Walter Wink has said: “…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.” (Wink 2000:177).

So taking the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously, we ask; how might we capture the spirit of both his particular interpretation of John and by comparison, his take on Jesus?

In the case of John’s thinking: It will require a truly creative change or transformation,
in both our thinking as well as in our doing. And hearing his voice as one of hope rather than fear. In the case of Jesus’ thinking: While he originally accepted and even defended John’s vision “of awaiting the apocalyptic God… as a repentant sinner.” (Crossan 1991: 237) that vision was deemed inadequate. For Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom to being in the kingdom. Not to be in a different world, but being in this world differently.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers renewal is a choice

Living out the implications of the Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. It is still our challenge despite 2 000 years. I like Rex Hunt and a growing number of Jesus freaks am firmly of the belief that the old-religion story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus or Christ, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives.

The thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness. One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century requires that we think differently about the questions of what it means to be Christian, about what Christianity is, and who decides.

If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision. Not some supernatural authority or extra-human power.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers hay it is ours to make.

Crossan, J. D. The Greatest Prayer. Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
—————- The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for the New Millennium. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Kindle Edition. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom. How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1912/76..
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracles All Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Smith, M. H. “Israel’s Prodigal Son. Reflections on Re-imagining Jesus” in Hoover, R. W. ed., Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Wink, W. “The Son of Man. The Stone that Builders rejected” in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.


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