Being in the World Differently

Posted: December 6, 2021 in Uncategorized

One of the questions asked of John and Jesus is did Jesus of Nazareth share a similar vision
of the expected ‘kingdom of God’ with that of John the Baptiser? A response might be yes because Jesus was baptised by John or yes because Jesus was a follower of John at least for a while? Generally speaking, we might ask, what was John’s vision or worldview? And 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. Sound familiar? And isn’t this thinking which seems to be in line with the tradition of Israel’s prophets, such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah?

On the other side of this debate are those who claim that Jesus’ worldview was significantly different in that his view concentrated not on the future, whether near or distant, but rather on “God’s present but collaborative kingdom” here and now. This is the view of some eminent post- modern Scholars such as Dominic Crossan. It is also a view I think is sound in that it explains for me why the Jesus message is in many ways timeless as opposed to John’s which had a short shelf life.

Opinion continues to be divided however and sometimes even heatedly divided! The ‘orthodox’ view, taught in theological colleges and from most pulpits, is that the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus is the real Jesus.  Period. I prefer to think like Rex Hunt and many others that the apocalyptic Jesus is not the real Jesus. This is a real change in thinking too because people like Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman would disagree. The question we are left with is “who was John the Baptiser?

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). He 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 Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan, “baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before [God’s] fire storm came.”(Crossan 1991:235).

Or, put another way, this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family, was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed, the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade had come to an end. Storytellers and poets, both modern and biblical, have always presented him in colourful terms. And it is poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well in his poem

The Man Who Was a Lamp’:

“John expected an axe 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, rests my view as it seems we are left with two different worldviews. One rooted in fear and the struggle to reject it and the other rooted in love and the certain hope in spite of and in and through the struggle. In today’s theme of Joy, the difference is the alternative that releases one from all the bondage of mind body and soul and provides the opportunity to celebrate life in all its fullness and to love wastefully.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. 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/Yeshua.

As historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago: “The God of Christmas is no fear of 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).

As such Christmas even as an incarnational metaphor 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! But much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity did not come from the human Jesus. It came from Greek thinking centred on a divine Christ as defined by the emperor and various church councils. With all that we know today we are challenged to understand the message

So, 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!  In a world that thinks differently. This is the crisis and not one of an irrelevant message; but rather one of an old interpretation in our age. This so-called crisis has identified several barriers that prevent an honest understanding of Jesus.  Barriers such as: fear, ignorance, and an idealistic simplicity that is more of a prison itself. Even popular images of Jesus perpetuate this crisis. He was a middle eastern human being. The gospels as inerrant and infallible have gone the way of certainty, truth and the concrete. All these are now products of perception and still as true as they ever were but in a different form. Being ejected is a self-serving church and clergy. The creation of secularism has changed the form of spirituality to be rooted in the social collective consciousness and Spirituality is no longer acceptable as self-indulgence.

Rex Hunt suggests two brief suggestions of what might be signposts in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision which the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’ highlights. The first signpost is credibility. In the face of the current world this could be also said to be the offering of an authentic Jesus. David Galston says that “whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, “it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.” Jesus was human like anyone. He was a homeland Jew not a Christian. And 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 says Galson, “there is still some unresolved issues associated with all this.  That’s for sure’. “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). However! We can still be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. “This simple foundation is the honesty involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).

The second signpost is methodology. That is, what makes the best sense of the available data.

And those of you who have been engaging in progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences, will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for the historical or human Jesus.
Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and Rhetorical Criticism. Such tools enable us to realise, for instance, that the gospel writers were a few generations removed from the human Jesus. They already inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview and we know the influence of subjectivity, time and perception. 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).

The message John and Jesus give us today is the challenge of attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus and that 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).

In spite of the defensive fear driven conservationist thinking that hides behind a supernatural, non critical mindset the question we must engage with is how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped by the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And again, David Galston’s comments are helpful, here: “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).

Carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement…
Or as another has said: “…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.” (Wink 2000:177).

Let’s return to John for a bit to tease out his similarities to Jesus in terms of his human-ness also.

From what we can make out the human John is not pretty. He is not always reassuring.
His is a voice of challenge and protest. Yet it does seem John offered the people who
“lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation, a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).

His great invention if you like, was to introduce “a new, inexpensive, generally available, divinely authorized rite of baptism effective for the remissions of sins” (Crossan 1991:231).

I want to return to our theme for today again and to do this I want to offer an excerpt I read in an article by Lara Freidenfelds who in reading of Elizabeth, mother of John, suggested we need to bring back our understanding of quickening in the story of childbirth. She argues that it would clarify the original depth and meaning in Elizabeth’s story, levels of meaning that were shared among scripture readers and listeners until the past century or so. When Luke says that John the Baptist “leaped for joy,” in the womb he was not signifying simple happiness. He intended to signify the joy of life itself. The Catholic Church eventually decided that the significance of John’s leaping was that John was cleansed of original sin. But says ‘Freidenfelds’, the miracle described in the text as understood in its original context goes even deeper.

Another reason to bring back our understanding of quickening she says is that it reminds modern readers of an important insight that was a truism in earlier times: Pregnancies are precarious in their early months. Before the modern understanding of embryology, people appreciated quickening as a medically significant indication of a successful pregnancy, and as a spiritually significant indication that it was time to experience oneself as pregnant with a baby and to expect the birth of a child. Today, we have the technology to detect conceptions less than two weeks after they take place. But of those conceptions, about 30 percent miscarry, mostly in the early months of pregnancy. From the point of modern embryology, quickening may be arbitrary, but from the perspective of a person experiencing pregnancy, it can make sense to look to quickening, rather than a positive home pregnancy test, for reassurance that a baby is on the way. And then, at quickening, we can remember Elizabeth, and joyfully appreciate the miracle that is new life. This has to be the root of a Joy to the World does it not.

That might seem the end of the story too, but there is in the story of baptism linked to this Joy of Christmas. For baptism we only need water. Any water.  Anywhere.  But… we note that the nature of this joy is linked to a desert location and a baptism in the Jordan, precisely the Jordan, and this Jordan had overtones… of political subversion.  …Desert and Jordan, prophet and crowds, were always a volatile mix calling for immediate preventive strikes.” (Crossan 1991:235).

Although the historian Josephus would have us believe both John and Jesus were put to death by a ‘reluctant’ civil authority we take the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously,  and 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’sthinking: It will require a truly creative change or transformation, in both our thinking as well as in our doing.  And to 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.

The significant difference and what I term as the reason for the Way of Jesus is that for Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom to being in the kingdom. His message was not about the future but rather about the present. The call is not to be in a different world, but being
in this world differently.

So, here it is; 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. And in terms of the theme for today, that of Joy. This joy is found in this life, living this life and not in that which might come.

I am like many progressives 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. And that 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 wewho 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. And in the theme of today the Joy of the world is found in the quickening of humankind because that is how we know what is true. Amen.

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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