For now, we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face. 1 Corinthians 13:12
The danger of reading the bible in snippets – searching for proof texts to buttress faith or piety – is that we create an unrealizable (and unrealized) version of what Jesus-followers should be. Spend some time instead wallowing in biblical stories; they’re refreshingly gritty. People do horrible things, fail one another and God, bungle, trip, doubt, fear and generally make a mess of things. (I don’t want to glorify debasement; I do want to be reminded that God can only redeem those who recognize they are debased.) One imagines Jesus banging his head on a lintel because, yet again, his disciples are stubborn, obtuse, vain and self-centered. We easily forget that after years of intimacy with Jesus, after healings and teachings and long days traveling, eating, sleeping and working together, they all (at first) completely miss the message, which means they missed him.
Even John the Baptist, created to ‘make straight the path’ for Jesus, wavered and wondered in the end. Remember that when John was born his father said of him, “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Later in the gospels we see John preaching in the desert, eating bugs and honey, cut from the cloth of the Old Testament prophets – wild, unruly and true. When John saw Jesus he simply knew, could not doubt; “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John baptized Jesus, setting him on the path to Golgotha. He then thunders to all who would listen of repentance and a new kingdom, a kingdom Jesus would bring. No one was more likely to get it right.
And yet, shockingly, after John is arrested and jailed we hear the following question from him to Jesus:
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Luke 7:18-23
We tend to focus on Jesus’ response and it’s a good one. “Tell John what you see; tell him what I do. People are made whole again. God’s kingdom is inaugurated in me and through me.” The language is from Isaiah 35:5-6 when God promises that Israel, long in exile, will be re-formed, brought back to wholeness. With no great subtlety Jesus is drawing into his ministry the old promises of hope and restoration. That’s good news indeed. But as we are refreshed by the promise, we’ve forgotten John – in jail, alone, facing death and scared. John, who was chosen by God and lived his life to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry, wonders if he’s made a horrible error. “Are you the one? Has my life and message been a catastrophic blunder?”
In the 18th century, scholars believed they could strip the ‘fables’ and ‘tales’ from the Jesus of the gospels, like husking corn, until they arrived at the kernel of who Jesus really was. This was the Quest for the Historical Jesus, the effort to uncover the “true Jesus” of history unencumbered by the bias of the biblical authors. After all their searching they found a Jesus who would fit nicely in an 18th century drawing room, a vaguely nice individual, a teacher of wisdom and man of love, morally earnest but ultimately deluded.In the 20th Century, we had a new quest and one of the popularizers of this movement, Marcus Borg, has written beautifully and convincingly of ‘finding Jesus again, for the first time.’ After many books, and much debate, he finds a Jesus who was not unlike a 60s radical.
Each of these efforts to find the ‘real’ Jesus, the pure Jesus of history, ends with a Jesus who looks remarkably like the seeker. Jesus was not, we must hope, an apocalyptic revolutionary, bringing a temporal kingdom – a renewal of the nation-state Israel – as John the Baptist likely desired. Nor was he an 18th century sage, or a 60s radical. Nor is he a 21th century evangelical. We are not exempt from the tendency to seek Jesus and see ourselves. None of these are wholesale-bad images, but they are profoundly domesticated figures, mere reflections of our time bound and often insipid aspirations – in a word, dull.
Hear instead the very first hymn of the early church, before the gospels were written or the canon compiled:
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death,
and opened the kingdom of heaven
to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come, and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.
These old creeds, with their allusions and mystery and language that sometimes baffles, offer a Jesus who addresses the most pressing questions of our life: Who am I? What’s all the noise about? Where am I going? All who profess to follow Jesus are rightly enthralled in that that first encounter, however it may occur. Hearing the good news of unmerited grace by which we must live amazed, we hold onto Jesus with all the strength of youthful certainty and untarnished anticipation, and that’s how it should be. Over time, like John the Baptist, we can begin to wonder, “Are you the one?” Our belief becomes something like a desperate hope. But perhaps that’s best or even by design. A Jesus of our own creation is calcified – an idol – unable to inspire the fear, wonder or longing that is so much a part of awe and is at the heart of worship and is the beginning of salvation.
“He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those men who did not know who he was. He says the same words, “Follow me!” and sets us to those tasks which he must fulfill in our time. He commands. And to those who hearken to him, whether wise or unwise, he will reveal himself in the peace, the labors, the conflicts and the suffering that they may experience in his fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they will learn who he is.” Albert Schweitzer, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus.”