Dear Donagh…. I look at a lot of Christian stuff on the net and I'm surprized at how different it all is, I mean some of it is all fire and brimstone, and more of it is the very opposite. Is it the same Jesus they're talking about? Which of them is right, or are they all making it up? Please throw some light on this. Robert M.
Dear Robert, Thanks for putting your finger on something very important. It's true to some extent that we all invent our own Jesus, but that's not so surprising: in a way we all invent our own world. Two people look at the same landscape: one loves it, the other hates it or is bored by it. Two people watch some event, and their accounts of it are often entirely different. What we like and dislike says something about ourselves; sometimes it's more about ourselves than anything else.
Is there anything true then, you ask; is everything just opinion? No. I think the fact that we argue about something shows that we still believe that truth is possible. Imagine two people arguing, even bitterly, about something: they are far nearer to each other than two others who just shrug their shoulders. What looks like total disagreement is never quite that.
Yes, we hear many different versions of the Gospel, and we are presented with many different kinds of Jesus. We are often asked to believe in a Jesus who belongs more in the Old Testament than in the New. Many fundamentalist Christian preachers, it seems to me, feel far more at home in the Old Testament. We can hope that we are all on a route (with many stages, and a slightly different Jesus at each stage) that will eventually lead us to the real Jesus.
A great deal of ordinary Christian preaching presents us, I think, with John the Baptist rather than with Jesus. Repent and believe the bad news. Let's compare John with Jesus as they first appear in the New Testament.
John the Baptist said the most awful things to his own people: he called them "a brood of vipers," and he said they deserved nothing but destruction. He came from the desert, where "he wore a garment made of camel-hair...and his food was locusts and wild honey" (Matthew 3:4). His message was equally rough: he didn't begin, "My dear brothers and sisters..."; he began, "Brood of vipers...!" (Luke 3:7). Could he be the Messiah, the Promised One, people wondered. Many thought he might be! This shows that they had no glamorised image of the Messiah. They expected a thrashing! God would burn up most of them up like chaff, John promised. This was a significant phrase: the Pharisees used to say that the common people were chaff - empty husks. John's words must have cut them to the bone.
And still the people flocked to hear him! How is that? He must have been playing by accepted rules. Criticism is acceptable if it doesn't come too close. John was their theatre; he was the horror movie of his time. He was even dressed for the part! Parish missions with fire and brimstone, even in my lifetime, were greatly enjoyed by all. There was no TV then.
Jesus came from the desert too, but he was much friendlier. He sat down to table with all kinds of people that the locals would call scum. He spoke of mercy and forgiveness and hope. He said that prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of heaven ahead of the pious (Matthew 21:31); he praised the faith of people of other religions and none: Samaritans, Roman centurions, the Syro-Phoenician woman.... This was clearly breaking the rules. They wanted their theatre (as we all do) to be safely 'out there': they went "out" to John the Baptist (Luke 7:26). But Jesus came in; he saw them from the inside; he didn't "play the prophet," as he was challenged to do (Luke 22 :64). He believed in them; he said of them, "The harvest is rich but the labourers are few..." (Matthew 9:36): in other words, he didn't see them as chaff (as the Pharisees did) but as harvest - ripe and full of life. He respected them; but because he got into their minds and saw what they were made of, they rejected him. He knew them too well; if their illusions were to live on, he had to die.
It's strange: John was distant and scolding, and they accepted him. It's clear that he loved people less; he preferred to put the fear of God into them! Jesus was close and friendly and he was rejected. Human psychology is very strange.
"Who are you?” the people asked John the Baptist. "How do you see yourself?" These are questions we ask one another to this day. But today we ask these questions especially of ourselves; today we tend to turn the searchlight inwards. 'Who am I?' 'How do I see myself?' In our complex world these are not trivial questions. There are many who are willing to offer us ready-made identities. Some of these identities are intensely tight-fitting: our world is full of cults and fanatical movements, secular and religious. Many look at you and don't want to know who you are; they see only the identity they would like to impose on you. We need to know where to find our real identity.
"Among you stands one whom you do not know," said John, referring to Jesus. We do not know him because we cannot get away forever with imposing an identity on him - though we try all the time. Jesus the Catholic, Jesus the Protestant, Jesus the Baptist….
Perhaps the real test is whether it's working for us. Jesus said, "The truth will make you free." Are we actually being set free? He said, "Love one another as I have loved you." Can we detect any signs of it? If we can we're on the right path. Keep going!