*third in a series of two articles on my ordination anniversary—the gift that keeps on giving!
When I was teaching intro Religious Studies at SFU, the unit on Christianity was always the most difficult. This was because having grown up in a post-Christian or a decayed-Christian culture, most of my students already thought they knew about Christianity. In fact, most of what they “knew” came from TV: Christianity equals the Pope plus the television evangelists.
However, one thing came through from them to me loud and clear, and I have remembered and continued to reflect on it:church bad, Jesus good. The first part is easy enough to understand: residential schools and sexual abuse (and boredom?). But somehow people understand that Jesus is not to blame for this. As the old revival-meeting song says, “There’s flies on you, and there’s flies on me, but there ain’t no flies on Jesus!” I affirm within this context that Jesus is the man–the archetypal human being of the West, as Jung says–and the prime resource of the church as it morphs from fortress church through emerging church to pilgrim church, from church stuck to church on the move.
When I was ordained in 1963, I thought of Jesus much more as the Christ of faith, the second person of the Trinity or the Divine Teacher, rather than the Son of Man, the “human one” (as some contemporary Bible translations translate that ancient title), or the animator of a movement of peasant resistance to imperial Rome. But the great advances in Jesus-scholarship in recent years have brought the human Jesus, the peasant Jesus, the citizen-of-an-occupied-land Jesus, the uncomfortable-to-listen-to Jesus, much closer to our awareness. The title of Marcus Borg’s book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, captures this shift. Ironically (or is it?), I am far more interested in Jesus now than when I was ordained. (Is this true for any reader of this blog?)
Nowadays, I find, more of us are looking at Jesus with eyes wider open, and listening to him more attentively with the ears of our hearts. The revival of the ancient practice of lectio divina (meditative and affective rather than intellectual reading of scripture) has had a lot to do with this. And beyond any decline that the institutional church has suffered or has yet to suffer, Jesus remains an archetypal figure—is there anyone in the west who hasn’t heard of him? I find it very encouraging that Jesus is present and active not only in the Christian community, where one might hope (!) his influence to be exercised, but also in other faith-traditions (notably Buddhism, Islam and the indigenous spiritualities of North America), as well as in the culture at large—hey, Leonard Cohen! And speaking of Leonard, a special word here about Judaism. I am currently using The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New Revised Standard Version text, footnotes from Jewish scholars) for my daily readings. It’s marvelous to see the respect in which Jesus is held by the 40 Jewish scholars who edited this book. This doesn’t mean that they agree with everything he is reported to have said; but it does mean that an important cohort in the Jewish community is reclaiming him as one of their own.
For the liturgy on the occasion of my ordination anniversary, I chose two scripture passages that speak powerfully to me about Jesus at this point in my life. The first one, Philippians 2:5-11, is Paul’s meditation (perhaps it was a poem or a hymn) on the enfleshment/incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. We could get all metaphysical and theological about this, but I don’t find this helpful. For me, it has come to mean, simply, that Jesus, “the human one” (as by the grace of God I also am), opened himself to God and was filled with God’s Spirit as no-one else before or since. So that is the challenge for me—to humble myself, open myself, take upon myself the form of a servant in my own context.
The second passage is Matthew 5:1-12, the Beatitudes (“the blesseds,” so called from the King James translation of the opening word in Greek of each of the verses, makarios). I have a wonderful memory of how each day at noon in the Community of Taizé, in Burgundy, the prior would recite the Beatitudes while the brothers sang Alleluia voice-over (does anyone know if they still do this?). We can read them at one level as describing Jesus himself. He was poor in spirit, i.e., not arrogant; capable of mourning, as he did for his friend Lazarus (John 11:35); one of God’s anawim, the meek upon the earth, those whose ultimate trust is in God. He hungered and thirsted for righteousness, for justice; showed forth the mercy of God; was pure in heart—meaning, as Kierkegaard says, that he willed one thing, the just and loving reign of God; was a peacemaker in a violent society; and was indeed persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for doing the right thing. And then we can go to the next level: what we see in Jesus, we are challenged to look for and hope for and want in ourselves. The Beatitudes are a dynamite checklist for anyone trying to live a Christian life.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”—a word from one of the thieves who were crucified with him (Luke 23:42), and the text of one of the most moving and beautiful of the Taizé chants now widely sung around the world. Yes, Jesus: thank you for your call to authenticity. Remember me–I remember you.