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The Changing Images of Jesus by Rev. Dr. James Stuart (1998) 2 x CD version
The PRINT version is titled The Many Faces of Christ
|Regardless of what most people think or believe about Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph of Jerusalem, few will dispute the fact that he has been one of the most dominant figures in the history of Western culture. Revered by millions around the world, he has given rise to a plethora of images ranging from that of a Cosmic Saviour to an ordinary human being of extraordinary courage and faith. Jesus is too important to the history of Western culture to be closeted away in church dogma and consequently ignored by an increasingly secular society.
... I began this chapter by stating what I think we can know about Jesus with some degree of historical certainty. The portrait that emerges is of a 1st century Jew from rural Galilee. Of peasant stock but also educated in the rabbihic traditions of Galilee, Jesus became the charismatic leader of an emancipatory movement that was democratic in character and radically egalitarian. It embraced peasants from lower Galilee. Using short aphorisms, parables and stories well known to the people of his time, he declared the imminent intervention of God in history. As a Galilean Jewish peasant he believed that when this great judgment took place it would liberate Jewish peasants from both Roman oppression and the oppression of the Jewish aristocracy and ruling groups. He encouraged all his followers to live as if this new social order, the kingdom of God, was already present. He travelled to Jerusalem, where he proclaimed this message and engaged in provocative political acts which gained him some popular support but which inevitably brought the wrath of the establishment down upon him. Both the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities in Jerusalem feared an insurrection, so dispatched him by crucifixion. He died outside the walls of Jerusalem during the week of the Jewish Passover. How this Jesus, a Nazarene peasant and Jewish prophet from Galilee, became the Lord of the Roman empire, is the question I will explore in the next chapter.
Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents we have. They predate the gospels by at least 15 to 20 years. While the gospels are not the creation of Paul they certainly reflect the Christian milieu he shaped. Jesus may have understood his death as the beginning of a new age, but I doubt if he ever saw his death as an atoning sacrifice for the whole world. It was Paul who interpreted Jesus as the Saviour and Lord of the universe whose death on the cross became the gateway to salvation. As A N Wilson observes, "if Paul had not existed it is very unlikely that we should have had any of the gospels in their present ..... It is for this reason that we can say that Paul, and not Jesus, was - if anyone was - the founder of Christianity."
In his book The First Coming, Thomas Sheehan argues that the interpretation of Jesus as the Saviour and Lord distorted the message of Jesus in three ways. First he says it hypostatised the kingdom, that is "it turned what Jesus was about into Jesus himself". In other words, it engaged in idolatry. Second, it abandoned Jesus' radical sense of time, because "it constructed a 'past-present-future cosmic salvation history', and lost the core of Jesus' message of forgiveness that the future was already present - grace was everywhere - and therefore that the arrival of God was transformed into the praxis of earthly liberation." Third, it reconstituted religion. "Jesus did not undertake his prophetic mission in order to bring people more religion," Sheehan says, "... rather he preached the end of religion and the beginning of what religion is supposed to be about: God's presence among men and women".
It is probably wrong to say that Paul betrayed Jesus. He simply interpreted Jesus differently; and because of that the religion we call Christianity is very different from the faith Jesus lived. The crisis we face in the Christian church today has little to do with many of the current problems that divide the church. Rather it is a crisis of origins. We have lost touch with its founding story, and therefore we have lost touch with the unfathomable mystery of what that means for all of us who are seeking to become human beings. Jesus announced that the time had come, that God's kingdom was upon us. Perhaps that simply meant we were to live as if God was akeady present among us. As Sheehan points out "Grace is and always has been everywhere. The task is to make it so".