I spent time talking with a Jewish man this week about his experience of Christianity and visiting church. I have some experience in the subject, not just because I’m a minister. Most of you probably remember my ex-wife Miriam is Jewish, and we raised Benjamin and Simon knowing both religious traditions of their families. That’s given me added practical experience with the intersections and interrelations.
Of course, Jewish – Christian relations are better in our day than at many other, earlier times. But in the Jewish community, with the long and bloody history of being persecuted by Christians and the church, Christianity can still bring up some pretty powerful responses. It might surprise us how visceral a reaction “overt Christianity” can occasion (as opposed to more general cultural Christianity or American civil religion).
Our conversation was really interesting in that the Jewish man with whom I was speaking has an unusual knowledge, almost an “expertise” in Christianity. As an undergraduate, he had studied history, concentrating on Israel and Palestine in the historical period from 100 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. And as he said, “one cannot do that without Jesus and the Gospels.”
Though he recognizes how historically difficult Christianity can be for many Jews (himself included) after millennia of anti-semitism, he also has an appreciation for Jesus. And his teachings. He laughed and said, “For me, Jesus is a dusty, but sharp-witted rabbi wandering the highways and byways sharing his specific take on the Judaism of his day. I grasp and like his teachings. But truthfully, I see him as a man, and only closer to God than any other human in as much as he lived more spiritually that you or me.”
My friend realizes that his understanding of Jesus is not the church’s. I am not sure he realizes that it might be closer to many Christians than he expects (though I’m not sure how many Christians actually hold an image of Jesus more as an exceptional human, rather than in some sense Divine?)
But he also recognizes that in his own Judaism, he holds to a similar interpretive strategy: translating the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures for what they might mean for people today, but inevitably extracting any supernatural movements or flourishes out of them.
I share this little bit of his religious outlook because it is another way people focus on “who is this Jesus,” my theme for this Advent’s series of E-pistles.
Jesus was unquestionably a Jew. There’s no indication that he intended to found a new faith; more likely he meant to reform the Judaism of his day. Or, at the least, gather a following of folks who subscribed to his school of interpretation. More than asking people to believe in him, he preached about what he referred to as or promised as the Kingdom of Heaven. He was not talking about a supernatural coming of the Kingdom as a world-ending event in or shortly after his lifetime. He didn’t seem to have a particularly strong messianic sense of himself or a clear redemptive understanding of his mission or impending death.
If any of that sounds threatening to the Jesus you believe in, let me introduce you to Marcus Borg’s distinction between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus.
In his book, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” Borg builds on the important distinction scholars sometimes make between the historical Jesus (the one who lived a life of which we have some imperfect historical record) and the Christ of faith, the latter being the persona that emerged from the oral transmission of the Gospels: Paul’s letters and the other texts that in time became the New Testament; and the on-going traditions of the church. Borg prefers, however, to designate the two distinct identities differently: the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.
His point is important: both identities flow from experiential data from encounters with the two referenced “Jesuses.” The former referenced the impressions of those who encountered Jesus or the reports of him in his earthly life. The latter, “the post-Easter Jesus,” Borg points out, is an improvement on term ‘the Christ of faith’ because the latter sounds like it has no historical or experiential reference, but is only someone in whom you must believe. Borg’s point is that the post-Easter Jesus was different than his pre-Easter identity, but that the latter persona also comes of people’s experience of him (obviously in some spiritual presence as he had been resurrected).
What Borg, who specialized in academically in what we can know about the pre-Easter Jesus (who my Jewish friend admires), is insisting that we can also know the living, risen Christ of the New Testament and later tradition as an experiential reality, the post-Easter Jesus.
As Borg illustrates his point: pre-Easter Jesus probably never uttered the great “I am” claims that run throughout the Gospel of John. But those statements were unquestionably true for the early Christian communities who experienced the post-Easter Jesus as the light that led them out of the darkness, the spiritual food that nourished them for their journeys, the way that led them from death to life.
Likewise, the post-Easter Christ promises that our faith is not primarily about believing in God, the Bible or some version of the Christian tradition. Rather it is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition, however humbly, even feebly, tries to point toward — which may be spoke of as God; the living, risen Christ; or the Spirit.
Who is this Jesus?
Some might know him — even enter into a relationship with him — as God or the Spirit, colored primarily by a less transcendent picture of the dusty preacher Jesus glimpsed through the synoptic Gospels.
Or maybe the reality that breaks upon you is something more of the post-Easter Jesus himself, the Jesus of church tradition, but not as dogma you need to believe in, so much as a Reality you can encounter.
I think there’s room in church and the pews for folks who with both experiences. I find the church can and ought to welcome folks who recognize and appreciate and find powerful God as known in the pre- or post-Easter Jesus, and then invite them and support them in a deepening relation with the God of their understanding.
See you in church,