In three of the four gospels, Jesus asks His disciples a very provocative question: “Who do you say I am” (Matt 16:15, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20)?
The question is an important one for Christians. Indeed, who we say Jesus is says a lot about how we have come to understand God. Our entire religion hinges on this, on who Jesus is for us.
One of most audacious things Christians have historically claimed is that Jesus is God incarnate – that the Palestinian Jew on whom we base our religion was not just an esteemed prophet and teacher, but God in human form.
This has caused problems for many people, for many reasons. Many people can’t wrap their heads around the Incarnation – how the Creator of the entire universe could be revealed in a human form.
Others have wondered why God would choose to reveal Him/Herself as a man (and one of Jewish descent), rather than as a woman or a Gentile. And why was God incarnated in the specific time and place that He was? Why not earlier (or later) in history? Why in the Middle East, rather than Africa, or Asia, or Europe, or the Americas?
The theological term for this dilemma is the scandal of particularity – the scandalous idea that God has been revealed to us in a very particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s a persisting problem, especially for those raised in non-Christian cultures; and even many who identify as Christian struggle with it.
The idea that one person, in one particular time and place and culture, could be the Messiah, the Redeemer of all, and indeed God (“in a way that the rest of us schmucks are not”, as one writer put it), is a difficult one for many to swallow.
Saint Gregory of Nazianzus summarized the problem well when he said that “what is not assumed is not redeemed.” While Gregory meant that Jesus had to be fully human in order to redeem humanity, his words can be extended well beyond their original context.
If “what is not assumed is not redeemed,” then how can Jesus truly be the Savior of women, of non-Jewish men, or of people from other times and cultures that aren’t directly connected to His?
In response to this, many Christians have pointed out that it’s not Jesus’ gender, or race, or cultural identity, that’s important; the important thing is what He taught, what He showed us about God, and (especially) what He did for us through His death and resurrection.
While I agree with this response in principle, I’m skeptical as to whether such distinctions are really possible to make.
I don’t think we can really know the meaning of Jesus’ teachings, His manner of life, or the significance of His death and resurrection, apart from His identity as a first-century Jewish male.
We cannot, in the end, separate any person from his or her gender, racial/ethnic background, or culture – Jesus included. All of these things play a part in determining what a person will believe, how they will interpret their experiences, and how they will react to various social circumstances.
Thus, if we want to worship Jesus, we have committed ourselves to worshipping Him in all of His historical particularities – including his gender, race, and culture. This is problematic for me; and I know I’m not alone in this.
All of this was made painfully clear to me in a series of visions I received in May of 2016, while attending a Quaker retreat in Indiana.
The first vision came to me on the second night of this retreat, while we were gathered for worship. I noticed a picture of Jesus placed at the front of the sanctuary. In this picture (as in many others I have seen), Jesus was depicted as a white, Anglo-Saxon male with a youthful and gentle appearance.
As I gazed at this picture, I heard Jesus saying to me, I don’t like it when people make pictures of me like this. For one thing, I’m not a white man. That’s not who I was historically, and even if it was, I’m a lot more than that. Indeed, I’m more than a historical figure; I am an eternal spirit that lives in all people.
I think the organizers of this retreat grasped something of this message, as well; for they also displayed another image of Jesus in which His face was constructed from a collage of other pictures – photos of people of all different ages, races and genders.
The second vision came the next night. Once again we were gathered for worship. In my head I saw a vision of Jesus – but His appearance was somewhat obscured.
Say to this people, ‘You will never know me until you meet me in one another,’ Jesus said to me. It’s not enough to know who I was historically, who the church says that I am, or even what the Bible says about me. If you want to really know me, find me in another. When you truly love your brothers and sisters for who they are within, you will come to know me.
In the months following this retreat, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on these things, trying to figure out what it means to say that I’m a Christian.
While I haven’t got it all figured out yet, one thing seems clear to me – I must make a distinction between the historical Jesus, and the eternal Christ spirit.
Though I know this will sound heretical to many, I can no longer in good conscious say I worship Jesus.
I worship the Triune God, of whom Christ is clearly a part. But it is the Christ spirit, the eternal Word of God who is mystically present in every person, that I worship – not the first-century Jewish man from Nazareth.
It’s Jesus, of course, who makes this Christ spirit known to us – along with Sophia (the Holy Spirit) and Abba (God the Father). And I still believe that God was made incarnate in Jesus (though I have come to believe God can be incarnated in us, as well). But I can no more worship the historical Jesus than I can worship any other human being, no matter how sanctified.
I realize that in the eyes of many Christians, this makes me a heretic. But I still identify as Christian, for a simple reason: I still consider Jesus my Lord and Savior. I still find His teachings more reliable than any others I have found. I still find in Him a power for healing, and a liberation from sin and death, that I can’t find anywhere else.
And above all else, I have fallen in love with the God that Jesus reveals – a God that loves me with a love more personal and powerful than any I have ever known. Following this God, the God revealed in Christ, is what being a Christian means to me.
(Coming Soon: “Power in the Name(s)”: Healing and the Triune God)