Undressing Jesus or “Hey, Who Forgot to Put the Rabbit in My Hat?”

I love unpacking my spiritual beliefs and ideas. This has been a big part of my own spiritual journey. If you are unfamiliar with my spiritual life and the evolution of my theology and beliefs, check out the about this site page where I take you on a journey though all the various spiritual paths I have explored.

I have already undressed the ideas we hold about God.

We now come to a subject that has been at the center of Christianity right from the beginning. For 2000 years, Christians have been debating the place of Jesus in our faith. And for almost this long, the story of Nicodemus that is recorded in the Gospel of John has been used to explain how Jesus fits in God’s plan.

We will begin by looking at what is really said about Jesus and see if we can recover the naked truth about the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

So what is the naked truth about Jesus? Was he merely a magician that just appeared to make a difference and pull rabbits out of his hat or was there really something about his life, example and message that cause real transformation in his life and the life of his followers. I believe the later is the naked truth.

According to the New Testament, Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” And as the image of God, Jesus disclosed what God is like. He often told his followers that if they wanted to know what God was like, to look at the way he lived in relationship with God and other people.

But we must remember that it was about 30 years after Jesus lived among those early Christians, that they began writing down the things they remembered Jesus saying and doing. And as they wrote, two layers of material emerging. These layers present two different pictures: first a picture of the pre-Easter Jesus or the Jesus of history and the second is the post-Easter Christ, or the Christ of faith.

When looking at the Jesus of history, we see five components to this image.

1. Spirit Person

The pre-Easter Jesus was what I call a “spirit person.” By this I mean that he was a person that frequently and vividly experienced the sacred, God, the Spirit. And this experience became the foundation of everything else that he was.

2. Healing Person

Jesus also was a healer. More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition.

3. Wisdom Teacher

The third part of this picture is that Jesus was a wisdom teacher who used short saying and parables to teach and often saw the world and reality just a little bit differently from those around him.

4. Social Prophet

He was a social prophet like Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah who challenged the domination system of his day that was an oppressive social order with sharp social boundaries. And he did this from a social vision grounded in the compassion of God.

5. Movement Initiator

And finally, he was a movement initiator. Well, at least a movement came into existence around him during his lifetime whose inclusiveness and egalitarian practice embodied his alternative social vision.

These were all part of the image the early Christians saw in the pre-Easter Jesus. But as we read the gospels, there is another layer that emerges. This is what I call the Christ of faith.

This presence of Christ continued to be experienced by followers long after Easter, even until today and is a very real but radically different reality — it is a spiritual and divine reality. You see as the church experienced and continues to experience the risen Christ, we see God saying a divine “yes” to the message, activity and vision of Jesus.

So, what relevance should the pre-Easter Jesus have for our lives? If we take the pre-Easter Jesus seriously as the epiphany of God, what do we see?

First, Jesus disclosed that God can be known. God was not a distant reality who could only be believed in or who might be known only in the future or beyond death. God is “at hand” and knowable.

Second, Jesus showed us that God is compassionate. Compassion was the core quality of two of Jesus’ most famous characters: the father in the Prodigal Son parable and the Good Samaritan.

Third, Jesus revealed that the divine-human relationship was not based on meeting requirements. Requirements were replaced by relationships as the central dynamic of the religious life.

And fourth, Jesus spoke and enacted a social vision grounded in God. In his role as social prophet, he indicted the ruling class at the top of the social system of his day and ours. He attempted to break down the boundaries that divided people and to establish an inclusive movement. And in doing so, he disclosed a God that cares passionately about what happens in human history.

I believe that we need to affirm both of these images of Jesus — the pre-Easter Jesus of history and the post-Easter Christ of faith. Both are significant. One glimpse of the pre-Easter Jesus discloses what the Word made flesh, the Spirit of God embodied in human life, looks like. And the Christ of faith shows what Jesus became in the experiences and life of the early Christian communities.

We do not need to chose between the two. Our understanding of Jesus’ significance is richer if we see and affirm both the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Both are the image of the invisible God. Both disclose what God is like.

Now I want to close by talking about a very familiar Christian phrase — believing in Jesus — and how it relates to the image of the Christian life I have been talking about today.

For those of us who grew up in the church, believing in Jesus was important. For me, what that phrase meant in my childhood and into my early adulthood was “believing things about Jesus.” To believe in Jesus meant to believe what the gospels and the church said about Jesus. That was easy when I was a child, and became more and more difficult as I grew older.

But now I see that believing in Jesus means something very different from that. The change is found in both the Greek and Latin root meaning of the word believe. Believe did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings. In both Greek and Latin its root means “to give one’s heart to.” The “heart” is the self at its deepest level. Believing, therefore, involves a much deeper level of one’s self. It means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level to the post-Easter Christ who is the living Sovereign, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the one who is also the Spirit.

Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one’s heart to Jesus is the movement from secondhand religion to firsthand relationship, from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of the ear to being in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. For ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present.

While there might not have been a rabbit in the hat, or even a hat, we do find Jesus as someone who has the ability to change lives but not through feats of magic but through the experience of transforming relationship.

My prayer for each of us is that we will experience God’s presence through the living Christ in new and powerful ways and that as we do, like Jesus this will cause our lives to be forever changed and different.

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