I had a conversation in my freshman year of undergraduate school that changed my life. I was one year removed from my youth-group-all-star days, full of passion and zeal, and spending more time praying and listening to Passion worship CDs than studying theology. I was fortunate to live near some patient (and smart) friends who found my energy for the faith endearing (I hope…).
We were all returning from dinner one night when we started to talk of theology. (Yes, we were the coolest kids you’d ever met.) I remember getting impatient with the conversation and exclaiming,
“I don’t care about theology… I just care about Jesus.”
“Who is Jesus?” one of my thoughtful friends, suggested.
“He’s the son of God and messiah of Israel,” I said.
“You’ll have to do a bunch of theology to substantiate that claim. Those statements are so complex and monumental that there answers dwell where angels fear to tread,” He replied. (In all honesty, I don’t think that he said this verbatim, but my embellishments animate how important this conversation was for me.)
My friend was right and I find his comments to be helpful today.
That conversation provoked my theological quests to understand what those confessions about Jesus might have meant from the beginning, and what the faithful, church community has said about them over church history. Relying upon scholarship and research that is more faithful to the original story of Jesus (well, as much as we can know, at least) has led me to new and different ideas about what those same confessions mean and how it informs my commitments for living out the Christian faith.
My initial interest in “just being about Jesus,” was ultimately occupied by so many commitments that may or may not have much to do with the historical Jesus.
This is why I’m concerned, I guess, with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” sentiment. On the one hand, it’s an endearing confession, one borne out of the common experience of so many Christians, “Can we quit the silly stuff of religion and get going with the stuff that Jesus would want us to do?”
On the other hand, it can be another one of those empty statements that is usually used in an argument between two Christians. It’s an unkind accusation, suggesting that the one Christian has a purer view of Jesus while the other is loading down with a part-time job of blessings their personal commitments.
Here’s the deal… we all load Jesus down with personal commitments.
Our preferred blend of American politics,
Our view about war and conflict,
Our view about possessions,
Our view about our interactions with other people groups,
I’m beginning to think that we naturally want recruit Jesus for our intended purposes if we recognize it or not. What might be more healthy is to admit it when we do it, instead of assuming that everyone else is doing it and we have moved beyond doing it.
Even the Canonical Gospels themselves, illustrating the same historical figure and foundational events, sketch Jesus in a unique tone:
Matthew: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus as the faithful Jew from Abraham and David’s family that can free us from the tyranny of false, Jewish kings like Herod and re-launch God’s promise to Abraham and re-seed Israel within Israel) = Everything
Mark: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the apocalyptic and signs and wonders prophet that will awaken Israel to faithfulness in its God) = Everything
Luke: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the fulfillment to God’s goal in Israel so that Jesus can be the faithful, benevolent representative from Israel to the rest of the Gentile world, too) = Everything
John: Jesus + Nothing (other than the eternal Logos from the Hellenistic tradition because I am preaching to a Gentile world for crying out loud) = Everything
Yes, our Canonical Gospels are shaped by the local expression from communities of Jesus in real zip codes. Real people in real churches facing real… realities.
The early church didn’t seem to be too rattled by such a notion. They deemed Tatian’s attempt to construct one gospel out of the four erroneous because they seemed to like a four-part harmony over-and-against the futile attempt to have a sterile Jesus + Nothing = Everything. The New Testament communities were “incarnational” allowing the God that we find in the incarnate Christ to inhabit every square inch of God’s world, a great, big world.
Talk about Jesus, and talk religion in general, is a high-speed freeway these days. Let’s be careful to look both ways and to refuse to live in an acute denial that we somehow have all of it nailed down.
So here’s my attempt:
Joe: Jesus + Nothing (other than:
Along with over 6 of every 7 people who wake up today, I want there to be a God. I find the One God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.
A good God who punctuates every second with hope. Even though there are signs of entropy in this life, there are also signs of resurrection to which Jesus is the only rationale for such a happening.
I believe that the human life fully lived is one where I can give a gift “without why” and to also receive life as a gift without a debt. I wasn’t born with that framework, I’ve been shaped to expect life to be the opposite of that. So, I believe practicing the way of Jesus energizes me to live life differently.
I believe that the world is bending towards a renewal, even from within its own mess, where beauty, justice, spirituality, and community will be its norms and where faith, hope, and love will be its song.
Among a host of others things for another time.)