Question: Who is Jesus for me?
As the account on the Road to Emmaus dramatically emphasizes, the earliest followers of Jesus had to deal with their fear, disappointment, and dashed hopes following upon his crucifixion. They came to dwell more and more on his Resurrection and his miraculous powers, both during his life and after his death. To bolster their own courage and to attract converts, they preached Jesus to have been, and to be, the son of God–with the underlining especially of GOD.
As the years unrolled, Jesus became the Christ, He Who sits at the right hand of the Father, He Who has conquered death, He Who through His Spirit furnishes hope and strength to those suffering persecution from non-believers. The divinity of Christ stood forth while the humanity of Jesus fell back into the shadows. Some–like the Docetists, the first Christian heretics–even denied that humanity. For them Christ took on the appearance of being human while remaining only and truly divine. Paul warned early on about those “who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving “(1 Tim: 4:3). In its extreme these became Encratists (from the Greek word for “abstinence”). They preached denial of the flesh and sexuality, even to the embracing of castration: which led to intense discussions about whether Christians could remarry after a spouse died; out of which came resolution in the Sacrament of Matrimony). This denial of humanity flourished in Manichaeism and has a history stretching down the centuries through Jansenism and Puritanism to the present-day glorification of celibacy.
To counter this obscuring of the humanity of Jesus, the Early Christians preached how Jesus is our brother, how he is like us in all things but sin, how he loves us and is always with us, how he loved his mother and father, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and all those who reached out to him in hope. Saved in Christ, we have taken on a new creation, a new being; our humanity has been radically changed in its redemption but is still humanity. Of course we should live our lives on earth to the fullest, just as Jesus did. Some took the humanity of Jesus to the extreme–like the Arians who considered him as the greatest of men but in his humanity, not divinity; to the Pelagians who preached that our humanity saved in Jesus meant that we could by our very nature do good and thus reach heaven without God’s special assistance.
Christian apologists have done a dance through the ages, shifting now to one side or the other of this theological divide. So, for example, Augustine preached original sin, the fall of mankind, and redemption through Christ’s suffering. Thus he preserved the truth that all mankind needs Christ and Christ’s grace in order to be saved. He was fighting the Pelagians here. When facing down the Manichaeans, he took a different tack. Mankind is not evil as it is loved by Christ. As believers we are not trying to get away from our earthly existence; we are rather trying to live here fully.
We end up in all this with confusion about Jesus and about us: Is Jesus Jesus or Christ? Are we good or evil? Should we try to get to heaven and avoid earth, or should we embrace earth in order to live ourselves into heaven?
Many come down on the side of the humanity of Christ, not stressing the divinity, and emphasize living here instead of yearning to get away from this Vale of Tears to an idyllic Heaven. They attempt to bridge theological gaps by portraying Jesus as a “Jewish mystic,” a man most sensitive to the presence of the divine in and among human beings and affairs. If I were to fashion my faith around the question “Who do you say that I am?” , then I would join them.
But I don’t. I don’t hold that question as important. It really makes no difference to me who Jesus is. If Jesus is God, then I’m happy to have Him in our corner with His love and assistance. If Jesus is rather a most extraordinary person, among the purest representations of the divine in humanity, I am thankful to both God and Jesus for their mutual gift of the divine to us.
The Catholic Church has failed because it has taken as its task the preservation of, and the orthodox interpretation of, Christ’s revelation to us about Him. For it, Christianity is about Christ. I disagree. For me, Christianity is about us. Christ to my mind cares not a fig whether we think that Christ is God or Man or some incomprehensible mixture of both. Christ did not come to make us clear about Him; He came to make it clear about us. If you just believe you can move mountains; you can do things greater than I have (cf. Mark 11: 22-24, John 14: 1-12).
I do not embrace Christianity because of who Jesus is. I do so because it offers me the best path I know to become a mature, loving, good human being. I am grateful that Jesus through his life and the lives of his own has shown me the way. I know what I am called to do, I know who I may be. I cannot hide behind some imagined ignorance that shields me from striving to “be all that I can be.”
When I die, I may find out that Jesus is the Christ Who is God. That would be nice but only if I have done my utmost to be me. Or when I die, I may discover that Jesus is not god. That would be all right with me because I did not follow Jesus like someone betting on a winning horse in the Kentucky Derby; I follow, and hope to do so all my life, because he showed me a fine way to be me. I don’t need to win; it’s enough just to run.