I remember the first time I really heard the Passion of Jesus and the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Up to that point I am certain I only knew that part of the story as the Gospel of Luke tells it, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And, as the Fourth Gospel says, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ “ I was so familiar with the unsuffering Jesus that I had no idea how to understand the Jesus who cried out in despair. I was a grown woman, hearing this for the first time. Since that day I have wrestled with what it means to think of Jesus as a human being that suffered, that loved, that cried, prayed, hoped, and died.
In Jane Redmont’s summer course/retreat Soelle Summer, we are reflecting this week on Jesus/Christ as Soelle understood him. We are also pondering: “Who is Jesus for me? And, how and why do I have this understanding of Jesus/Christ?”
Throughout my life I have struggled with the “person” of Jesus. Part of this struggle is grounded in my childhood religious experience in the Mormon Church. I distinctly remember learning about Jesus, especially his birth and Christmas and his resurrection. I have no memory of any kind of teaching on the crucifixion. I do remember a lot of teaching on the resurrection – because, as I remember, that is what we as Mormons were to aspire too. This life was a means by which, if we were really good enough, we would live in heaven with God and live on forever in the resurrection. God was keeping score of everything I thought, said, and did. Only Jesus was perfect, but we were to aspire to be like Jesus.
I also struggle with the idea and person of Jesus because Jesus has been abducted by certain Christians and turned into something he was not. Soelle writes: “How is someone who lived two thousand years ago supposed to be the decisive occurrence for everyone? We do not need another conqueror, judge or hero. A redeemer is not needed if the word means some overpowering person transplants me out of the miserable position in which I find myself into a good, unscathed other world without my cooperation. A redeemer is not needed if the word means some overpowering person transplants me out of the miserable position in which I find myself into a good, unscathed other world without my cooperation.” (Essential Writings pages 149-151) Similarly I struggle with the idea that Jesus is the only way to the Father/God. I am challenged by atonement theology in which God needed Jesus to die a horrible, brutal death in order to atone for the horrible behavior of human beings. I have a difficult time with language that defines human beings as inherently sinful, even though I am not naïve and I know we all sin. And by sin I mean we all break God’s heart because we reject God and what God desires; we all live with broken relationships with God, self, and others.
Thus, I have never been fond of salvation language nor of the idea, as expressed by many Christians, that Jesus saves us. Saves us from what? An angry God who keeps track of every infraction just waiting to punish us? A God who insisted that one person had to suffer and die in order that all humanity might be restored to a right relationship with this angry vengeful score keeping God? Jesus, who if we don’t believe in him, will send us into a horrible reality for all time to come?
In fact I grew so uncomfortable with that idea that, for a time, I left Christianity. I considered myself to be a de-churched person – someone who once went to church but decided not to go any more. I stayed away from church for sixteen years. Eventually I found my way back, and when I did I found Christ.
I am much more comfortable with Christ language. Christ is for me the ongoing expression of God’s love, made manifest in Jesus, but alive in the world before Jesus and after. Christ is the Word made flesh in Jesus. As Soelle writes: “These caricatures of being saved through Christ surely cannot be what is intended.” Christ points us to our true selves by pointing us toward God. Christ saves us from the notion that our lives have no inherent meaning or purpose. For me this means that Christ reminds us over and over that we were created by God, made good to do good, and just to be sure we get that reality, Jesus – the Christ – God’s love incarnate, reveals this to us. Like Soelle, I can embrace the idea that the goal of the Christian religion is not the idolizing of Christ, not Christolatry. Rather the goal of Christianity is that we are all “in Christ,” as the mystical expression goes, that we might have a part in the life of Christ. Having a part in the life of Christ means to me that we have a part in how God’s love is poured out into the world throughout all time. As Christians we know God’s love in and through the person of Jesus, which gives Christians a particular lens for what it means to be God’s love in the world. No doubt that other faith traditions can also be expressions of God’s love. Christ is a particular way of life and understanding what it means to live a life of faith and share God’s love. Loving as God loves, loving as Christ reveals to us means we live with a wide, expansive sense of compassion, hospitality, and generosity toward all people.
I have come to understand that Jesus as the Christ does in fact save us. As practicing Christians, Jesus the Christ saves us from living lives that have no purpose or meaning. Jesus saves us from living lives that focus only on ourselves and our own pleasure, happiness, or despair. In the Gospel of Matthew (22:37-40) when Jesus summarizes all the commandments into one, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus saves us from self-absorption and points us toward a healthy sense of self and love of others.
Over the years as I have grown as a priest and preacher I have come to know Jesus in deeper way. I no longer need to use only Christ language. In fact, lately I have noticed that I often speak of Jesus with comfort and familiarity. I have come to know Jesus as the one who truly is with me, with us, in our suffering and our joy, in our despair and our hope, as the object of my preaching and focus of my life.
The day I realized, after a long hiatus away from church, that I needed to return, remains an epiphany in my mind. I was in the middle of meditating using a Buddhist chant. I had practiced Buddhist meditation and chanting for about two years at that time. In the process of the chanting I had begun to think about what I was really yearning for. The chanting and meditation clearly wasn’t it, or at least wasn’t enough. I remember thinking, “I observe Christmas by going to church and celebrating the birth of Jesus and I go to church on Easter and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. These two holidays have powerful meaning to me in my life, despite my rejection of Christianity. Oh, crap! If I celebrate Christmas and Easter, the birth and resurrection of Jesus, then I must be a Christian!”
And then I had another thought, “I guess I better figure out how to do that.” Little did I know then that I would end up in the Episcopal Church, I hadn’t even heard of the Episcopal Church. And never did it cross my mind that I would become a priest in the Episcopal Church. But, then, as I said, I’ve come to believe that Jesus does in fact save us. Saves us from ourselves.