We know from some historical records that a man named Jesus walked and talked in the early years of the first century AD, roughly between year 1 and year 38 or forty. This is the historical Jesus, who was raised a Jew during a time when the Jewish communities were under the rule of the Roman Empire. We know that the Jews were able to practice much of their traditions as long as they did not “disturb” the Roman rulers. The Jesus we follow in church was written about by many writers, and he surviving stories are found in the part of the Bible Christians call the New Testament.
There are 27 documents in the New Testament, all short and probably written between A.D. 50 and 60 (the letters of Paul and letters in the Pauline tradition. The four gospels that survive in the Bible are named for their presumed authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They were written probably between 80 AD and 107 AD. The gospels offer a great deal of information about Jesus, but they’re not biographies in the ways we might understand that genre. For they were written by people who had come to believe certain things about Jesus that they wanted to preserve for others who believed the same things and for others who might become followers of Jesus with them. The four accounts are by no means identical, but in their diversity, they are remarkably consistent in telling the narrative of the man Jesus. (Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why (Creed series) (Kindle Locations 395-400). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.)
From the New Testament record, then, this is what we know (with thanks to world religions scholar Huston Smith for this outline): Jesus was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great. He grew up in the town of Nazareth. He emerged as a public figure in his early 30s, rising up out of the movement begun by the John the Baptizer. He had a ministry of healing and teaching that lasted about three years, focused primarily in the region of Galilee, primarily focused on what he called “the Kingdom of God.” He made the fateful decision, however, to bring his message to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power. There he openly challenged the religious leaders of his people, which did not sit well with them. He also aroused suspicions of the Roman authorities, and that led to his crucifixion, a form of death they reserved for insurrectionists and escaped slaves. Jesus died as a young man.
It’s impossible to understand Jesus without placing him in the tradition of the spiritual prophets of ancient Judaism. These were people who had a strong sense of a spiritual realm that informs and gives meaning to human existence. Jesus was exceptionally connected to and empowered by this spiritual realm, and he used his connection to heal people. As his disciple Peter said about him after his death, Jesus went about doing good. (Acts 10:38)
Jesus was an extraordinarily vivid teacher.
“Jesus talks of camels that squeeze their humps through needles’ eyes,” writes Huston Smith. “His characters go around with timbers protruding from their eyes while they look for tiny specks in the eyes of others.” His teaching style was invitational. “Instead of telling people what to do or believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so, their behavior would change.”
Jesus’ core message is simple, summarized in a few, often-repeated phrases: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven” (in other words, if you’re still counting, you’ve missed the point). And the wonderfully evocative, consoling words we read today: “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
Most of the time Jesus told stories: of buried treasure, lost coins, and sowers in the field; of a Good Samaritan (which would be like us telling a story today about a good gang leader), a man who had two sons. More than anything Jesus wanted people to believe two important facts of life: God’s overwhelming love for us and our need to accept that love and let it flow through us. Jesus lived in such a way that people believed him when he spoke of God’s love, for he, himself, loved freely. He went out to all people, no matter if they were rich or poor, young or old, saint or sinner. He knew that everyone has a need to belong, and he encouraged those who had the means to invite the poor, the lame and the blind to their tables. He loved children, and he hated injustice for what it did to the most vulnerable people. He also hated hypocrisy, for what it did to the human soul. (This is a summary of Huston Smith’s description as found in The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 2005.)
Jesus seemed to know that the journey into Jerusalem would end in his death. In fact, in the words of Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, (and I’m reading now from Hamilton’s book, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why): Jesus seemed to view his death as the only way to usher in the kingdom he taught about. On Thursday night of what we now call Holy Week, Jesus had one last meal with his disciples, redefining the meaning of the Jewish Passover Seder. He hoped that his disciples might thereafter share a meal of bread and wine as a means of remembering the events that were about to unfold. On Friday morning, at the urging of the religious authorities, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. Jesus was given a crown of thorns as the Roman soldiers mocked him and beat him. He was nailed to a cross, and then lifted up to hang before the crowd. They watched as he was left to suffer. Yet in his death, Christians would come to see profound meaning: an act of divine suffering whose end was redemption for the human race. He was taken down from the cross and hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.
That should have been the end of the story.
But on Sunday morning, the heavy stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb had been tossed aside, and the tomb was found to be empty. Jesus appeared on that day to a couple of women, and to his disciples and a few others. Over the next forty days, Jesus appeared again and again to his disciples in various places and ways. Finally Jesus bid the disciples farewell one last time and commanded, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” This is who Jesus was when he lived on this earth and what his first disciples believed about him. Their testimony has been handed down to us.
I want you to know these things about him, and more, all that helps us
understand why our ancestors began to speak of him as the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how they came to the extraordinary conclusion that in Jesus we see not only what it means to be fully human, but also that in him, we see God.
In the words of St. Paul:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Or from the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
Jesus’ teachings and the stories told about him are amazing. And yes, our forebears believed that he was, in fact, God. But if all the Church did was to teach about Jesus it wouldn’t explain the power associated with his name. As important as learning about Jesus is, it wouldn’t help us understand why he is revered as God if we also didn’t come to experience him, which enables us to believe in him in a way that changes how we live. There is a world of difference between knowing things about him and believing in him.
Believing in Jesus is not always easy. So if you struggle with your belief in Him, don’t imagine that you’re alone here. Or if you’ve already decided that you can’t believe in him, don’t imagine that somehow sets you apart from the rest of us. Doubt is a part of faith. In the end, our choices, that is to say, our spiritual practice, are what guide us when doubt sets in or our fervor wanes.
What does it look like to believe in Jesus? I think we catch glimpses of him, often through the lives of other people. For most of us faith is more often caught than taught. We don’t recognize him at first; and sometimes we don’t recognize him at all. But other times, somehow we hear him call our name. In that moment, we feel his presence and love.
Believing in him is also like leaning into thin air, trusting that a rope will hold. It involves letting go. When I imagine what it will be like to die, I think of leaning back, letting go, and trusting that God will be there to catch me. Believing in Jesus now involves practicing, in small ways, leaning back and letting go as I live. Believing in Jesus also involves accepting change. To believe in resurrection is to trust that we can have another chance, a fresh start. In Jesus we can start again. More than that, to believe in Jesus is to trust that no matter how bad things get, no matter how stark the failure or disappointment or grief, God can raise new life in us, which gives us courage to face the greatest surrender and loss that awaits us all when we take our final breath.