Jesus who lives now
Over the last wee while I’ve been talking about Jesus.
I started the series by noting the importance of Jesus at the heart of the Christian tradition. Many religions and spiritual traditions acknowledge God and seek God. And many non-Christian people recognise the contribution of Jesus to human ethics and wisdom. However, to sit within the Christian tradition is to affirm the centrality of Jesus to Christian identity, and in particular, the importance of Jesus to human life and human salvation.
Over the past weeks I have talked about the Jesus who was born as a human child in Bethlehem, but who the Christian faith claims was also sent from God, to reveal God, and to enter into human mortality and redeem it. We spent some time with the Jesus who lived, and who taught and modelled the Way. He walked a path radically influenced by his vision of a world with God in its midst, a vision that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. A couple of weeks ago we thought about some of the meanings associated with Jesus’ death and resurrection, which can be understood as a victory over all those things that interfere with our capacity to fulfil Jesus’ vision, individually and socially, and cosmically.
Today, as the last in the series, I will reflect on the Jesus who lives now – the Jesus who is still in some way present to us after having been raised into life with God.
To begin, a bit of theology. In what way can it be said that Jesus lives? Here are three of the things that the New Testament seems to claim about the ongoing life of Jesus:
Firstly, Jesus lives in union with God, in the same way as we will be with God after our deaths. The language of the New Testament describes Jesus as the ‘first fruits’ of those who will experience resurrection. He is the firstborn of many heirs. The New Testament letters claim that Jesus is the one who opened the path, and who went before us as a ‘spiritual body’ into his risen life with God. The apostles creed says that Christ is seated at the ‘right hand of the Father’. For me, these words bring up an image of God in a physical place ‘up there’, sitting in a big throne with several smaller thrones around it, the right hand one reserved for Jesus. It’s hard to get any sense of what this might mean if we take away the physical imagery, except to say that Jesus is in some way with God, present to God, one with God, and in God, and that this is the promise for us too. In Colossians, we read that we ‘have been raised with Christ’, and that our lives are ‘hidden with Christ in God,’ There’s a sense in which our lives have already been, and will later be more fully, taken into God, to be nurtured there along with Christ. The technical term for this is theosis: an idea that tends to be more popular in the eastern Orthodox traditions than Western Christianity.
Secondly, there’s also a sense in which Jesus is the cosmic animating and sustaining force in the universe. This image of the cosmic Christ appears in a few places in the New Testament, but particularly strongly in the first chapter of Colossians, were we read that ‘in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ The book of Hebrews echoes this by saying that Jesus was ‘appointed heir of all things, through whom God created the worlds.’ He, Jesus, is the ‘reflection of God’s glory’, and he ‘sustains all things by his powerful word.’ This Jesus who rose from the dead was not only present at the creation of all things, but was the energy by which all things came into being.
Related to this is the Christian affirmation that Jesus is ‘Lord.’ I struggle with this term. For one thing, the word lacks meaning…it’s not a word in general usage in our world today, and yet it’s been so overused in church circles that it no longer conveys what it was intended to convey. The term ‘Lord’ is the one used when God makes covenant with Israel. ‘I am the Lord your God.’ It’s a word of authority, but also of relationship. The authority of Jesus is the authority of one who is beyond all human power, and all possible forces and manipulations, because of his journey through death to life. As the second chapter of Philippians puts it, he has the ‘name that is above every name.’ If anything or anyone is to be worshiped, honoured, or praised, Jesus is that one. And yet, this Jesus is also personal, and present to humans, in relationship.
Which brings me to a third way that the Bible speaks of Jesus’ ongoing life, and that is that Jesus continues to live in relationship with people by means of his Spirit. The narrative in the book of Acts goes like this: for a period of time after his resurrection, some of Jesus’ followers had experiences with him as a risen presence, where they could see and talk to him. But after the ascension they waited for Jesus’ promised gift of the Holy Spirit, or the comforter, who would continue to accompany them, in the same way that Jesus had physically accompanied them when he was alive. Their experience at Pentecost, and afterward, was that they could continue to access the presence of Jesus through his Spirit, in prayer, in changed hearts and lives, in powerful acts of mercy, and among the community of faith. The Spirit of Christ is the ongoing life of Jesus among his followers.
So, according to the New Testament, Jesus lives in union with God, and is the first fruits of all those who will go on to experience this union with the Divine. He lives in a cosmic dimension, sustaining all life, and being the one in whom, for whom, and through whom, all things will be reconciled. And he lives in relationship with us, by way of his ongoing presence through his Spirit.
What is the meaning of all of this for us? I think that what I would want to affirm simply is that the ongoing presence of Jesus is part of the Christian experience. I would want to say that Jesus of Nazareth, who we see in the gospels loving, healing, teaching, and enjoying the company of outsiders, this Jesus is still somehow accessible as a companion for our lives, even though he was killed 2000 years ago. And this Jesus is still part of the reality of our world. Not just as a historical model, or an example from legend, but as an ongoing personal presence, who will shape our lives and the life of our world, if we allow him.
There’s a popular Christian hymn that I guess many of us have sung at one stage. Here are the lyrics for the first two verses (OHT)
I serve a risen Saviour,
He's in the world today;
I know that He is living,
Whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy,
I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him
He's always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.
In all the world around me
I see His loving care,
And though my heart grows weary
I never will despair;
I know that He is leading
Through all the stormy blast,
The day of His appearing
Will come at last.
While I find the tune and the language a little bit bouncy, naive and over-bright for my tastes, I think there are some good pointers in this hymn to the ways that people continue to experience Jesus in the midst of life. A little bit of hymnal exegesis:
The major claim of the song is ‘he lives within my heart.’ I notice that Jesus tends to be experienced as an inward reality, rather than an external one. That is, not many people have visions, or experiences of Jesus turning up and making contact with them like a physical person. Mostly, it’s the Spirit within us who is for us the presence of Christ. And that’s a ‘heart’ experience, a sense of inner peace or knowing, a nudge, an intuition, a change of perception or change of attitude.
However, that inner presence, when we learn to tune into it, is in a very real sense for some people an experience of company: ‘he’s near’, and ‘he walks and talks with me’. And, an experience of comfort: a ‘voice of cheer’, and ‘loving care.’
The hymn also suggests that Jesus is ‘in the world’ and that we can see his ‘hand of mercy.’ That is, Jesus is continuing to be among people, and in situations of difficulty and darkness, in the same way that he was when he was alive. Jesus is not just in the church, or in the heart of Christians. Jesus continues his mission of compassion and mercy. I’m reminded of the Taize chant ‘ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est’ – that is, where charity and love are, God is there. When we look around the world and see actions of care and restoration taking place, the living Jesus is present.
And finally from this song, we get the sense of Jesus going ahead of us on the path: ‘I know that he is leading through all the stormy blast.’ Jesus’ Way is a way that often leads through suffering and sacrifice, as we follow his pattern and take up our cross. Jesus has already walked this way, and continues to walk it a few steps ahead of us, if we can only learn to keep our eyes on him.
(turn off overhead)
So, finally today, I want to get a bit practical and ask the question – how do we access this relationship? How can we live as though Jesus really is alive, and a presence that we can engage with as our life unfolds? I confess that I really struggle with this practical side. I feel quite inspired by the overall vision, but when it comes to the acts of discipline or awareness that could orient my heart towards relationship with God, lack of willpower and perceived busyness rise up to prevent me from doing them in any sustained way.
One thing I’ve started to learn is that a lot rests in how I interpret things. I realised a wee while ago that on some secret level of my being, I was expecting Jesus to turn up for me as a vision of a man in a robe, or as a powerful sensory experience. This was fuelled in part by other people’s sensational stories about encounters with Jesus. One of the things that I try to do now is to experiment with attributing some things to the involvement of Jesus with my life. Suppose I’m feeling distressed, or chaotic, and I take time to be still, and seek God in the midst of that, and a feeling of wellbeing arises out of the difficulty. Can I dare to say that Jesus was part of that shift?
If the presence of Jesus is primarily an inward reality, then I need also to learn the ways in which my spirit moves. That is, I need to learn how to discern the still, small voice, the quiet, inner resonances and inspirations that are the guiding presence of Jesus. This takes time, practice, and the willingness as I said above to learn how and when to attribute things to God, and when to notice that my own emotional state, and my wants and neuroses have come into play. It’s a life practice to learn discernment. But I suspect that it’s at this deep and quiet level that Jesus most often relates to us.
There are some forms of prayer that particularly invite meditation on Jesus, and personal entering into the stories about Jesus. The Ignatian method of praying with the scriptures involves putting yourself into a gospel story, and visualising yourself as an actor in it, or engaging in internal dialogue with Jesus as a character in one of the stories. Some people when they pray visualise Jesus sitting with them in the room, and they talk to him as though to a friend.
The risen Jesus is also mediated to us through sacraments. A sacrament is any object that, when we relate to it in a particular way, becomes a window for showing us something of God. In the Ignatian prayer practice I just mentioned, the bible text becomes a sacrament, revealing Jesus as present to us now. In particular within the Christian faith we have the sacrament of communion. This ritual is conducted in the expectation that Jesus meets us in a particular way through the elements of the bread and wine. Different people have different ideas and theologies around what is happening when we take communion, and whether the primary emphasis is on the attitude of the person taking communion, or on the elements themselves, and the mystery of Christ’s presence in and through them. But either way, communion is a sacrament that has been handed down through the tradition of the church as a moment to encounter the living presence of Jesus.
Reading the stories of Jesus in the Gospels is a way of keeping ourselves familiar with who Jesus is, and how he lived and related to people. To some extent our view of Jesus is always subject to our cultural and personal projections. That is, each era, and each personality, finds in Jesus what we want to find, what we are conditioned to find, and what the culture allows us to find. Different aspects of Jesus’ life and purpose are emphasised by different groups in different ages, for various political, and personal reasons. I accept this to be true, and I don’t feel particularly concerned by it. But I suspect that it’s important to keep on engaging with the primary texts about Jesus, and as far as possible, allowing them to speak to us from outside our habitual understanding. We need to be willing to allow the words of the Gospels to challenge our ideas about Jesus, whether we picked those ideas up as a child, or through our formation in a particular tradition. Reading and meditating on the Gospels, and the other writings that speak of Jesus, continues to be an important way of knowing Jesus.
Another aspect of knowing the living Jesus is to learn how to recognise him in his followers. Paul uses the imagery of the body of Christ to describe the church, indicating that we are all part of how Christ is present in the world today. Mother Theresa famously said that her great compassion and care for the poor was motivated by seeing Christ in every person she met, now matter how damaged and deformed. Jesus is present to us in community, in people just like us. Learning to see, and greet, and draw out the Christ in each other is part of what it means to experience him in our lives, and grow to love him more.
And finally, Jesus deserves our commitment. He poured his life out as part of the dramatic rescue of humankind from our slavery to ourselves. He is worthy of our devotion, of our wholeheartedness – whether that’s in time and energy seeking his company, or in continuing on his actions of healing and compassion in the world. There’s not very much in our society that people seem to be wholehearted about. We live in low-commitment times. But the scope of the Jesus story is so fundamental to life, and so vast in its implications, that to offer him a brief nod of acknowledgement as we continue to go about our lives serving our own wants, is probably a bit inadequate. The Christian Way involves getting a perspective on ourselves where we cease to be the centre of our own attention and interest. Instead, as we grow in faith, we learn more and more to see Jesus at the centre of all things, the beginning and the end of all life.