When did you first meet Jesus?
I first met Jesus as a child. It was in the Baptist church to which my parents belonged. The Jesus I first met was a child loving magician. His picture hung on the walls of the church. He looked like a handsome California surfer. White skin, tanned, children in his lap and a nice smile. I read parts of the Bible and what I learned he could turn water into wine, heal the sick, walk on water and raise the dead. The abracadabra Jesus!
We learned that as a part of God’s plan, this handsome young son had been brutally killed by the Jews but had miraculously come back to life and then descended to heaven. Before leaving Jesus had told the people there was only one way to get to heaven and that was to become a Christian. “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man can come to God but by me.” We never talked about how the Jesus who said that was, at the time, a Jewish rabbi.
It was the 50’s. I thought I’d won the lottery. A white American male who believed in the one true God…my future secured through eternity!
But along came the 60’s…the civil rights struggle, the women’s movement, Viet Nam. I read stories of church meetings in the south ending so that the members could go lynch black men. The Bible was quoted to support racial discrimination and the oppression of women. Jesus the magician could raise people from the dead but could not stop the bombing of black churches, the killing of little black children or the lynching of their fathers…or the killing of innocent children in Southeast Asia. That which was obviously unjust was ordained as just by the church in the name of the Jesus to whom they had introduced me.
Soon the stories of magic made no sense in the world I saw unfolding around me. I decided to wrestle with life without even trying to wrestle with its meaning.
When I had children of my own, we returned to church, returned as skeptics, uncommitted to the theology but committed to our children. Jesus was there but I was not particularly interested in a relationship…but we went to church faithfully every Sunday.
I met Jesus again in Nicaragua in 1989. I went to see what our government was doing waging war against the Sandinistas. A young priest named Father Bravo introduced me to Jesus anew. He was unlike any Jesus I had encountered. I had heard the story of Jesus and the young rich man to whom Jesus said, “sell your riches and give the money to the poor.” The American preacher said Jesus didn’t mean that literally. We didn’t have to give what we had to the poor…we only had to get rid of anything we had that made it hard to commit our lives to Jesus.
Father Bravo said the Jesus he knew meant exactly what he said. He said Jesus preferred the poor. “As you travel through Nicaragua look at our children,” he said. “You will meet children who have dirt floors, wearing rags, little to eat, dying of minor illnesses because they have no health care.” He said, ‘As you look at them and their little bellies swollen from hunger, ask yourself…are the children in the US better off because Jesus loves them more than he loves Nicaraguan children?”
The Jesus I met in Central America was an in-your-face sort of Jesus. No magic. No abracadabra. Jesus was my midlife crisis. Having met him, I was no longer comfortable in my skin…soon I moved to Nicaragua where I met people with absolutely nothing but their faith in this Jesus…and that was sufficient, sustaining their lives through the poverty, the violence, the hunger.
Meeting them and the Jesus who was a part of their lives was inspiring enough that when we returned to the US I made a decision to leave my career as a lawyer behind and go to seminary. I was about to meet Jesus again…again for the first time.
First, I was forced to become aware of the real damage done by the Jesus to whom I had first been introduced. I’m not talking of that sort of vague, detached academic awareness we all felt reading the history of the Crusades or the Inquisition or of the role of the church in the genocide of Native cultures or the support of the church for slavery. I am talking about an “in-your-face” sort of realization that comes when you understand how deeply the sins of Christians have impacted the ones you love.
I was really quite excited about going to seminary. One of the first persons I wanted to share this with was my beloved brother Bob.
Bob, who passed away 5 years ago, was a gay man. Over many years I had watched his life journey from when he was very young and we all knew he had a different view about sexuality through his years of denial when he worked overtime to avoid the reality…getting married, having children and dealing with the pain of not being able to be who God made him to be by becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
It was only after he came out that his life turned around. Once it did, Bob lived in one of the most loving, caring, respectful relationships I have ever known…the last 16 years of his life with Lee whom we now consider an integral part of our family. Through Bob, I learned what it means to have your life, the way God made you, become talking points for self righteous preachers and politicians…but I had overlooked the role of Christians in marginalizing gays and lesbians…
…until I called Bob to let him know I planned to quit practicing law and go to seminary. Bob and I were very close. So I was taken back when he reacted coldly to my big announcement. At first I passed it off but after 3-4 more conversations when he ignored my attempts to talk about it, I asked him, “What’s this about? Why are you so cool to the news?”
Bob said he assumed if I went into ministry I would be expected to denounce homosexuality and join those in the pulpit preaching that he and Lee and their brothers and sisters were abominations. That’s the Jesus he had come to know…the one I would have to confront.
I arrived at seminary aware of the Jesus Bob and others had come to know had brought only pain. I arrived wanting to find out who Jesus really is…which one of those I had met was real. I knew the Jesus stories, had read the parables and the miracles, avoided confronting what I really believed. I had met Jesus before going to seminary but our relationship was artificial, maybe even cosmetic.
I met Jesus again…for the first time…during my three years in the seminary. My introduction to what it means to know Jesus of Nazareth was helped along when I took a course from Marcus Borg, a visiting professor who wrote the book entitled, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.”
Professor Borg began his lecture series with a stunning question. He asked us, “Does the tomb have to be empty for you to believe?” Jesus himself discounted the significance of someone coming back from the dead. In Luke 16, the rich man wasting away in hell asks Abraham to send Lazarus from the dead to warn his brothers. Abraham said someone returning from the dead matters not if they don’t believe the prophets!
The Jesus I met during those years taught me it is not so important that the tomb was found empty as it is that our lives be found to be full. I don’t know whether the resurrection ever happened but…it happens every day…if we are but willing to imagine a world beyond the ability of our culture to reason. Humans have a limited ability to reason, logic limited by the culture in which we live and breathe…a culture that sucks much of the oxygen out of our lives…but the Jesus I have come to know along with other spirit people like Mohammed, Gandhi, MLK, Merton, Daniel Berrigan…offer us an alternative way to look at life calling us beyond the limits imposed by traditional thinking into a world where an engaged spirituality creates new life, filled with alternatives to war, poverty, violence, hatred and marginalization…that’s resurrection.
It was never supposed to be about claiming an exclusive understanding of god through claims made through the stories they told of that god.
The Jesus who said, “I am the way” was a Jewish rabbi willing to give his life for what he believed and what he believed is that stories told by faith communities including his own should never be used or interpreted in a way that causes us to marginalize or oppress or to hate others.
But there is something innate in humans making it hard to share God with one another…something driving us to demand to know the unknowable …leaving us disturbed by the ambiguity of what is a clearly ambiguous relationship with the Divine…an urge or an instinct seemingly satisfied only when we find a way to claim God for ourselves and take god away from THEM.
Call it universalism, humanism or even heresy…Christians have no greater claim to Jesus than Muslims do to Mohammed or the Jews to Abraham. Life, resurrection itself is at stake in the ability of all of us to rise above the limits our traditions and our culture have placed on our ability to reason. I close with verses from a poem “The Voice Celestial” written by Ernest and Fenwick Holmes.
“A goodly company I claim, not Prodigals, whose wasted hours are tarnished o’er by the fear to try; they pressed upon the flying feet of winged goals and found the happiness that lies in the pursuit. And each drew some bright star from all the galaxies of heaven…had I the genius, I would pluck each star proclaimed by these great souls and with them form a new and brilliant galaxy and set them so in place that they would shine as ONE!”