Some notes from recent writings and research prepared by Rev Dr John C England of Christchurch.
Preachers and evangelists seem to be most often concerned with how different and how ‘divine’ Jesus was. Yet, without the sheer quality of his humanity and his astounding human life there would be no Christian movement at all. The whole Christian revelation was determined by that human life, which he led with friends and with any whom he met. Without this life-with-others there would be no Christian history, no church, no doctrines or creeds, and no theology. Yet the human life of Jesus is absent from most traditional Christian sources. It is omitted from the canticles, each of the creeds, the Christian year, and even the New Testament letters.
The foundation Gospel is not the story and theology of his death. Nor is it the schema that tells us to realise our sin, acknowledge the vicarious cross, and be ‘saved’. Nor is it in many doctrines of his ‘person and work’ which have developed from centuries of study and speculation. Rather, the Gospel is the proclamation that God’s rule is upon us and that this is found in the human life that Jesus lived with others.
The context in which Jesus lived out this good news was first century Palestine, where many Jewish people were devout but sharply divided along religious lines. Wandering charismatics offered prophetic visions, some apocalyptic, some hopeful. And the people faced daily a most brutal occupation, oppressive religious laws and pervasive destitution.
Almost certainly Jesus was born in Nazareth (or nearby Betleman), a frontier but cosmopolitan territory close to many trade routes – the trade city of Sepphoris was only three miles away. He was part of a family that included brothers, sisters and cousins. He was raised in the home of a ‘peasant’ woman and her rabbi husband (‘carpenter’ being a common nick-name for rabbi). Jesus would have received Rabbinic schooling that covered the Torah, the Shema and the Prophets, and as was usual in rabbinic teaching he learned well to study, to debate and to serve others.
In Luke Chapter 4:17 “the ‘book of Isaiah’ was given to him” – this makes us wonder at the place of books in Jesus’ life. He was obviously completely familiar with Jewish scriptures – and we know that he studied the prophetic writings in particular. And what of Jesus’ own books? Most likely he had been taught from synagogue scrolls by first, his Rabbi father and later by other Rabbis. Were there also a few of his own books? or those of friends? Pause and imagine him reading… at home… in synagogue… a scroll in hand when travelling or resting? The ‘wandering’ ministry with his friends would have been only during the dry seasons so this would be possible.
He was a disciple of John and knew traditions of the Essenes but developed a more compassionate, ‘modest’, and inclusive ministry than John. Yet he was a social prophet for his people, and offered a new vision of the Reign of God’s peace and justice. His was a charismatic wisdom and he offered the scandalous teaching that, even without any merit at all, God accepts, forgives, and restores all. This is his Gospel of God’s Commonwealth – that love will be all in all .
He often met friends in cafés and wine-shops for long discussions of the scriptures, of the lives of poorest neighbours, and of the coming ‘Kingdom’. With his friends, both women and men, he planned ways to live out that Common-wealth now in selflessness and conviviality. At suppers and parties, he seems to reveal most of himself and was soon forming his team of co-workers. Note his extensive befriending, especially of women, who were, in the end, his most faithful friends.
Jesus enjoyed ‘secular’ life on streets and in doorways, on hillsides and seashores and in villages. This is where he was seen and did nearly all his teaching and healing. Along the way he associated with most unsavoury characters – the sick, the scorned, the condemned and discarded. Soon groups formed around him, shared ideas of God’s coming Commonwealth, planned urgent reforms, then answered his call and spent time preparing and travelling with him.
But he strongly rejected religious hypocrisy, greed and wealth (Note the 30 references by Jesus to money or riches). These were the evils he most often condemned, calling his friends to do the same. He led seasonal ‘missions’ during which he shared companionship and the communion of the road with a ‘partnership of equals’. This company on the road is the best model of God’s Commonwealth on earth – to be the new fellowship on a quest and in a ‘mission’ for justice and peace with others.
He said none was good save God alone; none knew God’s final will but God alone. He called himself ‘son of humanity’ and never claimed to be divine. He was at first a, not the, ‘Son of God’. Nevertheless he was, and is, the unique prophet and liberator, forerunner, rescuer and great Friend. For this he taught and healed, befriended, inspired and practised civil disobedience (in 12 different kinds of actions). He was often hungry, thirsty, sad and exhausted while living this counter-cultural ‘spirituality’ of life-with-others. Yet even as a victim of imperial power and religious bigotry, he still acted out an accepting and forgiving love that endured and withstood all cruelty.
His earthly death was the inevitable end of such a prophetic life-with-others, not a predetermined ‘sacrifice’. But along with his subsequent ‘resurrection’, it sealed and guaranteed the sacrificial life he gave to, and for us. Such a life and death with others could not die. It lives on in all who receive his life to be theirs. His life of compassion and consolation, healing and restoration was not destroyed but continued beyond his death, and continues in countless women and men of all peoples, places and creeds who live out such love.
In Jesus’ life in our world, we are given the image and embodiment of the eternal people-justice, peace and love in God’s coming New World. Just as it is enacted in the Eucharist when we are given the life of Jesus to be our life, as Subba Rao of India said, “Not to worship you but to live like you, to follow you”. Because his life is the Way, so we are to practise his life of caring and prophetic action, of befriending and conviviality, his tranquillity and righteous anger, and his offering of self in hope and serving, in learning and sharing, liberating and resisting.