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Our Strange Savior

Why do so many people today claim to have a loving relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago?

Modern life includes this strange reality: millions of people claim that they have a personal relationship with a man who died 2,000 years ago.

These people are treated as a normal part of the world. They are accepted as actors, politicians, schoolteachers, doctors, and so on. In courts of law, their testimony is considered as reliable as anyone else’s. And yet they say that this ancient man, Jesus, who was raised from the dead and is still alive (is, in fact, alive forever), is their friend.

We can see why this might drive secularists and atheists to exasperation. They must ask themselves, “Am I the only one bothered by this? Doesn’t anyone else see how weird it is that all around us are people who claim to know a dead man of the ancient world?”

I suspect that secularists comfort themselves with the notion that belief in Jesus is on its way out. This strange situation—a world filled with so many people who cling to the pre-modern claim that Jesus is alive—can’t go on forever. To some extent, they have been right. A good portion of the world has been or is being de-Christianized.

Even so, new people every day are claiming that Jesus lives and that they know him, and in some places where it looks as if de-Christianizing has been quite successful, there are signs of re-Christianizing.

And wherever people claim to have met Jesus, they report that their lives have become more contented and more peaceful. They are happier. Granted, life as a follower of Jesus does not suddenly lose its frustrations, nor do evils disappear. But even amid the hurts and wrongs of the world, a new thing becomes present in followers of Jesus, at least if their testimony is to be believed. This new thing lightens hearts and opens possibilities.

To the propagandists of the modern world, this happiness must be a great lie—or at least a delusion—and so they caricature Christian joy as if in secret Christians are actually creepy or twisted. Likewise, the real history of Christian culture is often distorted by those who cannot accept that followers of Jesus are really as happy and at peace as they claim. They exaggerate the violence and venality of historic Christianity and excuse the far harsher violence and venality of pre-Christian society in order to deny an obvious reality: in countless families and tribes, nations and cultures, wherever the story of Jesus has taken root, a new element has appeared in the alloy of culture, strengthening it and giving it new potential.

Even in a society such as ours that refuses to recognize its own history, the name of Jesus does not fade. Even as our society reduces Christianity to a marginal role, the story of Jesus risen from the dead is still shared, and people continue to claim that they have met him, that he has changed their lives, and that he is their friend.

You simply cannot claim to be an open-minded and rational adult without, at least once, giving this strange reality fair consideration. Likewise, given the claims made about Jesus, his extraordinary teachings, and his towering place in world history, a reasonable adult really can’t go through life without considering these things at least once.

Yet many try. Why?

Christ is no fad

Part of the reason may be that there is so much emotional and cultural strife surrounding him. Even those who develop an interest in Jesus might remain silent in order to protect themselves from the avalanche of other people’s feelings and opinions that will surely fall on them if they are open about it.

This is understandable. Modern society is constantly being swept by fads and movements, which is tiring. The person who does not jump at every claim is often the most prudent.

But Jesus is not one of those fads or movements. He far predates all of that, and his influence has persisted for so long that it calls upon us to overcome our reluctance and think the whole thing through. The Jesus phenomenon is strange in its origins and in its consequences. Whatever happened in Judea around the year 30, it is utterly unique. Nothing like it has happened before or since.

And although Christianity has become corrupt again and again, and the name of Jesus has been abused by preachers, politicians, and prudes, the allure of the man himself (and of the saints, artists, thinkers, and ordinary people whom he inspired) presses each of us for a response.

His claims about himself call for an answer: who is this?

His transformative place in history also calls for an answer: should I follow him or reject him?

In my view, the truth about Jesus is enough, and it is so consistent with human flourishing that it is best just to present it without embellishment or salesmanship.

Easy to understand, if not to accept

It is not so complicated, this task of presenting Jesus. He taught in a very accessible way. His story is straightforward. Yet it also has a poetry and a beauty that can, like all good stories, refresh the mind and enliven the heart with each retelling.

From him, though he spoke in a very simple manner, layer after layer of insight emerges, so that even the most brilliant minds can spend a lifetime exploring his meaning. So we cannot uncover all those layers in this article, but we do not need to. He called his teaching “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). And, as one of my teachers used to say, “It’s not really good news if you need a college degree to understand it.”

Still, although the basic teaching of Jesus is easy to understand, it is not always easy to accept, because to accept what Jesus teaches is to step into an alarming world.

His is a world in which angels and demons have everyday dealings with humans; in which common items such as a drop of water or a crust of bread can be filled with powers greater than a thousand suns. His is a world in which human choices matter, not just for the moment but for eternity.

Without question, the Jesus story is reasonable. It can pass every test of the historian, the philosopher, and the scientist, and it is accessible to any person who wants to grasp it. But to grasp it involves accepting truths that are far beyond what our modern minds usually will entertain.

Christ is a teacher of strange things, a doer of strange deeds, a man of strange manners; and listening to him raises questions that go to the very core of our existence—and our destiny.

Gospels as history

The traditional Christian view of the person of Jesus Christ is comparatively simple: the things written in the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are accounts of things that really happened, and they have been organized and worded by each Gospel writer to convey accurately who Jesus was and what he did.

Centuries of scholarship have gone into trying to fully understand the processes and personalities behind the creation of these works and to pinpoint the dates and circumstances of authorship. But leaving aside such specifics, in the traditional Christian view, each Gospel is an attempt to put in writing the key details of Jesus’ life for the community, the ecclesia in Greek, that Jesus had established and that his apostles and disciples were, at that time, building up everywhere.

That is the context of the Gospels. Immediately after the death of Jesus, the institution that he founded, his ecclesia, became very active in taking his story, his teaching, and his practices to as many people as possible. His ecclesia had a clear structure, with apostles as leaders and with Peter as first among the apostles. The members of this ecclesia also had a set of practices such as baptism, a sacred memorial meal, anointing of the sick with oils, and various other things that Jesus had tasked them with carrying on. And this ecclesia believed that Jesus was God.

During the time of the writing of the earliest books of the New Testament, the community Christ left behind had within it hundreds, probably thousands, of people who had seen and heard Jesus. It had leaders who had spent years following Jesus and being instructed by him. And this communal reality gives each of the Gospels an authenticity. The Gospel writers meant to get the story right because their community was based on that story, and the many eyewitnesses or students of witnesses among them were able to help them get it right.

Christians today believe that all the Gospel authors set out to tell the unembellished truth as the Church that Jesus founded remembered it, and therefore that their accounts are reliable.

The strangeness of Jesus’ teaching

Having said that, John’s account is different than the others, which are called the synoptic Gospels. At some points in John’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be speaking in a state of ecstasy, almost as if he is half in this world and half in a higher world. It is as if he is, at the same time, seeing all those in front of him and being drawn up into some higher vision that only he can see.

This baffles everyone around him. For John, Jesus is a light so bright that his center point is hard to see. Even those who want to are unable to look directly at him; they need help.

John knew Jesus well, and we can be sure that his image of Jesus as a person shining overwhelmingly brightly is a true recollection. As much as Jesus was charismatic and sociable, welcoming and friendly, he was also strange and at times disturbing. Even when you adjusted to him, you could be sure that you’d soon have to adjust again. He kept surprising.

This must have felt demanding, sometimes even frightening, to those who followed him most closely: his little church of his seventy or so closest friends. Nowhere is the strange otherworldliness of Jesus more apparent than in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

A huge crowd is following Jesus because he has just performed the miracle of feeding thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish. This is the moment when they decide to make him king, so certain are they that he is the Messiah and filled with power.

Jesus refuses their adulation and seems almost to insult them: “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26). There is a back-and-forth nature to his conversation with the crowd that makes it seem more agitated than most of Jesus’ conversations. He is not just teaching them; he is engaging in a vigorous dispute with them, and what he has to say shocks them.

I give it to you in full (see sidebar) in order to convey the true strangeness of Jesus. If we take him to be a wise and good teacher, we must admit that here he comes across almost as deranged, so far is he pushing the boundaries of normal speech.

Here Peter, as he so often does, speaks for the group. He does not assure Jesus that they understand him, only that they are not leaving him. Unlike the crowd, this small group follows Jesus because of who Jesus is, not because of what he can do. They have gotten to know him, and they have entrusted themselves to him.

Having done so, they have nowhere else to go. But just like everyone else, including Jesus himself, they are aware that he has just said some very strange and upsetting things. The moment is raw and unnerving. Jesus has just told thousands of people that unless they eat him and drink him, they will not have life. He has told them that his flesh is true food, and his blood is true drink.

If any other person had said such things, he would be dismissed as crazy. But Jesus is not crazy, and the apostles know it. Something far stranger than madness is going on. They are being led out of the everyday world into places they do not understand. Only the fact that they have come to love Jesus and trust him keeps them with him now, at this alarming moment.

A physical and spiritual body

What they cannot know at this moment is that Jesus is going to die. He is going to lie in a tomb. And then he is going to rise to new life. His risen flesh will have qualities that normal flesh does not have—qualities that make it able to do things that are mysterious to us.

As Paul writes, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). Now, Scripture makes clear that Jesus was resurrected bodily. But Paul does say that the risen body of Jesus is a “spiritual body.” That is to say, the risen body of Jesus is no longer subject to the weaknesses, the corruption, the vulnerabilities, and the limitations of earthly flesh. Like a spirit, it is immortal and unbound from the usual physical laws. The risen body of Jesus can do things that we normally would associate only with spirits—like passing through walls, as Jesus does after the Resurrection.

It is this risen flesh and blood that they are to consume. The risen body of Jesus can be shared as food, real food, and this food can share with those who eat it everything that Jesus is. It can be shared in the way a spirit can be shared, though it is not a spirit but a body.

In the Bread of Life discourse, Jesus does not explain how his followers are to consume his body and blood, only that they must. Only later, at the Last Supper, does he show them how this is to happen:

The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

Paul then adds, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:28).

Here, Paul is writing down words that the earliest Christians heard repeated every Sunday when they gathered for the memorial meal as Jesus had commanded. Jesus shared his real—but mysteriously transformed—flesh and blood with them at these meals.

This is the religion that the apostles taught, a religion of intimacy with God by sharing in the body and blood of the risen Son of God. And just as Jesus had to use forceful language to make clear that his very strange teaching was received in all its shocking power, so here we see Paul having to use forceful language, warning people that this really is the body and blood of the Lord, and they will have to answer for it if they receive it unworthily.

No taming this hard teaching

Following the example of Jesus and the apostles, the bishops and teachers of the early Church also resorted to harsh language to make clear to people how serious this teaching of Jesus is—that eating his real body and drinking his real blood is the only way to eternal life.

For example, the bishop and martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, a man who knew John and was intimately familiar with John’s Gospel both in writing and from John’s mouth, told his fellow Christians, “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans).

Even today, many followers of Jesus refuse to follow him into the depths of this strange teaching. They try to tame this “hard” teaching of Jesus by taking away its strangeness and making it symbolic or metaphorical.

Yet neither the apostles nor the earliest Christians, nor Jesus himself, gave any indication that this teaching is anything but shocking in its bluntness—either we eat his flesh and drink his blood, or we do not share in his life.

If we want an answer to what Jesus was like, we have to accept this, too: he is strange. He says and does things that, even after 2,000 years of reflection and consideration, still force us into depths of reality that are far beyond the world as we usually experience it.

When we encounter the strangeness of Jesus, we can walk away or dismiss him as a madman just as the crowd did. Or we can trust him and follow him into the depths where, in time, all will become clear.

Peter himself followed him into the depths and must have meditated on these things many times, asking himself why it all had to be so strange, why Jesus seemed to demand that people follow him even when they struggled to understand him. Peter shared his conclusion in his second letter when he told his fellow Christians that Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

This is why Jesus leads his disciples into strange and demanding truths—so we can see the strangest and most demanding truth of all. The deepest good of the good news is that, somehow, we shall be like God.

This cannot happen in safety. It cannot happen in comfort. To be so transformed that we may share in the divine nature, we must move out from safety into a great and dangerous adventure. We must let go of comfort and allow ourselves to be transformed by divine and angelic powers so far above us as to be incomprehensible.

Peter stepped out of the boat to walk on the water with Jesus. Every Christian must do likewise. This is the strangeness of Jesus and of the life he offers. It is life in full, and it takes every virtue, not least of all courage, to follow him.

Sidebar: “This Is a Hard Saying; Who Can Listen to It?”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me but raise it up at the last day.

“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Caper′na-um.

Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:35-69).

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