How do you see our religion? Five years ago I commissioned a side panel for the notice board outside the Methodist Church at Epsom. The wording then was: “True religion is lived – not just professed”. It took me a while to realize that this is only part of the story.
My previous teaching interest was in the area of science, and although at secondary school level it is relatively straightforward as you move up through the system to tertiary education, there is a gradual dawning that everything is not as straightforward as it might first appear.
If you take a topic like “sight” for example, the structure of the eyeball is relatively easy to understand. Light enters the eye through the pupil, a lens focuses light from the object you are looking at and sends it to the back of the eye where light sensing cells called rods and cones pick up the information and relay the information via the optic nerve to the back of the brain where the image is processed and the brain tells us what we are looking at.
Simple? Well no, actually it isn’t simple. First of all the image is upside down and it has to be turned right-way up as part of the perception process. Second the optic nerve from each eye crosses over so that the left eye sends the message to the right side of the brain at the back – and vice versa with the right eye. Where the nerve leaves the back of the eye there is a blind spot in the retina – and rather than have a hole in what you are looking at, the brain has to paint over the missing bit in the picture.
Dim and bright light is dealt with in part by the iris opening and closing, and with a photosensitive dye called rhodopsin which darkens in the retina, a bit like photo-chromatic lenses on expensive sunglasses.
But then comes the really hard part. How is the information actually processed and comprehended so that you can work out what you are looking at? My answer?…. I don’t know – and as far as I can work out nobody yet fully understands.
No doubt the objective physics of the optics part of vision is very straightforward. An optometrist can work out what the physical problems are when vision is impaired and devise all manner of clever ways of making glasses, reshaping the front of the eye with a laser, replacing a clouded lens with a piece of plastic etc all of which when you come to think of it are the objective answers to straightforward problems. But, when it comes to the perception and interpretation conundrum that is much more subjective. I remember back to experimental psychology with an experiment where volunteers for three days in a row wore lenses that inverted what they were looking at until the brain somehow turned the image back up the right way again. When they eventually removed the lenses what they looked at was now upside down. Easy questions can be given objective answers. But the real thinking comes when a subjective and even tentative answer is the best we can manage.
Jesus asks the question first for the simple objective answer. Who do men (and yes, now with our changed society, we would now insist he include women) say that I am? Objective question…. And an objective question gets the objective answer: “they say you are John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. I guess what they were really saying to Jesus is that we can see you disturb people with your particular form of wisdom – therefore you are the equivalent of those similarly disturbing famous people gifted with the ability to confront with religious truth – speaking for God. Objective question….objective answer.
Remember: How does the eye work? – By the pupil, lens, retina, nerves …that is the trite answer
But, how do we actually see? – Now you are asking!
Trite answers simply won’t do for the important questions. I was once told of one of the most banal answers to a religious question at a party, when one of those dreadfully earnest young men cut through the buzzing happy conversations and loud music and asked another young man the unwelcome non-party question. “Are you saved?” The answer: “As a matter of fact I am, Honey. But you can have the next dance”. And in some ways it is probably fair enough as an answer because such a question should not be asked in a trite manner and likewise the answer has no significance if it is merely the expected formula recitation.
But the Jesus of the gospels didn’t appear to want shallow easy answers. Not just who do others say that I am? He wants the deeper subjective and tricky part answered. In the same way that we are called to go from the straightforward physics of optics to the subjective understanding of perception.. I am not even sure that when Peter answered he even quite knew what he was saying. Certainly, terms like the Christ – which is actually the Greek version of saying the Messiah can be understood in a variety of ways. The Jewish concept of Messiah was in fact the return of one of the great leaders of the past – King David or perhaps Elijah – and it also had clear military overtones. Israel – so the teaching went – was to be led by the Messiah to its rightful place as one of dominion over the other nations. Jesus with his embarrassing pacifism would not have fitted the Jewish concept of the Christ at all so it was probably a great step forward for Peter to pull back from certainty.
Everyone thinks they know Peter’s answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of God”. Except to be fair to Peter that isn’t actually what he is reported by Matthew as saying. The key word in Matthew’s gospel is the word sometimes carelessly translated as Son …the Greek word “Uios” That word doesn’t mean the male child at all. It means far more than that. It actually means heir, the descendant or the first born. I guess this may even be a hint that Jesus has inherited characteristics that we associate with God – but it may not be all the characteristics of God.
In any event the expression used was not just the Son of God … and for God certainly not the God to be encountered in the hereafter ….it was in effect the heir of the Living God. This is the God who is elusive and mysterious… and so hard for the Jews to describe or comprehend his power that they dare not use his name… yet it means also God of the here and now…the God which is life itself and the God whose presence whispers to us through the mysteries of space. Some scholars even suggest that because God was referred to as the I am in several places that when Jesus said who do you say that I am? he was underlining his connection with God – and even making a scholarly pun.
Many of Jesus statements only reveal their meaning when they are seriously encountered with thought and deep reflection. How do you meet Jesus in the face of the poor? This cannot be answered at the shallow academic level according to some formula answer.. Only the one who takes Jesus claim seriously and genuinely reaches out to help a poor or disadvantaged person and makes proper human contact in the encounter will discover the answer at depth, because when you do reach out you are the one who comes away most blessed.
Another way of looking at Jesus question is in distinguishing between the version of Christianity which is about Jesus and the Christianity which is of Jesus. Learning about Jesus is the book knowledge. Who other people find Jesus to be is if you like, a catechism faith. When did he live?…where was he born?…what did he teach?…who did people say he was like?….how did he die?…if he died and got resurrected what is that meant to mean for us? These are the about questions…easily answered and asking little of us. On the other hand, showing with a whole life commitment that as Christians we are of Jesus, means that we are attempting to take notice of the less obvious and subjective side and live as he invited us by example to live.
There is a world of difference between Christianity being about Jesus and taking on the form of Christianity which is of Jesus.
The big polling organization in the US, the PEW research group, in one of their polls came to the surprising conclusion that many who say that they know about Jesus – and reportedly even many of those who say they are grateful to Jesus for promising to organize a happy mansion for them in the sky, are very uninterested in adopting the principles he taught. Indeed, we might even do well to remember in terms of history mass murderers like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Cambodian Pol Pot (and I guess more recently Anders Breivik in Norway), all boasted of their early religious training. They knew about Jesus. They claimed to admire Jesus. But the one thing they didn’t do is follow his teaching principles – his teaching like loving their neighbour, forgiving their enemy, showing care for the disadvantaged and so on. They knew about Jesus but their actions were not of Jesus.
And they are not alone. There are many who behave as if they prefer their Son of God imprisoned as a beatific image in a stained glass window or better yet an ethereal being floating around heaven waiting for their inevitable appearance which they see as their right because they got the right formula of faith sorted here on earth.
In reality we are forced to admit to ourselves this is not remotely true to Jesus’ teaching. Even the fragmentary gospel glimpses of Jesus in action have him putting all the emphasis on action, inviting us to share with him building the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We, who would be of the Christ we claim, need to be forgiving enemies, helping the bereaved in their distress, reaching out to touch the diseased, and treating the passing faces we encounter not as passing masks – but as real people with real feelings – waiting to be discovered as the real face of Christ. Jesus remember, is not merely the Son of God – but the inheritor of some human dimensions of the God who lives through Jesus and hopefully in part through us.
I suggested at the start I was beginning to realise a limitation to my Notice Board slogan: True religion is lived not just professed. It is probably OK as far as it goes, but did you spot its limitation. The bit I was overlooking was that religion comes in many forms and not all forms are in essence of Jesus. Perhaps I should have written more unambiguously: “Called to faith, which, in this church we hope is of Jesus not about Jesus”.
Being of Jesus in that sense may not even be an exclusively Christian expression. Think about it.
When someone asks, ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ perhaps there is the beginning of the a possible answer.
Jesus is the one who awakens us to a means of dealing with life in a way that lines up with the compassion principle associated with a dimly comprehended notion of God…… and here is the corollary…by the manner we live we will show whether or not we are of this Christ.