Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.                        1 Corinthians 2:1-2

The most central, basic affirmation of the Christian faith is the confession of Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That is the confession we ask people to make when they become Christian. It is an affirmation echoed in the opening line of the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It defines who we are, but what precisely does it mean?

Our police chief invited me to join him at a meeting in Washington DC on Friday, which is a story I’ll tell another time. The meeting took place in the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the news and preserving the first amendment. If you haven’t been there and have a chance to visit, don’t miss it. Well worth the time. And while you are there, be sure to check out the bathrooms. You may spend longer than usual, because the wall tiles are filled with newspaper bloopers that are a kick to read, things like:

“Kids Make Nutritious Snacks.” (So, do you dip them in chocolate?)

“Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers” (Talk about punishment that fits the crime!)

“Drunks Get Nine Months in Violin Case” (Either very small drunks or a very large violin.)

“British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands” (Well they weren’t going to leave their tea and biscuits!)

“Prostitutes Appeal to Pope” (If I were celibate for 70 years they’d appeal to me too!)

And my favorite: “Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over” (Imagine … second thought, don’t.)

We may know what we mean with our language but sometimes that meaning gets lost in translation. To say that Jesus is the Christ is to do much more than give Jesus a last name. Christ, the Greek word for Messiah, has a whole myriad of meanings. For Jews, Christ is the One who will restore the rule of David in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God on earth. To speak of a crucified Christ, therefore, is a contradiction in terms. How can a crucified Messiah restore the Davidic throne to Jerusalem? This is why a majority of Jews did not accept the claims of early Christianity.

Christians developed an entirely different understanding, indeed, many different understandings of Christ. Christ is the incarnation or embodiment of God on earth. Where God enters into the world, there Christ is. Christ is the Light of the World who drives out the forces of darkness. Christ is the bread of life who provides our daily sustenance. Christ is the Savior of the World who restores us to wholeness with God. Christ is the Truth, Christ is the Way. Christ is that spark of the Divine that is in every person. Christ is the new Moses who liberates the captives from bondage. Christ is the Divine Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom, that reveals the mystery of God.

Christ is, in the words of the Gospel of John, the creative Word which brings all things into being.   Christ is, as I learned from my favorite theologian and professor, John Cobb, creative transformation, that which can bring life out of death and calls us into a relationship with God which will result in greater goodness, beauty and harmony. Christ is all of these things and much more. To speak of Christ in any of these terms is to speak of something that far exceeds that of a single, historical life in first century Palestine.

As Albert Schweitzer wrote so poetically in the conclusion to his quest for the historical Jesus, in 1906,

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the task which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands, And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

To call Jesus the Christ, then is to say that we see in this Mediterranean Jew of the first century the essence of God that continues to speak to us today. But who is Jesus of Nazareth, what can we say about the Jesus who was raised by Mary and Joseph and crucified by Pilate?

In many ways it is easier to talk about Jesus the Christ, that living presence of God we feel in our midst, than it is to talk about Jesus of Nazareth, a historical figure 2000 years removed from our experience. Over 200 years ago Christian scholars began to realize that the picture of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament was much more than a pure biographical sketch. The palette from which the Gospel artists took their colors, were more theological in nature than historical. It is not a picture of Jesus of Nazareth they paint, but of Jesus the Christ. That is to say, in many cases we can see where a story has been altered to convey a theological truth rather than an historical one.

Let me illustrate this with just one example. When did Jesus cleanse the temple? Right after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, five days before the crucifixion, right? That is what Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us. But not so in John. In John’s story it occurs at the beginning of his ministry right after the wedding in Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle, turning water into wine. From John’s perspective, everything Jesus did should be seen in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection. He can’t begin by putting those events at the beginning of his story so instead he puts an event, the cleansing of the temple, which is symbolic of Jesus’ death and resurrection, at the beginning so that everything that follows occurs under the shadow of the cross. To make sure the reader gets the point, John adds to the cleansing story Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection, a prediction recorded separately by the other gospels in an entirely different context. Historically, John is wrong; theologically he is right on.

This should not be news for anyone who has been listening to my preaching for any period of time or for anyone who has followed the writings of Marcus Borg or has any awareness of what has been taught in mainline seminaries for the last 50 years or more. It is, however, still news for a great majority of Christians who either have been taught differently or just assume that everything recorded in the gospels can be taken as an historical fact. Thus this discovery, that the gospel writers in fact altered historical facts to convey spiritual truths, is at one and the same time very liberating and deeply disturbing. For many modern Christians who have trouble reconciling what they know about laws of physics or Jewish and Roman history with the gospels, this opens up a whole new understanding the Bible that is often exciting and illuminating.

When I first began working on this topic under the grand illusion of some day writing a book on it from a preacher’s perspective, I went up to visit Marcus Borg, the former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, and one of the leading proponents of this view, just recently deceased. He shared with me that he literally received a two-inch stack of mail every day, half of which consists of letters from people thanking him for making it possible to be a believing Christian again. Thinking the other half of the stack probably came from those who view him as the anti-Christ, I had to ask, “so what’s the other half?” You know what he said? Bills. Sure he got the occasional angry letter but not as often as you might think.

What is disturbing about this discovery is that it means we cannot know with absolute certainty when the gospel writers are presenting us with the straight historical facts and when they are using their gospel writers license, to creatively rearrange the facts in order to convey a greater truth. Thus two highly respected scholars, Robert Brown and John Dominic Crossan, vigorously debated whether the passion narrative is 80% fact and 20% interpretation [Brown] or 20% fact and 80% interpretation [Crossan]. Meanwhile, another scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, expressing the sentiment of many, argued that it was all irrelevant because the real Jesus is not the historical Jesus who is unknowable anyway, the real Jesus is the living Christ who is portrayed in the pages of the gospels and is available to us today. So here is the fundamental question: is the significance of Jesus for Christians today solely in the living presence of Christ, what we might call the spiritual Jesus, or does the historical Jesus have importance as well?

Johnson maintains, Christians direct their faith not to the historical figure of Jesus but to the living Lord Jesus[1]   I believe Johnson is absolutely correct. Why then should we be concerned with differentiating the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith portrayed in the New Testament? Because, in the words of Crossan, “historical Jesus research is theologically necessary for Christianity”.[2]   If we do not seriously struggle with the Jesus of first-century Palestine, we run the risk of being left with ‘a myth in place of history.”[3] To have faith in Jesus as the Christ, is to believe in a Jesus who, as James Robinson says, “hurt when he was struck, bled when he was pierced and suffered when he was crucified.” This is the Jesus Paul points to, not Christ the divine being who only appears to be human, but Christ crucified in the flesh. If the Christ of faith is not rooted in the Jesus of history, then we are left with a “Jesus who left no footprint when he walked on the sand, cast no shadow when he walked in the sun and laughed from Olivet as his seeming body died on Golgotha.”[4]

It is such a Jesus, a divine, mythical figure, that ceases to be relevant to our experience, that knows nothings of our pains and suffering, that remains aloof and distant. In other words, this quest for the historical Jesus is a means to make Jesus real for people, to give him flesh and blood again so that more people can relate to him and find relevance in him for their lives.

Borg notes that images of Jesus matter, they have a significant impact on the Christian life. The most popular image of Jesus is of a divine savior whose mission was to die for our sins. This image places the focus of the Christian life on believing. Faith thus is primarily understood as believing certain things about Jesus (or God). This is the image most often portrayed in evangelical Christianity.

A second popular image of Jesus sees him primarily as a great teacher. This image leads to a moralistic vision for the Christian life, emphasizing the need to “be good”. This is the image often portrayed in liberal Christianity. Neither of these images is sufficient. The Christian life is neither about believing the right things nor about doing the right things. Christian life is not about belief or deeds, rather says Borg, it “is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation”.[5]   Never is that more clear than when you study the life of Jesus.

From my own study I would note at least three essential facts about Jesus that have tremendous relevance for us today.

First, Jesus was born Jewish and he was crucified Jewish. That may seem silly to say but it is something we should never forget. Jesus did not set out to establish a new religion. The problem Jesus encountered was not a problem that simply could be corrected by replacing one faith, Judaism, with another faith, Christianity. Yet that has been precisely the approach of much of Christendom. If we could just convert all people to the correct understanding of faith, the right beliefs about God, then all will be well. Nothing could be further from the truth when you study the historical Jesus. Jesus wasn’t about changing peoples beliefs. He was about changing our way of life, our fundamental orientation, from being self-centered to God-centered, or from money-centered to God-centered, or from success-centered to God-centered, and even from religion-centered to God-centered. Whether Jewish or Christian, socialist or capitalist, Republican or Democrat, American or Mexican, in all things to be God-centered.

Second, one of the outstanding facets of Jesus life is his reliance upon the spiritual world, a world filled with energy and power that is as real as anything you can touch and see. It is the relationship with this world, evident in Jesus’ life, that offers the greatest hope for revitalization of our lives. Yet it is the one area that has been the most ignored by mainline scholarship, and often, sadly to say, by the church. We cannot understand the world of scripture without understanding the world of the spirit. We cannot understand Jesus Christ without some relationship to the spirit, nor can we understand Jesus of Nazareth without the world of the spirit. Recovery of that world of the spirit lies both at the heart of understanding the historical Jesus and the Christian life.

Third, both Jesus and Paul were part of a particular world order, which they sought to replace. The shorthand phrase Jesus used for this new world order was “Kingdom of God.” The phrase used by Paul was “Christ is Lord”. They are simply two ways of saying the same thing: the current world order, ruled by Caesar, is broken and needs to be replaced by a new reign of heaven on earth. This is not Rome’s kingdom, but God’s. It is not Caesar who is the Lord and Savior of the world, but Christ. To fail to recognize the political nature of that message is to fail to understand one of the most fundamental aspects of the teaching of Jesus.

Thus we search for the historical Jesus not as an academic endeavor or to prove creeds of the church wrong,[6] but to make the good news news once again, to make Jesus relevant to our world, to hear what Jesus would say to us today. We engage in this quest ultimately because images of Jesus do matter. In one way or another, our Christian life is patterned after the life of Jesus. Ultimately then, it comes down to this: to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, is to make the power of God in Jesus a present reality in our lives, our church, our community and our world. This is good news we seek to live and to share as followers of Jesus today.


[1] Johnson, pp. 141f.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, “Why Christians Must Search for the Historical Jesus”, Bible Review, April 1996, p.35.

[3] Robinson, p. 78.

[4] op cit. p. 35.

[5] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), p. 3.

[6] The 19th century quest was led entirely by protestants, with one exception, and it has been suggested, was largely fueled by an effort to show the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. The one exception was the Frenchman Ernest Renan, who was a disavowed Catholic.