It is easy to say “Jesus,” much harder to see him through 2,000 years of history and church tradition and the prejudices of my own mind.
Jeff and I have spent many hours on trout streams, on forest trails, behind windshields, over lunches and coffees, texting, Facebook messaging, and chatting about matters of life and faith. And his musing this morning set me down a path of thought: How do we separate Jesus from the fog and clutter that we surround him with? How do we know him for who he is? Is our worship authentically directed to Jesus or to some idea constructed from our own imaginations and the imaginations of others, both now and over the course of history?
This is deep stuff.
For many of us, our mental image of Jesus is that handsome nordic-looking chap with long flowing hair, a gleaming white robe, holding a staff and petting a sheep while he stares off into some distant void. Or maybe it’s that dreamy picture of the Jesus with high cheekbones, a perfectly coiffed beard, and those sad eyes that betray a broken heart. Of course, logic tells us that those images can’t really reflect the physical appearance of Jesus of Nazareth who roamed the Palestinian countryside in the 1st Century AD. But they are nonetheless deeply ingrained in us by culture, history, art and tradition.
Beyond whatever physical appearance we imagine for Jesus, we also imagine character attributes. The Sunday School Jesus on flannelboards (remember those!?) who loves children and lambs, who touches the poor and the sick, who calls fishermen to follow him, who walks on water, who feeds thousands with scraps of leftovers, who turns water into wine. The haughty Jesus who flings over tables in the temple and takes a whip to the money changers, who angrily rebukes Peter, who scolds the religious elite on their own turf. The Jesus who prays so hard that his sweat turns to blood, who endures the pain and carnage of being whipped and beaten, who cries out helplessly at the betrayal of the cross.
Of course, Jesus is all of these things and more. The creator and sustainer of all things, cloaked in flesh and bones, revealing his nature, his character, and his passion to that which he has created.
But how are we, as broken, imperfect, finite creatures trapped in space and time, supposed to get our feeble minds around all of that? How can we possibly sort out what’s real from what’s imagined? Is it any wonder we have such trouble responding to Jesus?
All of us who try to take Jesus seriously are bound to be overwhelmed at times by these thoughts. Every train of thought leads down broken paths and rocky trails as we try to sort out the implications of the search for truth.
I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, but I love the questions themselves. Because it’s in the questioning that truth is ultimately revealed. I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about truth. A truth that is at once infinitely simple and hopelessly complex: Love.
If we believe the truth that God is love, we can believe that Jesus is love personified. And so all of those attributes of the person Jesus was are all rolled up into that ultimate truth of who he is.
Lately I’ve begun exploring a little exercise to help cut through some of this clutter and fog. It’s admittedly overly simplistic, but I find it immensley helpful in getting past the details of facts to the heart of truth. Take a selection of scripture, and wherever it says “God” or “Jesus,” or “Lord,” substitute that word with “Love.” If you have one of those red-letter Bibles, remind yourself that where Jesus speaks, Love speaks.
“LOVE said, love your enemies.”
“LOVE said, forgive and you will be forgiven.”
“LOVE said, love LOVE with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.”
“LOVE said, you are healed. Go and sin no more.”
Try that exercise during your study time for a week, and see if it helps you form a different image of Jesus. A timeless image. A true image.