Almost 20 years ago my then-father-in-law passed away of lung cancer. We went to the funeral and afterwards my then-husband turned to me and said, “That was a great message for a really amazing man, it’s too bad I don’t recognize him.” While his dad was a brilliant engineer, a faithful Catholic, and basically a good guy, he still had some serious personal issues that had a detrimental effect on the family, and that part was simply ignored. Perhaps this is simply a common practice with funeral sermons that we wax poetic about the person who died and just pretend all their faults and foibles never existed. The end result is a pre-death view of the person which includes all their faults, failings, idiosyncrasies and baggage, and a post-death view of the person in which they are essentially perfect.
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I think the same thing essentially happened to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus knew what’s been said and written about him in the last 2,000 years, if he wouldn’t just shake his head and wonder who everyone is really talking about.
One of the things we’re taught in seminary is that there is a difference between the person of Jesus who walked this earth for about 30 years and the Jesus as he has come to be known in the decades and centuries after his death and resurrection.
Many scholars have worked diligently to try and recreate the human Jesus of history by asking difficult questions:
- Who was the man from Nazareth? What did he look like? Who was his family?
- What was he really like? What did he really say?
- Why did he do what he did?
- How did he come to draw such crowds?
- What was it about him that created a movement that wouldn’t die when he did?
Theologian and scholar Marcus Borg calls him the pre-Easter Jesus. He was flesh and blood, a Jew through and through who lived for a finite period of time. He had a profession before his ministry, he had a family, he put his shoes on one at a time like everyone else. He ate, drank, felt love, frustration, laughed, and wept. In addition, this pre-Easter Jesus was a very spiritual person and had a deep, mystical connection with the Divine. He was also a social prophet and a wisdom teacher.
In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg states, “Beginning with Easter, the early movement continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death, but in a radically new way.” After his death, they experienced Jesus as not bound by time and space but infinite and eternal, and as a spiritual reality who was one with God and who had all of the powers and qualities of God. After his death, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other women, to the disciples and even to a crowd of 500, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians. He talked with people without being recognized, passed through closed and locked doors, and ascended into the sky.
This new image and experience of Jesus has been called the Christ of faith, or as Borg calls him, the post-Easter Jesus. This post-Easter Jesus is who Jesus came to be in the developing Christian tradition. This post-Easter Jesus was developed through the end of the first century as the gospels were written (aka the Canonical Jesus), and continued to be developed even through the 4th and 5th centuries when the creeds were written (aka the Creedal Jesus).
In the Nicene Creed, composed in 325 CE, Jesus became fully divine and fully human (“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God… was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”)
In essence, the pre-Easter Jesus was not divine and the post-Easter Jesus was experienced as divine. However, the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus were merged together in the scriptures, and, over the years, were also merged together in our prayers, hymns, and doctrine.
Borg uses the example of archaeology. When one excavates an archaeological site, one documents what is found in each layer of soil, knowing that the deeper one goes, the older the things that are found. Similarly, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all contain stories about Jesus from different times and different understandings. Some of the material in the gospels goes back to “Jesus as a figure of history, and some is the product of the communities themselves in the decades after Easter. They contain early layers and later layers.” Borg, in his book, The God We Never Knew, explains that it is the community’s memory of the historical Jesus over-layered with their experience of, and testimony to, the post-Easter Jesus.
Without even knowing it, most of us have just mushed all the images together. In the same way we merge the two different birth narratives (wise men, stars, and Egypt of Matthew, merged with shepherds and angel choirs of Luke).
Personally, I am apt to want to separate the pre- and post-Easter Jesus, but that task becomes next to impossible as they are as well mixed as spaghetti and sauce. At the end of the day, the Christian tradition includes both the pre- and post-Easter Jesus. Both are a disclosure of God.
The pre-Easter Jesus discloses a compassionate God who can be known outside of the religious institution. Relationship with this God is not dependent upon meeting requirements or following laws. And this God was concerned with the poor and the outcast.
Since the post-Easter Jesus understanding was that God and Jesus were one, we now have a story of God with humanity… God with us. The disclosure of the post-Easter Jesus was that the compassion of Jesus was the compassion of God, the forgiveness of Jesus was the forgiveness of God, and Jesus’ desire for liberation from oppression was truly God’s desire for humanity.
There is actually no need to choose between them. And, in fact, if we can affirm both of them our understanding of the significance of Jesus will be richer. God can be known through the historical and the post-Easter Jesus, as both reveal the nature of God. Both point to the Divine.
I find that I fall out much in the same place as Borg. I believe in a Spiritual Essence/Energy at the heart of all things. I believe that our spiritual journey has nothing to do with believing in a certain understanding of God, or believing in the Bible, or believing in the Christian tradition. Borg says “…the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit.”
Love & Light!