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Faces of Jesus

Who is Jesus to you?

In Mark 8:27-33 , Jesus asks two questions. And as Joan Chittester points out in her book, In Search of Belief, the first one, “Who do people say that I am?” has been debated from the beginning. It is the question that creeds and doctrine have tried to answer. It is the question for scholars and theologians, who are trying to determine who Jesus actually was.

(For the full video version, click here.)

The answer to this first question might be found in what the church teaches about Jesus. Think back... who were you taught Jesus was? When I asked this question yesterday, people responded immediately with "Son of God." Then added Lamb of God, Eucharist, Savior, and God. Of course there was the good old Apostle's Creed to help people believe the "right" thing about Jesus: 

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

Do you resonate with these images of Jesus? I really don't anymore. So, the second question that Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" becomes monumentally important for us. Note that the question is in present tense. Who is Jesus for us today? Not who was Jesus, but how do we experience Jesus now? Have you ever really thought about it?

I heard a story recently about a boy who was in a catechism class and they were asked to write an essay about Jesus. In his essay he wrote that Jesus was love… and he was chastised for it by the priest. Can you imagine?

I’m afraid that when we’re asked who Jesus is to us, we’re expected to respond with the standard indoctrinated responses. By and large, we haven’t been given permission to think about Jesus any other way. Because of this, the name Jesus has become a wall, an obstruction to keep out people who don’t believe in Jesus the “right” way. The name Jesus is too often used as a battering ram for extremists (Jesus hates fags!), or a measuring stick for the religious right that can be used to judge others.

In my humble opinion (which you’re always welcome to disagree with), there is no one right way to answer the question “who do you say Jesus is?”

When I asked the question during my message yesterday people said that Jesus was a teacher, a mentor, an example of how to behave, a radical, and a reflection of God.

Thinking about all this reminded me of the great people out there who see Jesus in the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the refugee… any who are “the least of these.” For Mother Theresa, Jesus was present in the poor. In the book Mother Theresa: In my Own Words, she said, “he comes to us in the hungry, the naked, the lonely, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute, the street beggars… If we reject them… we reject Jesus himself.”

She tells a story about one of the novices she had taught this to. One day, this novice came home from helping at their Home for the Dying and knocked on Mother Theresa's door. The novice’s face was full of joy as she declared that she had touched the Body of Christ for three hours. Mother Theresa asked her what she had done. She said, “Right after we arrived, they brought us a man covered with wounds. He had been picked up from the rubble. I had to help take care of his wounds. It took three hours. Therefore, I touched the Body of Christ for three hours. I am sure it was him.”

So, here's my true confession (which could very well be heretical): I resonate with most of the parables Jesus told. I resonate with his inclusion and acceptance of all people. I resonate with his teachings of love, compassion and forgiveness. I resonate with his striving for justice and freedom from oppression. I have even had times when I’ve resonated with the persecution he endured. But if I am honest with myself, I don’t ever think to myself, “I saw Jesus today.” I'm more apt to say that I felt a spiritual connection with someone, or saw the spark of the Divine in another, or felt a oneness. 

I’ve heard it said that each person resonates more with one person of the trinity (God, Holy Spirit, Jesus) than the others. Some people really resonate with Jesus. They pray to Jesus, they see Jesus in others, they experience Jesus as a good friend who really does walk and talk with them. I sort of wish I was that person, but that has never been me. I’m more of a Spirit girl.

When I was at the end of my seminary studies, we had to write a Senior Credo, which was basically our answers to a bunch of deep theological questions, and then go before a review board who would determine if we were ready to graduate and go on to ministry in the church. One day I was meeting with my advisor, a wonderful black woman, Dr. Toinette Eugene, about my rough draft and we were talking about Jesus, and I was struggling. Finally, she just looked at me and said, “Do you know Jesus loves you?” And tears started streaming down my face and I choked out “yes.” And that was good enough for her, she didn’t ask me to do any rewrites or anything. Whew!

But I’ve often thought back on that conversation, because truly I’m not really sure I feel Jesus’ love… I feel God’s love. And maybe that is the same thing. And maybe that is enough. I tell you this story because my confusion over this seeming lack of connection with Jesus has not stopped me from believing in his teachings or being in awe of who he was. Not experiencing Jesus as personally as others do has not stopped me from sharing the love of God with all the people I’ve ministered to.

The bottom line is that I want to give you permission to explore your spirituality in depth so that you know yourself and how you feel connected to the Divine. If you are choosing to worship in a Christian community, it makes sense to think about what your connection to Jesus is? Maybe you don’t really have one other than as an example and teacher… and that is OK. There is no right or wrong, the key is to remain open to the evolution of our understanding and experience of Jesus and the Divine, in whatever way it manifests itself in our lives.

Love & Light!