A remark I think I read while at by bible college by concert organist, medical missionary, general all round genius and New Testament scholar Albert Schweitzer has been buzzing around in my mind the last few days. Schweitzer remarked that the biblical scholars of his generation, which was about a hundred years ago, when it came to Jesus were peering “down the well of history and seeing a dim refection of themselves.” It was very popular in Schweitzer’s day to write “Life of Jesus” type books in which these scholars claimed to have got to the real historical evidence behind the Gospels and so were able to describe what the “real historical Jesus” was like rather than the “Jesus of Faith” they claimed we read about in the Gospels. Schweitzer’s criticism was devastating because he pointed out that when you actually read what these “experts” wrote about Jesus, the Jesus that emerged was basically a reflection of the author, his views and values, with some 1st cent AD Jewish trappings.
The reason that quote and the debate about the “real Jesus” has been going around and around in mind (apart from their being plenty of space for it) is an article which was published in the Guardian Newspaper last week. You should take the time to read it, here is the link
So basically what the Guardian is saying is that Christians, for political reasons, are recreating Jesus in their own image, social conservatives recreate Him to support them and left wing liberals recreate Him to give their case moral justification.
The quote from Schweitzer hasn’t been totally alone in my mind its been accompanied by another one which I also can’t quite get out of my thinking. This quote is from the Apostle Paul. Romans 8:29 “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” As human beings we were created in the “Image of God” but that image was marred by humanity’s rejection of God. Paul says that God’s purpose, everything He has been working in history towards, has been to restore that image by “recreating” us in Christ’s Image. Which mean one of the Holy Spirit’s priorities is to work within us so that in our character, attitudes and values we increasingly reflect Christ.
I suspect you can see where I am going with this and the paradox that’s been plaguing my mind? More than a paradox it is nothing short of a tragedy. Whilst God wants to work in us as His people to recreate us in the image of His Son, Schweitzer and the Guardian, are pointing out that we as Christians are in fact recreating Jesus in our own image! It seems like every generation of believers falls victim to this temptation. I remember looking around a magnificent medieval Cathedral and thinking how much the Risen Christ seated in heaven on the stained glassed window looked remarkably like a medieval King sat on His throne. We even do it as a race don’t we? We recreate Jesus in our image, to make Him look like one of us, so that we are comfortable with Him. I have seen far more painting of Jesus in which He looks like a white middle class European than a working class middle eastern Jew!
A few years ago I read a book called “The Jesus of Suburbia” Mike Erre, the author claims that our generation of Christ followers has also simply recreated Jesus in our image. He remarks “The suburban Jesus would never be so offensive as to demand we do what He says: He is more interested in the security, comfort and prosperity of His followers. In short, much of the message of American Christianity presents Jesus as the purveyor of the American Dream.” When we recreate Jesus in our image he simply supports what we like or want. I think Erre despite his name is right! To be honest I have heard ( personally preached 😦 ) too many sermon which reduce Jesus to little more than a lifestyle guru who coaches us to success defined on our own terms. This kind of Jesus helps us achieve what we want but never challenges us to give up everything for what God wants.
Poet William Blake ruthlessly exposes our tendency to look at Jesus and not see beyond our own noses
The vision of Christ that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy:
Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine ….
Both read the Bible day and night
But thou read’st black where I read white
I read that and inwardly say OUCH! Not because I imagine Jesus with a nose as big as mine (but then again He was Jewish, so who knows?) but because I do imagine Jesus thinking like me, sharing my views. My Jesus all too often is a left of centre kind of guy who if he lived today would be against this Tory government and for Scottish Independence! I’ve been forced to realise that I have been staring down that well that Schweitzer talked about, reducing Jesus to little more than dim recreated reflection of someone very like me. I am not quite so smug about those NT scholars that Schweitzer took a pot shot at now!
For me what’s come out of all of this peering down wells and reading the Guardian has been a question, which I would like to share with you. Here it is, when was the last time Jesus challenged you? When was the last time you felt what the Guardian journalist described as “dissonance” that uneasy feeling that Jesus words and deeds are challenging some cherished belief of yours or some activity that makes you comfortable?
We are reading the Gospel of Mark together as a community at the moment and its reminded me how often what Jesus did challenged people and made them uncomfortable. He challenged the religious establishment and the Pharisees who thought they were religious reformers. He challenged hypocritical and judgemental men for wanting to stone an immoral woman and then challenged her to leave her immoral life. He ended up being crucified because he challenged Roman rule and those who wanted to over throw it. No one seems to have stayed affirmed in who they were and what they were doing with Jesus for very long, so why do we?
I am pretty sure that I start recreating Jesus in my image, rather than allowing God to recreate me in His Image, when I stop allowing Jesus to challenge me. If as a Christian I am not hearing Jesus saying something and being confronted by Jesus doing some things that make me feel pretty uncomfortable about some aspect of my life or thinking then the chances are I am either ignoring Him or its not the authentic Jesus I have been listening to but my own recreation of him. The authentic Jesus it seems to me was a disturber of the status quo and if He is not disturbing my status quo I am probably avoiding him or fooling myself into believing I am so in line with Him that He simply confirms my convictions and green lights all my actions. Its only as we allow the real Jesus to challenge us that we open up the opportunity and possibility for the Holy Spirit to begin to change us into His Image.
As we read Mark for the rest of Lent I want to invite you to join me in lingering long over the words and actions of Jesus that make us feel uncomfortable, the bits we would rather skim read. Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to get to work carrying out God’s great ambition for us, to recreate us in His Son’s Image and let’s give up the easy comfortable option of recreating Jesus in our image.