The summers of my college years were spent working with youth at a big church in Richland Washington. I loved all of the kids but there was a special connection with a few. Jeff was one of those. He showed up early to help me set things up and was one of the last to leave. Some mornings we met to go jogging together.
That’s why, one evening, when we couldn’t find Jeff, I was worried. We had been waterskiing on the Snake River. The boat would take five or six kids out at a time, leaving the to play in a roped off area by the shore. It was time to go home and we had rounded everyone up. Everyone, that is, except Jeff.
After an hour of searching, we were alarmed. After two hours, we called 911. A team of divers came out and began to search the murky waters along the shore. One of them found Jeff’s lifeless body on the bottom. The image of his hand going up to indicate that the search was over is forever seared in my mind.
The next eight weeks were surreal, a blur of investigations, the funeral, and ongoing youth activities. I moved into the basement of Jeff’s home during this time and witnessed firsthand grief that I only comprehend now that I am a parent.
One evening during that time, I went outside to fire questions for which there is no answer at the night sky. As I fired accusations at God, a shooting star shot across the sky in the exact place where I was looking. Shooting stars on a summers evening are not unheard of, but somehow I felt the presence of God in this one. It didn't take away the pain but it offered comfort.
When the summer ended, I made the drive back to Pullman, through the badlands of Eastern Washington. It was that indescribable time when the day is over but it is not yet night. The sky was an iridescent, slate blue. Angry tears poured from my eyes. I pounded on the steering wheel. What possible explanation could God give for this summer? I believed that God was both loving and powerful but there was no way to square this with the death of my friend or the grief of his family.
At that moment, an immense flaming star appeared in the eastern sky and arced to the west for ten full seconds. This was not the normal flash of white against a black backdrop. It was a flaming orange ball with a long glowing tail. I pulled to the side of the road and bowed my head, feeling my angry tears dissolved into tears of a joy. It was not an answer, but somehow, everything was okay.
From a scientific point of view, shooting stars are not miracles. Space debris hits our atmosphere constantly. The appearance of that shooting star can easily be explained as a coincidence which an emotionally vulnerable young man chose to interpret as that presence of God. I understand this perspective; I just don’t believe it.
Jesus of Nazareth was a shooting star whose life left a mark on our world. That much is beyond dispute. But what does that life mean? Was his life like a piece of piece of space dust hitting the atmosphere or was it the star of Bethlehem, a visitation of God? What does it mean to trust Jesus? Is this superstition for weak-minded fools who can't face the truth or is it the secret of eternal life?
In this chapter, I will examine the life of Jesus, starting with what everyone saw, then exploring various ideas about the significance.
What Everyone Saw
People may not agree on the significance of Jesus but we should at least be able to agree on the data: A man named Jesus of Nazareth appeared on the scene in the early first century. He went from village to village, proclaiming and explaining the Kingdom of God. Some believed him to have miraculous powers. He spent most of his time with the poor and disenfranchised and offended the political-religious establishment of his day.
Although he never called for armed revolution, the religious leaders told the Romans that he was a threat. Rome dealt with Jesus as it did with all who made trouble: He wound up on a cross, a ghastly object lesson to others who might be tempted to follow suit.
About this, nearly everyone is in agreement but there is more. Jesus’ followers memorized and recorded his teachings. Within decades of his death these were collected as four “gospels, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). “Gospel” means “good news.” The title makes it clear that they considered his appearance to be good news that the world needed to hear.
In the second through fifth centuries and right up to this day, gospels of Jesus have been written. These recast the life of Jesus in the philosophy of the writers. Although they bear the name “gospel,” these are very different than the first four gospels. The most famous are the Gnostic gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip, and most recently, the gospel of Judas.
Unlike the first four gospels, these claim to reveal secret information about Jesus which somehow everyone everyone else missed. In reality, these later gospels simply use the life death and resurrection of Jesus as a foil for their philosophy with no credible claim to the historical Jesus or his teachings.
I mention this because these later gospels are often lumped together with the first century gospels. But the first century gospels are the writings of those who actually walked with Jesus and heard him speak. The later gospels are fanciful narratives with no real claim to historical accuracy. If you doubt this, just try reading one of these later writings side by side with one of the first four. It’s apples and oranges.
Another modern assumption is that the first four gospels have been so distorted over the centuries that they bear little resemblance what the real Jesus actually said or did. The idea is that it's like a game called “Operator” we used to play as kids. A message was whispered in the ear of the first person and repeated down the line until it finally arrived at the last person. Invariably, when the last person reported what she heard, it was comically distorted.
The reason this is a faulty comparison is that the first fou r gospels were finalized within 60 years of Jesus’ death, most within 40. Very quickly, thousands of copies were made and distributed all over the world. Of course there are flaws and discrepancies in these copies, but there is strong and consistent textual line, spanning centuries, that reproduces the message of the first century gospels with clarity, if not perfection.
I'm not trying to be a Bible thumper here. I'm not making claim that there are no mistakes. As is so often the case, the extremists have hijacked the conversation. On one side there are those who dismiss the gospels completely, as unreliable rubbish. On the other are those who leave no place for a single scribe to make a single slip of the pen. In reality, the canonical gospels neither perfection nor rubbish. They are a reasonably reliable source for the life and teachings of Jesus.
What do we find when we read the first four gospels?
- We meet a man who taught about the Kingdom of God, a transcendent realm in which God is very much in charge, despite appearances. In this Kingdom sins are forgiven, suffering is redeemed, and love is for everyone, even your enemies.
- We read of a man who not only talked about the Kingdom of God. He demonstrated it. He loved the outcasts, healed the sick, and confronted oppressors. He loved every person he met and even forgave those who who nailed Him to a cross.
- We witness the triumph of God in a way that no one anticipated: love. Jesus conquered the world, not by destroying his enemies but by giving his life for them. God raised Jesus from the dead, revealing that power through violence is never the final word.
- We hear a constant refrain: Take sides with the Kingdom of God: Take sides with love.
What It Means
What do we make of all this? Like my shooting star, it may mean nothing. Or maybe it means something. Or maybe it means everything.
It Meant Nothing
There are people who think the life of Jesus meant nothing at all. A few go so far as to deny that he even existed. Most allow that there was a charismatic man in the first century who died a tragic death but think his life was blown all out of proportion by his first followers. Whatever uniqueness there may have been to Jesus was long ago smothered by runaway legend. We have an elaborate myth with no root. Jesus is much ado about nothing.
It Meant Something
Many people hold Jesus in high regard. Some think he deserves a seat with great prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Some think he was a great teacher. Some see him as a model citizen. Some hold him up as the epitome of self sacrifice. Some regard him as a holy man, along the lines of Buddha. In each of these views, Jesus was a remarkable figure in history, to be admired and imitated, possibly even obeyed. He was exceptional, but not necessarily unique.
It Means Everything
Jesus’ first followers believed that in Jesus, God had entered space and time to save the world. That’s why they called his life “gospel.” He was not just exceptional; he was unique. He was the only begotten Son of God with power to calm storms, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Certainly he should be admired and imitated. Certainly his teachings are valuable. But more than anything else, he should be trusted.
Aside from the four gospels, the rest of what we call the New Testament (Acts-Revelation) makes this case and works out the implications. The people who called themselves Christians in the first century believed that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and seated at Gods right hand where he reigns as this world’s King and Savior.
This is a lot swallow. One of the most interesting verses in the Bible to me comes at the end of Matthew when Jesus met face-to-face with his disciples. We read,
When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Some doubted! How is this possible? We’re back to the shooting star.
What happened back there that night in the desert of Eastern Washington? Did a large piece of space dust randomly hit the atmosphere, causing me, in my emotional distress, to falsely conclude that God had spoken? Or is it possible that the maker of heaven and earth was tuned in to my pain and reaching out in love through the physical world?
What happened back there in first century? Nothing? Something? Or everything? If your answer is “nothing” there is no need to read on. But if your answer lies somewhere between “something” and “everything,” you must think through the implications.
What to Do About It
To begin with, there is nothing that says you cannot follow Jesus if you are not convinced of his divinity. Perhaps you regard him as a wise teacher, a model for living, or a great prophet. In any case, your regard him as “something” and consider him to be worth following. The important thing is not to have a full understanding of who he was (who does?) but to practice the way of life he taught, what he called “the Kingdom of God.”
Many of Jesus’ teachings begin with the phrase “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” followed by a description of how a person behaves in a given circumstance. Trusting Jesus is not first and foremost a matter of latching onto an elaborate system of beliefs about the Father, Son and Spirit, but about living a certain way. As we live by his teachings our understanding grows. Right behavior begets right understanding.
This is what the Seven Habits of Wholeness are about. They are a way to make the core teachings of Jesus a way of life, Or as Jesus put it, “to enter the Kingdom of God.”
- We began at rest, knowing that from start to finish wholeness is a gift from God. We enter this life freely. It is not a reward for good behavior.
- We allow our brokenness to drive us to God. We make it a door to God’s Kingdom.
- We trust Jesus. The focus is not on understanding but following. Jesus leads us into God’s Kingdom.
- We hope in God. We anticipate a kingdom we already feel but do not yet fully see.
- We let God love us, not because we are good but because God is good. We experience the power of redeeming love. We can’t help but love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
- We love everyone, allowing God to flow through us to a broken world.
- We shine. We use our unique gifts to join God in the work of New Creation.
For centuries, people have struggled to explain the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing wrong with this. But you do not need a Ph.D. in theology to follow Jesus. You just need to take the first step.
Everyone Believes Something Crazy
As much as we would like to think our lives are purely rational, based on cold hard facts, the truth is that we all live by trusting something we can't see, let alone explain.
I sometimes wonder what it would like to be my cat: to see the world through cat eyes, to lick my skin with a rough cat tongue, to decipher the world with a cat brain. As a human being, I assume that I have more awareness than my cat. Whether or not this is so, my awareness is still partial—very partial. My eyes perceive a tiny piece of the light spectrum. My ears are deaf to most sound waves—and growing deafer by the minute. The sonar that guides a bat is a mystery to me. My mind fathoms a mere drop of human knowledge, let alone the vast, uncharted ocean.
All we can do is see what we can see and fill in the gaps with our best guesses. There is no way around this. Unless you think you know everything, you are stuck with this. You have to take a guess. I find his teachings, his life, his death, and his resurrection to be irresistible. More than this, I see a Guide, someone with better vision, who can competently lead me through the vast, uncharted realm of my ignorance. I do not understand everything Jesus said or did. I only vaguely understand who Jesus was. Still, I believe that in Jesus I have found one who is trustworthy. He invites me to follow and I do. My understanding grows but I never lean on it. There will always be far more that I don’t know than that I do. So I take Jesus’ hand and take a step.
Some may call this naive. To this I reply that everyone is naive. It is the human condition. We all operate with just a tiny fraction of the facts. We have to take a guess and trust something. And it is unreasonable to expect Jesus to explain everything. Even if all knowledge was somehow dumped on our heads, our minds could only grasp a few straws. Indeed, our problem may not be that God is holding back on us but that are unable to see.
Maybe we see what we are supposed to see, what we were made to see, like my cat. For the rest (which is nearly everything) God extends a hand and says, “Trust me.” We have a million questions.
- Where does Neanderthal man fit in the picture?
- How old is the universe? How will it end (or be transformed)
- What will happen when I die?
- Why mosquitos?
- Why tsunamis?
- Why school shootings?
- Why depression?
- Why divorce?
- Why cancer?
When we take Jesus’ hand and live a life of trust, we feel the path beneath our feet, even though we cannot see it, let alone understand it. We gain confidence with each step, as we follow our heavenly Guide.
I am glad that Jesus doesn’t ask for a heroic leap of faith, just a tiny, trusting step, followed by another and another. Maybe you find it hard to trust. You are like those disciples who saw the resurrected Lord face-to-face and still doubted. It’s okay. The invitation is not to swallow whole the fully formulated creeds of the church but to take the hand of the man from Nazareth like a child.
I still don’t know why Jeff died. Maybe I never will. As much as I long for an explanation, I trust Jesus. He not only has the power to turn water into wine. He can also turn space dust into the Star of Bethlehem.