Throughout my life, I have been presented with many potential answers to the question, “Who Is Jesus?” as I am certain many others reading this have. But until a certain point in my life, it never occurred to me that what was most important was not how someone else would answer that for me, but how I would respond to that question. It’s also important to answer the questions, “Do you know Jesus?” and “Are you a Christian/Are you “saved”? My answers are quite simple to both queries: Jesus is my Savior; yes, I know Him very well; and yes, I am a Christian and I am saved. But to merely say that I am a Christian and to answer that quickly does not tell the whole story. Often, if I elaborate on the answers to those who ask me a few become convinced that I am none of the above, as it seems that they are fixated upon an image of Jesus and the terms of “salvation,” “savior” and “Christian” than my own.
Before I elaborate on this, I have quickly learned over the years that the term “Christian” is often associated with as many stereotypes and prejudices and assumptions as another word I use to define myself, bisexual. But just as I have always felt the only true accurate definition of bisexual is “one with the capability and/or the desire for sexual and/or emotional intimacy with both genders,” with many different variations thereof. None of the them are “right” or “wrong” (so long as no one is harming anyone) but merely different and diverse. I also feel that “Christian” could be defined as, “One who embraces the teachings of Jesus Christ as their way of developing a relationship with God,” with many different understandings of what that means. There is a diverse mix of denominations, personal beliefs, and ideas about who Jesus was/is and what he was here for, and I feel that these too are not “right” or “wrong” but merely different and diverse (so long as no one is harming anyone).
I grew up with three separate visions of Jesus. One was my Sunday School Jesus. I was told He loved me “because the Bible told me so.” He wasn’t a strict disciplinarian and when the teachers would talk about Him they just talked about how He did wonderful things through His faith in God, how He shared God’s Love with others and helped the needy, and most of all loved the little children. He was more apt to smile at the children gathered around Him in the pictures and tell them that they were all special children of God and were loved than give them lectures on which church was the “right” one to get to Heaven, which political party was the One that He would vote for, or that they were all supposed to grow up to be heterosexual. This was a Jesus that I did not entirely understand, but One that I felt embodied a God of Love. As a child, there was never any doubt in my mind that God, and this man Jesus who was somehow a part of God, loved me or that God was anything other than Good, Love and Joy. My current beliefs are not too far from this (though a bit more in depth) and it brings what He said about “becoming as little children” — meaning, to me, embracing God with loving child-like faith and wonder and trust in order to know God. (Unfortunately, today many who feel threatened by a more open reading of the Bible, taking into account the knowledge God has blessed us with through science, humankind and so on that the original Bible writers were not aware of, they have reinterpreted this to mean that we are to become children obedient to a literal reading of the Bible and a patriarchal God who answers our child like inquiries of “Why?” with, “Because I said so in the Bible.”) But up until my first Sunday school in 3rd grade, all I knew was a loving, smiling Jesus, who talked of love and joy and doing good for others instead of hellfire and shame.
It was in this class that I began to hear about a Jesus who would replace the image of the One I knew and loved and that I truly felt loved me with a very different image, a Jesus that was the prosecutor and judge for His even more tyrannical father. This Jesus placed conditions and requirements on love and salvation that made no sense to me. Rather than embrace this Jesus because we loved Him, he was our “golden ticket” into Heaven, a place where the entire city was literally made out of gold, jewels, and riches and everyone would get a brand new body and live forever with our loved ones. But, only if our loved ones had met the requirements for entrance. Even our beloved Mommy and Daddy, if they did not do the correct things or go to the correct church, Jesus who supposedly loved us would send them to a lake of fire to burn forever. As an 8-year-old, this horrified me beyond belief, that someone who loved as much as I believed Jesus and God did could ever hurt anyone or do something so mean.
My elderly Sunday School teacher then asked each child individually if they were saved, which perplexed me, since God was so good to everyone and Jesus loved each and every one of us, I had no comprehension of what we needed to be saved from. I remember her telling us that in order to go to Heaven and the magical city in the clouds when we died that we had to be saved, and we had to make sure that anyone who we wanted to meet there was saved, too. According to her, many people listened to the devil and that made God so angry, so His son had to die to pay for our mistakes. And if we did not ask Jesus to come into our heart, we would not be saved. This was all beginning to sound to me like a fairy tale than about God. I had never thought you had to say a certain prayer for Jesus to love me or to go to Heaven, I just thought those were things that happened anyway. I just thought God and Jesus Loved me no matter what. I recall her asking me “You have asked Jesus into your heart, haven’t you?” I recall thinking that I didn’t know why I had to, because it felt like He already was in my heart. I remember thinking that the reason I tried to be a good boy and kind to others was not to get to Heaven but because Jesus said that we were supposed to love one another. I knew that God was real, the world was too amazing and wonderful to think it was some accident. But, she said it was mandatory that I ask Jesus into my heart, and if I had already done so, not to do it again, as if I did I would be calling God a liar. That night was sleepless as I cried alone, begging Jesus to come into my heart and not to send my parents or me to the lake of fire. I was afraid I would die in my sleep and wake up on the “Judgment Day” I had learned about in church. Looking back now, I think it a bit irresponsible to try and explain the concept of substitutionary atonement to such young children, but then again, I see the very concept of such meant to instill fear of God instead of the Love of God. This new Jesus I was learning about seemed more like one of my teachers giving me a “test” to be graded on than someone who really loved me.
Things got worse as I got older. This image stuck with me and developed into an image of Jesus and of God (since we were taught they were the exact same man-and it was always a man-once when I suggested, “How do we know God looks like an old man? How do we know God might not be a woman, or just a loving Light?” I was harshly rebuked.) that began to look more to me like the devil they seemed to talk to us about a lot more than God. God was up in the clouds in Heaven, and Jesus was there if we called Him in the “right way.” But we could never meet Him until He came to earth to “clean house” and get rid of all the “sinners” once and for all (and that was going to happen “any minute,” they kept saying). But, the devil was around every corner. Jesus hated sinners, I was told. And, based on the feelings I was having as an adolescent/teenager, becoming aware of my sexuality and the fact that I had sexual feelings towards my own sex as well as the opposite sex, put me in the group that they told me Jesus hated. I recall being told that any desire simultaneously hurt Jesus and made Him and God angry with me. At the same time, I was required to listen to the works of Hal Lindsey and how he had proof that Jesus was coming back soon so we better get ready. All of the terrible things I was hearing somehow did not seem congruent with the Jesus Who Loved Me Cause The Bible Told Me So, but the Youth Group, the Pastor, and anyone in the church I asked said, “Yep, it’s all true, and it’s all in the Bible.” Unfortunately, since I was told that that was the case, I never took the time to actually read my Bible and find out that a lot of the things they said were nowhere to be found there. So, I never got to know the real Jesus. Instead, I let them paint a horrific picture of Him as judge and jury who was more concerned about me taking the Bible literally than about Love for me out of their interpretation of the Bible. This Jesus was someone I never wanted to know, and the fear of hell did not scare me into it. So, I walked away. I would not meet up with Jesus again until I really got to know Him as an adult. It happened because for the first time I really DID read the Bible, most specifically His story and His life, which was what saved my life. It saved me from the real devil of fear, the real hell of the illusion that God was a God of conditional love and from a painful and empty life of hopelessness where alcohol was my god for many years. It was ultimately through Jesus, His teachings, and His life that I met the God of Love I had always hoped was there, the God I never really got to know as a child or a young adult.
As I read the Bible, I saw a very different Jesus than the one of my early childhood or my terror-filled fundamentalist adolescence. I saw a great teacher, One who emphasized the importance of Love over Law and religious doctrine and human weaknesses such as fear and prejudice. I saw a human being who embodied in human form everything my heart had always believed God really was, Love. I saw someone who was so determined to give us that message of Love that He gave is very life for it, only to show us that even death could not keep Him from living forever in our hearts and as a real spiritual Presence that we can call on in times of need when we allow fear to obscure our deep knowing that God has not forgotten us and Loves us with an eternal and unconditional love. I know He lived and died to give us that gift, as well as the keys we need to be closer to God, the keys to an abundant life and how to stay focused on Heaven and the Kingdom within in this life and whatever comes next.
He has shown us that there is no power greater than the power of God’s Love, and that with faith in God and love for one another, anything is possible, and any obstacle we face can be overcome. He has shown us that we reap that which we sow, and that the way to have abundant life is by sowing seeds of love. When we stumble, and find that we have sown seeds that produce negative consequences, He is there to help us pick up the pieces and plant a new garden. He loved and embraced those who others sought to banish from God’s Love because they did not fit the societal “mainstream” of His day. How can there be a person who is LGBT who has been cast out who cannot see the hope in His message? He reminded us that in God’s Kingdom there are many mansions, which tells me that although there are those in society who may see others as not being part of God’s Creation due to different beliefs or walks of life, God does not see it that way. His statement that no one comes to (God) unless it is through Him to me does not mean that one church or one religion is the “right” one. Instead, it means that unless anyone, regardless of faith, can embrace what He knew — that Heaven, and God are to be found within instead of a faraway place, that they will be searching for God’s Love instead of seeing what is there with us all the time. I do not think He came to judge or to be a blood sacrifice to God or lay down a set of strict laws. He came to show us the keys that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and realize that God is Love, and God is always with us.
When I read about His life, I can feel God talking to me through His words, and feel the extent to which God cares about and Loves each and every one of us. He is my light in the darkness of fear. For me, Jesus is the One who knows how it feels to be persecuted for having beliefs that fly in the face of the religious doctrine of the establishment. He knows how it feels to suffer in the name of doing the loving thing in the face of fear and temptation or to allow our fears, or pride, or ego to make decisions. He knows how it feels to trust in God even when it seems as if we have been forsaken amidst a sea of taunts, persecution, and judgment. He has been my only friend in times of pain. He knows what it is to be persecuted for being who you are and loving God in spite of what others say God thinks of you and who others proclaim you to be. He is the real loving nature of God incarnate, Who stood up for the persecuted with a hand outstretched in love rather than a fist clenched in anger and confrontation. He is the one who tells us that Heaven is not in some far away place but as close as our own heart. He assures us that He is not dead and God is not dead but very much alive in the hearts of those who believe. He assures us that faith can save us from the illusions of fear that often make us feel distant from God, regardless of what anyone says, regardless of what our sexual orientation or sexuality is, regardless of whatever demons we create out of our own human imagination. He is the one who tells us that we have the power within us to heal illnesses, to move mountains, to realize any dream so long as we believe. He saved me from the pit of despair I had allowed my fears to create. He helps me to know that God does not judge our sexual orientation or sexuality and not to allow human judgments to let me or anyone else in the LGBT Community give us the illusion of separation from God. He helps me to know that even when others do not, that God understands my needs as a human being and a bisexual. God understands that although my love life and intimate commitments consist of two people, a woman and a man, I could do so honestly without deceiving, hurting or manipulating others and enabled me with the strength and patience to wait for that situation.
To me, He was a human being, one infused with the very nature of God His spiritual presence, however, to me, is very much alive. It is a comfort. The formalities and the walls of religious rhetoric come down when I want to hear Him. For me to state that Jesus was an extraordinary human being is a severe understatement to me, because He is far more than human. He was the one who broke through the fear and religious persecution by saying that it was not religious Law but Love that should govern our lives. He was persecuted by the Pharisees, who merely saw him as a “bleeding heart liberal” and therefore a threat to their theocratic agenda, which I feel was not meant to revere God but rather to use God as a weapon to control and govern others who they did not see as important or as holy as they were. I find it so ironic that many who call themselves Christian, who in reality wish to take the definition of Christian and make it their own, so closely resemble the Pharisees of His day; more concern is given to the “infallible Laws of the Bible” than to Love. Jesus to me embodies God’s Love for all of humankind. And that is why, although I observe Christmas each year, I celebrate what it represents — the birth of Christ, our savior, every day of the year.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.