Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up

My Earliest Memory

My earliest memory of Jesus in church was a shadowy yellow stained glass picture of Jesus in a dark hall in the Southside Baptist Church in Spartanburg, SC, that I attended with my parents when I was less than six years old. I had to walk through that dimly lit hall every Sunday morning on the way to my Sunday School room. The picture was lighted from the back, because it was the picture that had been placed in the wall behind the baptistery in the main auditorium. I am sure that nobody intended the picture to scare little children. But it scared me! My first impression of Jesus was to be afraid of him.

The Real Jesus

Who is the “real” Jesus? For 2,000 years the images and meanings of Jesus have changed and developed constantly as cultures, languages, artists, architects, churches, doctrines, denominations, opponents, friends and just about everybody who knows that there is a “Jesus” have twisted and distorted the image of Jesus to fit their ignorance, their lust for power and their temporary secular need to raise money, to spend money, to go to war, to destroy unwanted minorities, to build empires, to destroy empires and to manage and control society and individuals in the name of a god.

Now in the twenty-first century, we have inherited this whirlwind of distortions and misinformation that so blur the image of Jesus that nobody knows the “real Jesus”! Where can you find the “real Jesus”? Bibles, books, creeds, dogma, doctrines, churches, preachers, warring religions, family traditions, the proliferation of legalistic fundamentalists, rigid orthodoxies, the pomp and circumstance of spiritual warfare, wealthy television evangelists, and a plethora of television and movie presentations of Jesus in our lifetime cannot really cut through the 2,000 years of distortions and lies that have so mangled the image of the real Jesus that nobody knows for certain who the real Jesus is!

The Face of Jesus in Art

I have a 2001 video of The Face of Jesus In Art narrated by Mel Gibson, Stacy Keach, Ricardo Montalban, Bill Moyers, Patricia Neal, and others. It is a fantastic collection of a multitude of paintings that represent various views of Jesus. (See link below.)

When I first viewed this video, I was struck by the great variety of ways individual artists viewed the face of Jesus. I realized then that no representation of Jesus in art or religious architecture and ritual could be accurate, because all of these secondary sources about Jesus were radically different from each other. So the question remains, where can you find the “real” Jesus who fits your personality and your life?

“Stand up, Stand up for Jesus”

The familiar old hymn helps us to sing of our devotion to Jesus as we “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross …” Yet today, the greatest need and challenge that we face as GLBT people who are oppressed and denied by the churches is for the “real Jesus” to stand up for us! You cannot stand up for Jesus if you have only a vague distorted vision of Jesus. You also have trouble standing up for or following Jesus if your mental image of Jesus has been distorted and misinformed by legalism, abusive churches, and religious wars and greed.

My forthcoming book is my attempt to address these problems and suggest some practical, logical, objective, reasonable ways to let go and move on in a faith that fits you and a vision of health, hope and life that make sense to you in today’s world.

The Hidden Jesus

The problem of finding the real Jesus is not new. A recent book by Donald Spoto, “The Hidden Jesus: A New Life,” is one of the latest attempts (1998) to take a fresh look at the “real Jesus.” The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” that was kicked off by famous missionary doctor and scholar Albert Schweitzer led to new directions in modern theological education led by Karl Barth (and his son, Marcus, whom I met and heard lecture at Union Seminary in Richmond), Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and the host of students who followed up on these teachers to begin a “new quest for the historical Jesus” that now has produced the remarkable “Jesus Seminar” led by Robert W. Funk and hundreds of modern biblical scholars.

When I was a graduate student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, I had the privilege of hearing and meeting two of the famous scholars who continued the work of Bultmann: Professor Oscar Cullman and Professor Ernst Kasemann, both of whom have written important books exploring the “real” Jesus.

This historical development and present explorations and research have been based largely on the historical critical study of the Bible. The problem for the average person is that very few people can devote a large part of their lives to learning Greek, Hebrew, Theology, Church History, Archaeology and the “thousands natural shocks” that biblical scholarship is heir to!

I have been through all of that in my college and seminary education and in research for teaching and writing ever since. Yet this is not a path that guarantees that people will discover the “real Jesus” for themselves! The greatest of the scholars and authors of many books on and about Jesus disagree with each other just about as much as the various church denominations disagree with each other while claiming that each one is right and everybody else is wrong!

A More Excellent Way

Is there a “more excellent way” to go about your personal quest for the real Jesus in your own life? I think there is, and that will be the theme and substance of my forthcoming book.

“The Word was made flesh” and “The Sprit was given to everyone.” These two affirmations form the heart of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The church throughout the ages has focused on the divinity of Jesus and not on his humanity. The emphasis of traditional religion has also been on spiritual gifts to the chosen few, the clergy and religious, rather than on the average person who can be like the “little child” and be lifted up by Jesus and become a testimony to the love and mission of God.

Traditional religion has built walls and developed a great set of doctrines, rituals and architectures of “distance” and “separation” between God and the people. This is a blatant rejection and denial of the picture of Jesus in the Gospels, whose most famous invitation was, “Come unto me!”

The Human Jesus as your Pattern

Jesus focused on his humanity and his identification with all people, not on his divinity. Jesus refused to “play god” when he was tempted in the wilderness and would not turn stones into bread. The temptation to “play god” always comes from Satan (the adversary). At his Baptism, Jesus identified with the crowd of sinners coming to be baptized and not with the prophet John who was doing the baptizing.

When the voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” the message was clearly intended for the multitude with whom Jesus had identified by his baptism as well as for Jesus, otherwise the multitude would not have heard it. Jesus always identified with the outcasts, the unclean, and the rejected people of his time. You can follow the human Jesus by simply doing what he said: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another just as I have loved you.”

The linking of the coming of the Spirit of God upon Jesus at his baptism and the coming of the Spirit of God on all the nations at Pentecost in Acts is a clear demonstration of the purpose of God in Jesus to link with the average person and not with the religious professionals. I cannot walk on water or turn water to wine, but I can follow Jesus in accepting and lifting up rejected and despised people! I can love and forgive people who hurt me! I can treat all people with equal respect and encouragement! I can follow the human Jesus, and that’s enough.

The Spirit has been Given

The presence of people from every nation and the multiple languages at Pentecost make it clear that the Spirit of Jesus has been given to the entire human race and not just to those who know the formulas and can recite the creeds! You are already created in the image of God. The presence of God within you is in the very air you breathe. You are alive because the breath of God is within you. To find God, look within. Jesus has given you the Spirit. To find the Jesus that fits your life, look within. Nobody else can tell you who you are or who God is for you. People who try to do that, whether preachers, teachers, priests or denominations, are merely distractions and not in any way the voice of God for you!

Jesus Within

The primary call of Jesus to you as an individual is to “let go and move on!” That means letting go of anything that keeps you from being your true self as YOU see yourself. It means letting go of any religious pressures and abusive church teachings and demands that demean you and make you hate and reject yourself. It means sharing the good news of your own personal freedom to be yourself with as many other people as you can. God is with you and within you, and don’t ever forget it!