Re-Imagining Jesus (Part I): Hanging a New Gallery

September 15, 1996


Re-imagining Jesus: Hanging a New Gallery

An extraordinary thing happened earlier this year when the face of Jesus appeared in the same week on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. All the cover stories were provoked by something called the “Jesus Seminar,” a group of scholars dedicated to learning more about what Jesus was really like, and whether he actually said all the things attributed to him by the early Christians who wrote the New Testament. Did he say, for example, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” as Luke remembers, or did he say “Blessed are the poor in spirit, as Matthew remembers? There is, after all, a world of difference. To be “poor” means cheap clothes, shabby houses, not enough to eat, no money for vacations. To be “poor in spirit “ means having the kind of personality which is humble and open to being taught. So which did Jesus say? It’s conceivable, of course, that he said both, but in that case we are still confronted by one beatitude which specifically recommends poverty, and how many people do you know who have any thought of following that advice? And since the four different gospel stories of the resurrection have some really startling differences in them, was there actually a physical resurrection or is that story a way of saying that although Jesus died his life and thought were invincible and he is present in spirit wherever people believe in him?
This attempt to find the “real” Jesus behind the “idealized” Jesus, the actual human being behind the deified Lord of the church, is nothing new, but the unusual publicity given to the Jesus Seminar has created new interest over questions as old as the Christian church itself. I read all three of the national news magazines I mentioned, and my first observation is that Time won the contest for the best cover. Newsweek, choosing to print some details from Italian Renaissance paintings, had an unreal face with the eyes of one in a trance, while U. S. News , also relying on Italian Renaissance art, gave us a weak chin, unfocused eyes, and slightly twisted lips — as if Jesus is trying to say something but can’t quite get it out. Time’s artists set out to illustrate what the story would be about, and since it was about a real person versus an idealized person, the face on the cover was split right down the middle. One side was a painting, cracked with age, with the traditional halo around the curly hair, and an eye that was soft and sweet — the Jesus of centuries of adoration. The other side was an actual photograph, with real skin (pores and all), a believable face, and no halo. Which Jesus, Time’s cover asked, shall we believe in? Do we want to meet the historical Jesus, as this book by a noted scholar invites us to do, or do we prefer to think only of the Christ of faith sketched for us by different authors in the New Testament? These are things intelligent Christians care about, which means I can talk about them from this pulpit — as I plan to do for a couple of Sundays more. I am not going to worry much about a carefully sequenced approach. Knowing how well you listen, I’m going to start out, backtrack when I need to, circle now and then, and count on having you with me.
Some months ago, a man and his wife who live in my neighborhbood, stopped by with a television film about Jesus and asked me to watch it at my convenience and then share my reactions with them. I was reluctant for two reasons: first, because they are very literal-minded in their fundamentalist approach to Scripture, so I knew the film would promote a faith system that does not work for me; and secondly, because having seen all sorts of movies about the life of Christ I no longer hold much hope for one that will satisfy or surpass my imagination. But they are such good people that it would have been churlish to refuse, so I found time to watch the film.
First-century Palestinian costumes and scenery are always big items in Jesus films, but I must confess that for me they hold only minimal interest . I care intensely about what Jesus said but not a great deal about linking his life with a particular place. I have taught the geography and the political divisions of first-century Palestine often over the years to college and church students, and I have recreated that land in my imagination, but I have never had a compelling desire to visit the now crowded and conflict-ridden place where Jesus may have been born or the hill where he may have been crucified. This may surprise, perhaps disappoint some of you, but except for when I was young what has intrigued me about Jesus has not been his native land but the challenge of understanding how he may actually have lived and taught behind the adoring sketches we have in the New Testament.
I’ve always been a little embarrassed, when people asked if my travels have ever taken me to the Holy Land, to admit that they haven’t and that I have no great desire to go there. I can tell they are a bit disappointed in me, having assumed that such a trip surely must be the crowning joy of a minister’s life, so I was rather pleased a week or so ago to read in the Christian Century an account of how hard it is for a few people who visit Israel to deal with the dissonance between the land of their imaginations and the actuality of the modern state. What happens to them is so odd that I prefer to quote the paragraph exactly lest you think I may have misread it. It says:
“Medical personnel have long been aware of a strange form of hysteria that attacks some pilgrims to the Holy Land. ‘Jerusalem syndrome’ manifests itself especially among American Protestants — people well grounded in the Bible — who suddenly shout prophecies or proclaim that they are Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist or some other biblical figure. More than a hundred cases are treated each year at a government mental-health center in Jerusalem. The director of the center believes that the syndrome is triggered by the pilgrim’s encounter with a reality that is dramatically different from his or her prior image of the Holy Land. These tourists [the director says] “are disappointed and frustrated, and their reaction is to try and lift their spirits by losing control. They do things they wouldn’t do elsewhere.’” I read this article thinking, “I could be one of those frustrated people….better for me to skip the long flight and be strange at home.”
So, I had no particular interest in topography in the film my neighbors brought over, and I knew even before I put it in the VCR that Jesus would have that matinee-idol kind of male beauty, exuding so much sweet and tender piety that it’s hard to imagine anybody getting mad enough to kill him. I’d like you to help me a little now. What were your very first images of Jesus? I would guess they were taken, like mine, from a Sunday School story book or from those little cards they used to give us. In both cases the art was invariably bad. Everything was so obvious that in every scene you could instantly tell the good guys from the bad guys. Jesus was pretty, with hands too soft for years of work in rough carpentry, and he had that shiny little glow over his head that we proudly told our parents was a “halo,” all of which served to rob him of real humanity. All you had to do was look at Judas in those pictures and you knew he would be the traitor: black bushy beard, beady eyes, hunched over in a corner in dark clothes — and that’s bad art. Real life lets us know soon enough that that men with unfortunate faces may have splendid character, and that handsome men are not always good, but you’d never guess it from your first Bible images.
Remember all those pictures of Jesus holding a child in his lap, or stroking a sheep on the head, and how the scrubbed and radiant child was always staring adoringly into the shining face of Jesus, and how the snow-white sheep always looked sweet and innocent instead of dirty and dumb, which is how sheep normally look until they go to the Fair? But it’s not just how stylized our images of Jesus are from childhood, but how incomplete. For example, how many Sunday School pictures have you seen of the incident in Luke’s Gospel which you heard __________________read a few minutes ago? It had to have been a crucial and formative moment in the life of Christ: the start of his brief preaching career, his debut in the synagogue where he grew up as part of the youth group.
So does he play it safe before the home crowd? No, he starts from a radical social gospel text in Isaiah and reminds his Jewish audience that they have not always been God’s favorites — that in Elijah’s time, for example, when Israel had plenty of lepers of its own, only one leper was healed — and that one was not a Jew but a Syrian. And suddenly the sentiment was: Local boy be damned! I’m not about to come to church and hear about God’s love for Syrian trash! Or as the text puts it: “But when they heard this, everyone in the synagoguge was violently angry. They leapt up, threw him out of town, and took him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built, intending to throw him bodily over the cliff.”
Talk about an exciting moment: friends and neighbors listening well for a moment, pleased that the kid they’d seen grow up was doing quite well. Surprised a little because, as they said to one another, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” Obviously there is no halo over his head, no supernatural good looks to wow them. The name “Jesus” meant nothing to them; half the kids in town could have been named Jesus, it was so common. Their way of identifying him was to recall that this particular Jesus was Joseph’s kid. There is not even a hint that they had ever heard of the great star and the wise men from the east or of how at 12 he had astonished the temple elders in Jerusalem. Never a peep from his mother about an angel visit and a virgin birth. All those stories must have come along much later, after Jesus died — because if they had been current in the lifetime of Jesus these neighbors of his would have spoken of him differently and would have been afraid to lose their tempers and try to kill him. To them he was just Joseph’s boy and they had no reason to expect him to be anything other than ordinary. So it was a nice surprise that he was doing well with their Scripture that day….until suddenly it all went bad when he suggested that God did not share their hatred of Syrians, at which point these good churchgoers turned into a violent mob and dragged him out of town for their equivalent of a lynching. He escaped, of course, or we’d have no Christian religion, but in a sermon about re-imagining Jesus my point in telling this story is to ask if you ever saw that picture in your Sunday School books? I doubt it, because it’s not a glorious moment in the life of Christ: rejection, attempted murder, having to leave home to find somebody who will listen to him.
A lifelong devotion to close study of the text of the gospels has convinced me that they are not histories in the usual sense of that word. Matthew, for example, very obviously sets out to echo the Moses story in his life of Christ, so he has Herod murder all those little boy babies in the hope that one would be Christ, just as the Egyptian Pharaoh had done centuries before in hope of killing the infant Moses. Such a massacre, if it actually took place, would be an unforgettable thing for the people of that whole region, but history has no hint of it, no other gospel mentions it, and it seems impossible to fit it into the infancy narrative as Luke tells it. So I read it, as many others do, as part of the literary construct by which Matthew set out to glorify Jesus of Nazareth. Later in Matthew’s Gospel I read that dramatic story of how it turned dark at noon when Jesus was crucified, and how the veil of the temple split from top to bottom, as effective pieces of symbolism: not “literally” true, but true in a deep, poetic sense. That is, the world should turn dark when such a One as Christ is killed. And the torn veil used to symbolize that the old religion had just ended and a new one had been born. Early Christians loved that story; Jews, quite understandably, considered it an unnecessary insult.
Do you still remember that we are talking this morning about trying to see the Jesus of history behind the Christ of faith, to know when a story is literally true as opposed to its being created as a beautiful symbolic expression of adoration and faith? You realize, of course, that I couldn’t even talk about this in churches where it is a matter of doctrine that everything in the Bible is to be read as literally, as a matter of scientific and historical fact. When I could no longer make sense of it that way, I found a church which was at least willing to hear a different approach, to re-imagine Jesus as he must have been before the church wrapped him in robes of reverence, miracle and magic. . These are the kinds of things talked about in the Jesus Seminar, and reported in the same week by those three national news magazines I mentioned earlier.
Let’s tie two threads of this sermon together now. I am saying that our images of Jesus tend to be incomplete. Pictures of Jesus being physically hauled out of town to be killed by the very people who had known him as a boy are not part of our mental pictures of the Lord of the Church. A l2-year-old in the temple amazing his elders, patting trusting lambs and holding adoring children on his lap, a halo on his head in early Christian art — these are the images we know. The mind is a gallery hung with images, and the images of Jesu we have from childhood remain fixed in us, so that when we hear his name those pictures drop over, tumble over, one by one, like a Rolodex inside our heads.
The picture we have, I am suggesting, is partial. We have to remember that most people who actually saw the Jesus of history decided he was NOT the Messiah they had been waiting for. They looked, they listened, and then they said, “No thanks.” Intelligent Christians will want to understand that, so what I will try to do over the next couple of weeks is hang a new gallery, with some subtler shades and a different sort of light. The images may not be as clean, as pressed, as antiseptic as the ones you are used to, and you may decide when it’s all over that you prefer the gallery you had. That’s fine, because one of the true glories of membership in this church is that no one has to believe everything anyone else says, even when that someone else stands in a pulpit every week. With that comforting caveat sounding in your ears, I invite you to come back next week to consider new ways of imagining the man I call — with profound reverence — Lord of life and Master of the art of living.
Eternal God, we call this church a place where head and heart, reason and emotion, are equal partners in faith. Our meditation this morning has been
an effort to consider what that can mean when we do it in the beloved name
of Christ our Lord. Amen.