Saturday, May 19, 2012

Jesus and his Death

I intend over the few weeks to post some studies I have written for my Church here in Hong Kong.  They are about our image of Jesus and how we can discover the Real Jesus.  They particularly focus on the significance of the crucifixion, hence the title: Jesus and his Death.

1. The Popular Jesus

Jesus as a person is quite popular in popular culture. In fact, it has become quite fashionable for someone in the public eye to say that while they have problems with the Church, they have great respect for Jesus. Further questioning, however, reveals it is a certain image of Jesus that they have respect for. This image has certain facets:

1. Inclusive: Jesus is hailed as someone who welcomed all regardless of social class and background, gender, or lifestyle.

2. Peace-loving: Jesus is seen as a prophet who taught the importance of love and peace and rejected the use of force and violence.

3. Radical: Jesus is presented as one who challenges corrupt authority and obedience to tradition.

What is dismissed either explicitly or implicitly by those holding this sort of image of Jesus is any suggestion that Jesus was anything other then human. The belief in the divinity of Jesus is seen as an invention of the Church not having any connection with the historical Jesus.

This popular image of Jesus has become so pervasive that it has also been taken up in varying degrees by people in the Church. Not all would want to go the whole way and reject Jesus' divinity altogether, but it receives considerably less emphasis than once in did. The emphasis now is on Jesus as one of us.

Jesus is thus able to take his place as one of the good guys: a candidate for a first century version of the Nobel Peace Prize or, at least, its first century equivalent. His death on the Cross is explained as that of a martyr prepared to die for what he believed to be true.

The only question is why anyone would want to kill him in the first place if this is what he was really like!

Now I can see why someone resembling this popular image might upset or irritate people. (In this form, he certainly rather irritates me if I am honest.) It might even be possible to imagine a crowd being so upset with him on occasion that it turned on him, as, indeed, happened at Nazareth, though quite why they should be quite so upset is more difficult to explain.

What, however, is impossible to explain is why, if Jesus was like the popular image of him, they should determinedly plan and plot to have him killed. And it would take some planning and plotting as the Jewish authorities did not have the power to order capital punishment, that power lay with the Roman authority, and the Romans for all their faults tended not to have people killed for preaching love and peace. They saved such punishments for those who preached hate and war: hate and war, that is, against Roman rulers and rule.

The problem with many presentations of Jesus, both inside and outside the Church, is that the death of Christ becomes a complete mystery. Unless our presentation of Jesus presents someone who otherwise good religious people would hate and explains how they could get Rome to crucify him, then the chances are that we are not presenting the Real Jesus.

It also suggests that the Jesus we are following and worshipping is not the Real Jesus either. In other words, the Jesus we follow and worship must not simply be one who was crucified, but one who was crucifiable!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

It has been a long time since I posted here.  This has been because my time has been taken up on other projects.  I thought it would be interesting, however, as part of my preparation for my sermon tomorrow, Easter Sunday, to attempt an obituary of Jesus as it would have been printed in a newspaper on the Saturday after his crucifixion.

An Obituary of Jesus of Nazareth who was Crucified Yesterday

Jesus of Nazareth, aged 33, was crucified yesterday by the Roman authorities at the request of the Chief Priests in Jerusalem.  This has brought to an end a period of about 3 years during which he has been the subject of intense speculation about his motives and intentions.  Many had come to see him as someone who would lead Israel and throw off Roman rule establishing the Kingdom of God as described in the Scriptures.  These expectations, which he did little to discourage, have now been shown to be completely false.  While many will feel he did not deserve the brutal end he came to, the reality is that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, was left with little choice once the Chief Priests had made their allegations against him.

Although Jesus was commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth, he was in fact born in strange circumstances in Bethlehem.  Rumours persisted throughout his life that his mother, Mary, was not married when he was conceived.  He grew up in Nazareth following into his father, Joseph’s business as a carpenter.  His father died some years ago.

At the age of 30, he chose to associate himself with his relative John, known popularly as the Baptist.  John was himself put to death by King Herod.  It was at this time that Jesus began to preach and teach in Galilee, gathering a devoted group of followers around him.  He attracted large crowds who came not only to hear his charismatic style of teaching, but also because it was believed he was able to heal and perform miracles.

His teaching resulted in very public clashes with the Pharisees with whom he seems to have had a ‘love-hate' relationship.  On the one hand, he frequently socialized with them and, on the other, strongly criticized them.  He was most comfortable in the company of those on the edges of society, publicly associating with and befriending prostitutes, tax-collectors, and others with equally bad reputations.  He claimed that this is what God wanted him to do.

His followers clearly believed that he was the Messiah and obviously expected him to lead a rebellion against Roman rule, probably during the Passover.  His own attitude to this seems to have been ambivalent.  It is true that he discouraged people from calling him the Messiah and yet he behaved in a way which encouraged them to do just that.

The immediate events leading up to his death illustrate the problem.  At the beginning of this week, he very publicly rode into Jerusalem, accepting the crowds acclamation of him as King.  He then went to the Temple and violently attacked those trading there.  Both these actions undoubtedly lead people to think that the uprising was near and that he was preparing for it in the days leading up to the Passover.  At the crucial moment, however, he appears to have had a failure of nerve and instead submitted himself to arrest, trial, and execution without offering any resistance whatsoever.

This unwillingness to fulfil the hopes he himself had created explains why it was one of his closest followers, Judas, who betrayed him and why the rest deserted him, even refusing, when asked, to admit to being his followers in the first place.  At the end, it seems that it was only a group of women, who, somewhat scandalously, had travelled with him that stood by him.

His utter humiliation and violent death serve as an example to those tempted to think of themselves as messiahs.  It is a warning too to everyone in these difficult times not to be taken in by charismatic leaders who seem to promise much, but who, ultimately, have nothing to offer.

Jesus of Nazareth despite having no formal religious training was clearly a talented and effective teacher.  Sadly, he let his pride and ego get the better of him and delude him into thinking he was someone he wasn’t.  His death while attracting attention today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Jesus is survived by his mother, four brothers and some sisters.