Cuddling with Jesus

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 24, 2013

I can imagine red flags going up for my more progressive readers, fearing I’ve gone evangelical on them with a title like “Cuddling with Jesus.” And my more mainstream readers may fear I’m getting too familiar, even sexual, with our spiritual leader.

But the deity with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis becomes the deity with whom the Beloved Disciple cuddles during the Last Supper in John. It’s okay for males to wrestle (God was imagined as male, remember) but not to cuddle (Jesus was imagined as God, remember).

In my book, As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves further away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!

In his book, The Man Jesus Loved, Theodore Jennings translates the passage this way:

One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, whom is he talking about?” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?”

Imagine watching TV with a group of close friends, some of whom are seated on the floor. Arms may rest on knees, heads lean on shoulders, hands draped affectionately on legs. This would be like the scene of the Last Supper, where the custom would be for everyone to be on the floor with cushions or mats, not seated upright at a table.

This is the casual intimacy between John and Jesus, but it affords John the opportunity, in the understanding of Celtic Christianity, to “listen for the heartbeat of God” with his head on Jesus’ breast. It is a symbol of mysticism, not sexuality, though mysticism is also erotic, understanding “eros” as the force that compels us toward God or another human being.

What prompts this reflection is a recent opinion piece by Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, who suggests the success of evangelical churches is that they promise such a personal relationship with God, but then overstates the case by claiming—mistakenly, I believe—that mainstream Christians do not imagine a God so intimate. (Since writing this I discovered agreement from a Letter to the Editor by Sister Mary Ann Walsh.)

I do believe mainstream Christians have a problem with intimacy. I once heard seminary professor and author Carter Heyward describe their God as a “Gentleman God,” embarrassed by sexual passion, yet too polite and dispassionate to be rabidly anti-gay. And the changing position of the Beloved Disciple may have to do with a fear of homoerotic implications.

But I believe the broader fear is intimacy with God. I’ve noticed that the same translation that has John “reclining next” to Jesus in John 13:23 also translates John 1:18 about Jesus’ intimacy with God as “who is close to the Father’s heart” when the actual text reads “who is close to the Father’s bosom.”

Yet I believe many mainstream Christians’ embrace of contemplation also chooses an intimate relationship with God. And though it may seem new, it has always been with us, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastic communities, and Celtic spirituality to our present day interest in all things spiritual.
My purpose in writing this blog is to encourage progressive Christians, too, to come out of the closet about their intimacy with God, with Jesus, and with the Spirit. Ours may be a different experience, but no less worthy to strengthen our resolve, challenge others’ certainties, and enjoy communion with all we hold sacred and dear.


Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite.

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