The second coming of Jesus Christ as a tenet of the Christian faith holds its place of honor in the Apostle’s Creed: “[Jesus Christ] will come again, to judge the living and dead.” In the last decade my denomination’s hymnal omitted the word “again.” Hmm. Does that mute the belief in a literal, bodily return? The idea of a second coming of Christ is a mystery, if not explicitly controversial. Jesus’ followers apparently believed he would return during their lifetime after he was crucified. When that didn’t happen, later followers gradually changed the belief into an indefinite “someday.” After two thousand years of waiting, most Christians no longer look for it to happen in their lifetimes and acknowledge that Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically about his return. It is just as likely that those words were put into Jesus’ mouth by the gospel writers themselves. Wishful thinking?
At any rate, the question—Would we recognize Jesus if he came today?—is one that comes up now and then in adult study groups. Such a question can be used as a vehicle for mind stretching, an excellent exercise for Progressive Christians. Here’s how it might go …
Are we talking about the physical appearance of Jesus? We don’t know what he looked like when he was here the first time, so probably not. Would he come back as a Jew? A Christian? A citizen of the United States? What age would he be? Maybe he would be a child, following his saying, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mt. 18:4-5) Might he return as she?
Is there something Jesus would do or say that might tip us off to his identity? Would he stand on street corners and prophesy? Is he one of the sports fans who holds up the John 3:16 sign? Maybe he would slip into locked rooms through the walls or sit on the ground under a tree, inviting passersby to talk with him. How about some miraculous healings or exorcisms? Just what would he have to do and say, for us to recognize him as Jesus?
What would Jesus’ message be for us today? Here the discussion can further deepen and stretch the mind. What was Jesus’ original message? And just which Jesus are we expecting to return? The human being Jesus, prior to being embellished by the gospel writers and Paul through their interpretations? Or Christ, who may bear little resemblance to the man Christianity has made into God? The messages of each of those Jesuses would probably differ. Historians speculate that Jesus was likely illiterate, poor, and common. He seemed to be unusually close to God and possess a deep sense of God’s vision of justice and forgiveness. He defended people on the fringes of society and may have been more inclusive than is typical even today. He may have been involved in political resistance; or he may have been aloof from politics; either way, he held strong convictions about how things should be—how they would be, when God’s kingdom was set in motion.
And when was God’s kingdom coming? Was it already set in motion by Jesus? Or does no one—including Jesus—know the time or day of its coming? Has this person who says he has “returned” come here to usher in the kingdom? What will change?
Was / Is Jesus divine or human? Both? More of one than the other? And what does that mean, really?? In early Christian history, what was orthodox one decade was heresy the next. Did Jesus believe himself to be divine in any way? Many contemporary theologians say no. What does that mean for us, if Jesus was not God any more than you or I? What might it mean to say that we could be as God-infused as Jesus was? Would we recognize that?