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Who is Jesus today?

Distinguishing the Pre-Easter from the Post-Easter Jesus

 

The pre-Easter Jesus.  The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus, the Jesus before his crucifixion and the experience of Easter Sunday.  He is the Jesus of history, the Jesus who grew up in the peasant village of Nazareth and who, around the age of thirty, launched a public ministry that changed the world.  However, trying to unpack who this Jesus was as an historical person is a daunting task.

Importantly, we have to remember the gospels were written some forty to seventy years after Jesus’ death.  Forty to seventy years in antiquity is a significant time period.  It is two to three generations.  Imagine how the memories, stories, and testimonies about Jesus would have evolved over the years.  Moreover, virtually all of these memories were passed on orally after who knows how many revisions and emendations.

In thinking about “who Jesus is” and the gospels stories, the tendency is to blend the gospel accounts together in a linear fashion–from his birth stories and baptism, on through his active ministry, culminating with his crucifixion and resurrection.  In telling their gospel stories, we have to remember the gospels are all post-Easter reflections on Jesus.  None of the gospel authors knew Jesus in the flesh.

The gospels all emerged out of particular faith communities.  In this sense, the gospel accounts all reveal who Jesus had become for their particular community.  For example, the Jesus of history was not divine and never thought of himself as divine.  However, in the faith communities, over the decades–and, eventually, centuries–divine-like qualities were increasingly attached to him.

Jesus: growing up in Nazareth, and the God presence that was in him.  Growing up in Nazareth, we have to ask ourselves: what would it have been like?  As a poor, peasant community, most likely, many of the workers sustained themselves through subsistence farming.  However, during the time of Jesus’ youth, Sepphoris, a once thriving city–and within a short walking distance from Nazareth–was being rebuilt through a massive restoration project conducted by Herod Antipas (a son of Herod the Great).  Very likely, Jesus and his brothers worked as day laborers in this building project.

Apart from the practical matters of daily living, growing up, there must have been what I call (for want of better language) a God presence in Jesus that vibrated in his heart and spirit.  This God presence is beyond rational.  Riddled with mystery and mystical to the core, it must have been a very real part of who Jesus was in his developmental years and beyond.

I continue to be fascinated by what this God presence must have been like.  For example, how did it affect the way Jesus interacted with his family, his peers, and his community?  How did it affect the way he thought about himself?  Did he think he was weird (which he probably was in some ways)?  Did he feel misunderstood, as if he didn’t fit in (which he most likely did not in certain ways).

In reflecting on all of this, we have to ask ourselves, besides God, who did Jesus talk to.  To whom did he pour out his heart?  Who did he seek out for feedback and input on all that was happening to him?

The pre-Easter Jesus and the remarkable humanity of Jesus.  The pre-Easter Jesus was fully human, just as you and I are human.  However, this doesn’t suggest Jesus was ordinary.  He was not.  He was a remarkable human being.  For us believers, it is important that Jesus was fully human and that he struggled with questions of life and death just like you and I do.  For us to be able to identify with Jesus as people of faith, it is important that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was real, that it “really” happened.  Suffering love is the pinnacle value of Christianity.

The post-Easter Jesus.  The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of faith, the Jesus of the faith communities that rose up after the resurrection.  Within these communities of faith, this Jesus has continued to evolve over the decades and centuries.

The writings in the Christian Scriptures are mostly post-Easter metaphorical narratives.  Looking back into history, some of the gospels are history and testimony remembered, but most of the gospel stories are metaphorical narratives (or history remembered metaphorized).  The gospels are narrative accounts that seek to present Jesus in a particular way.

How Easter broke upon Jesus’ followers.  In considering the post-Easter Jesus, what must it have been like to be followers of Jesus in the weeks and months after Easter Sunday?  Whatever the resurrection was, it gave birth to a new energy and new spirit that rose up in the followers of Jesus from the ashes of Good Friday.  Somehow, in some way, there was a vital sense that Jesus was still with them.

Who could explain it?  What sense did it make?  To his most ardent followers, his spirit, his essence as a spirit person, remained alive to them in a compelling way.  This experience of resurrection, however we understand it, varied from community to community.  Within each community, the Easter experience was who Jesus had become for them.  These Easter affirmations, often mystical, were very personal.  The bottom line was–somehow–over the months, even years, Easter happened.

After the resurrection, the disciples were changed.  One of the strongest arguments for the resurrection is the undeniable reality that, after the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were all changed–all different.  Somehow, amazingly, they were not the same persons.  Peter, who had denied Jesus three times and gone off and wept bitterly was, now, full of a confidence that could move mountains.  John and Thomas, too, were now transformed and full of hope.

As the years and decades passed, by the middle of the second century the church became almost totally Gentile.  There were two notable problems with this transition.  First, the churches looked less and less to their Jewish roots as a source of identity and self-understanding.  And secondly, more and more they began to read the gospels and the Christian story in a literal way.  For progressive Christians, this continues to be a problem down to our modern day.

So, who is Jesus today?  In our faith experience, there is always the danger of losing sight of the distinction between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus.  Too easily, Jesus can be changed into a superman figure where we lose sight of his extraordinary humanity.

So, who is Jesus?  Indeed, he is a blending of the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus.  He is a remarkable human being, an utterly captivating person who made an impression on his followers (and on his social-political-religious world) that death on a cross could not erase.  So powerful is Jesus’ impact on people that he remains–today–a living, transforming presence in the lives of his followers.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister. He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida. His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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