Images of Jesus

I once heard someone use the phrase ‘the gospel is like a Persian carpet; it has many strands, and each strand is relevant to a particular situation’. I suspect the same is true of the different images for Jesus found in the New Testament. By ‘images’, I mean ‘roles’ or ‘names’ or ‘titles’ – things like ‘Good Shepherd’, ‘The Way, the Truth, and the Life’, ‘Emmanuel’ and so on.
As I look back on my Christian journey, I can discern three images for Jesus which have been particularly helpful at different times. This is not to say that these have been the only images I’ve used during those times, or that I’ve been thinking about them constantly; I simply mean that these three have been the most prominent at successive stages of my Christian walk.
The first was ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’, and this image was very important for me in my teens. I became a committed Christian in the context of the early years of the charismatic renewal – that is, for those of you who are scratching your heads and saying ‘Huh?’, a movement of the Holy Spirit that swept across the major Christian denominations, beginning in the sixties, largely influenced by Pentecostalism. I had been brought up in the Church of England, that most staid and respectable of institutions (at least in those days), and I had no more expectation that God could heal the sick than that daleks and cybermen were actually real (well, less, in fact – I fancy that in the mid-sixties I did think that daleks and cybermen were real!). I went to church every week, sang in the choir, occasionally read my children’s Bible story book and so on, but I didn’t have any sort of personal relationship with God and certainly didn’t think of God as a being who would intervene personally in people’s lives – at least, not in the modern world; he seemed to have done it in Bible times, and this troubled me a little.
But then in the early seventies I read Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning and David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade, and a new world opened up for me. Bennett and Wilkerson told story after story of people being healed and delivered and transformed by the power of God; they spoke of receiving a supernatural ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, speaking in tongues and so on. This was a million miles away from my church experience, but I found it exciting and attractive, and eventually it led me to commit my life to Christ and to ask for these experiences myself. Our church at the time was gradually moving into the charismatic renewal, and in our house fellowship groups we experienced some of these gifts – healings, speaking in tongues, words of wisdom and knowledge and so on.
This was all tremendously exciting for me, and I’m grateful to this day that I had my early Christian nurture in the context of a movement which didn’t just celebrate what Jesus did, but also what he continues to do today, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Miracle Worker was the one who got my Christian life going, and for this I will always be thankful.
Nonetheless, there are of course weaknesses in this emphasis. It has often been observed that Pentecostalism has a fine theology of healing but an inadequate theology of suffering, and this becomes somewhat troubling when (as inevitably happens) one begins to notice that not all of one’s prayers are answered – not every sick person is healed, not every request for help is granted, etc. I wondered why this might be so. There was very little mention of unanswered prayer in the books I read; was I somehow more inadequate than these people? Was I not praying properly? Was there some sin in my life that was interfering with my prayers? ‘Jesus the Miracle Worker’ didn’t help me with answers to these questions; I had to find them elsewhere.
The second image that was prominent for me in a later period of my life was ‘Jesus the Friend of Sinners’. For various reasons which I don’t want to go into now, I had arrived in my young adult years with a fairly low sense of self-esteem and a pretty strong sense of my own inadequacy. I knew theologically that God loved me and that Christ had forgiven my sins, but I found it hard to actually believe and feel those things in an experiential way. What this meant, in my early Christian years, was that when I perceived myself to have ‘fallen into sin’ (don’t get excited; these were fairly unspectacular sins!), I felt as if I had to ‘go back to the beginning’ of my Christian life and start all over again. I had heard loud and clear the message that only the best was good enough for God, and since it was patently obvious to me that I was not the best, I often found it difficult to believe that God could do anything more than tolerate me.
Adrian Plass, bless him, helped me out of this hole. His 1987 bestseller The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass did more than make me laugh; it also introduced me to a powerful little phrase of his: ‘God is nice and he likes me’. It’s hard for me to adequately convey the powerful (‘tho gradual) effect that phrase had on my spiritual life. At first I found it difficult to say it with honesty; of course God loved me, but did I really believe that he liked me? In other words, that he enjoyed my company and wanted to spend time with me? It was hard to believe that this was true, but gradually the Holy Spirit worked a miracle and I found myself beginning to believe it.
This not only transformed my life, it also changed my ministry. The gospel of God’s unconditional love and grace became central in my preaching and counselling, and I discovered that many other people had the same difficulty seeing themselves as both loved and liked by God. The good news of Jesus the Friend of Sinners is a powerful medicine to heal the pervasive sense of guilt and inadequacy that seems to be so prevalent in our world today.
Of course, this image of Jesus too has its limits. Another well known phrase is ‘God loves us so much he accepts us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there’. An exclusive concentration on Jesus the Friend of Sinners all too easily neglect the second half of that phrase, leaving us to settle down quite happily ‘just as I am’, without hearing the gospel challenge to experience transformation – to move forward and grow into the likeness of Jesus.
And this leads me to the third image of Jesus that has been prominent in my spiritual journey, the image of Jesus the Master and Teacher. I began to realise in the early 1990s that for a growing number of Christians the language of discipleship was the most meaningful language they could use to express their relationship with Jesus; the paradigm of the Christian as a believer was giving way to the paradigm of the Christian as a disciple. Gradually, I found myself moving in this direction as well, and this was helped by a reading of the books of Tom Wright (with his emphasis on the Lordship of Jesus), and more recently by the writings of classical and contemporary Anabaptist authors, especially John Howard Yoder.
There had been long periods in my Christian life when I found the actual teaching of Jesus about the life of discipleship to be a threat; I was well aware that I was falling short, and my weak grasp on the grace of God in the gospel meant that this led to fear of failure and punishment. So I concentrated on a doctrinal Jesus who died for our sins and neglected an authoritative Jesus who spoke a word for me to follow.
But as Jesus the Friend of Sinners did his gentle healing work in my life, I gradually came to the place where the teaching of Jesus was no longer a fearful thing for me. Yes, I knew that I didn’t measure up to it (I still don’t), but I was no longer afraid of the implications of this. This was because I now saw Jesus’ teaching, not so much as an entrance exam I was failing, but rather as the ongoing curriculum in the school of discipleship. Anyone who has faith in Jesus can enter that school, no matter what their past failures might be. And they will continue to fail, but as the years go by, with continued practice and the help of the Holy Spirit, they will find themselves being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
And this is where I am now. I know that Jesus the Miracle Worker can intervene in my life and those of others, and I know that because Jesus is the Friend of Sinners I don’t need to be afraid of failure. So I can step out with the help of the Holy Spirit and apply myself to learning to follow the teaching of Jesus the Master and Teacher – learning to live a simple life, to love my enemies, to speak the truth, to seek first the kingdom of God and so on. I still have a long way to go, but as John Newton said, ‘I thank God I am not what I once was!’
Which images of Jesus have been helpful for you on your spiritual journey? And can you see a logical progression from one to another as you have grown through the different stages of your Christian life?
(Picture by Annie Vallotton, illustrating Mark 3:8 in the Good News Bible)
Advertisements

Hannah: There is No Rock Like Our God

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the stories of some Bible people who aren’t so well known. We’ve thought about Mary Magdalene and how Jesus transformed her life, and John Mark and how God gave him a second chance even when the apostle Paul didn’t. We’ve thought about Cornelius, an outsider who was seeking God, and how God reached out to include him, and about Naaman’s servant girl who spoke the crucial words of witness that led Naaman to ask the God of Israel for healing for his skin disease.

Today I want to talk with you about the story of Hannah, a woman who was in a desperate situation and who cried out to the Lord for help. There are some aspects of Hannah’s story that we don’t find it so easy to relate to; she was in a polygamous marriage, and the tensions and rivalries of that sort of marriage are hard for us to imagine today. But the main factor in her story is all too familiar to many people; she longed for a child, and her longing had not been fulfilled. There are many people today who know all about that sort of grief, and even if we aren’t familiar with it, we’ve all had times when we longed for things and our longing was not fulfilled. So let’s see what happens in the story of Hannah.

Read the rest here.

Place Embraced and Loved

‘Wendell Berry is a writer from whom I have learned much of my pastoral theology. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky. On this farm, besides plowing fields, planting crops and working horses, he writes novels and poems and essays. the importance of place is a recurrent theme – place embraced and loved understood and honored. Whenever Berry writes the word ‘farm’, I substitute ‘parish’; the sentence works for me every time’.
– Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant

St. Tim’s Open House and Fun Fair

I was happy to be invited by my good friend Joe Walker to participate in an open house and fun fair at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church yesterday. Joe and I finished the day by sharing an outdoor stage for about an hour and a half, and the good Lord was kind enough to hold off on the rain until we finished. Joe and I play very different types of music so it’s not always easy for us to find stuff to play together; most of the time we just alternated, although we were able to play on each other’s songs a little. But the folks seemed to enjoy it and we had some nice comments afterwards. One of the people there sent Joe a collage of pictures of our set. You can click on it to make it bigger if you like (although quite possibly you think we look scary enough as it is!!!).

Sermon for September 20th: Naaman’s Servant Girl – A Faithful Witness

This morning I want to tell you a Bible story that may be familiar to you, but I want to tell it from the point of view of a character we don’t normally think about very much. In fact, we don’t even know her name. So let’s give her a name; let’s call her ‘Rachel’, which was a common enough name in Old Testament times. The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about her, so let’s fill in the gaps a little bit and try to imagine what life might have been like for Rachel.

Rachel was born about eight hundred years before the time of Jesus, in the northern kingdom of Israel. In those days God’s people were actually divided into two kingdoms, the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom of Israel with its capital at Samaria. We can imagine Rachel growing up in a family in a small village in the northern part of Israel, doing the things that young girls did in those days, playing with her friends and helping out around the house and learning to cook and mend clothes and so on. And she would have heard the stories of Abraham and Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, and she would have joined in the family prayers and other rituals handed down to Israel from the time of Moses.

In those days Elisha the prophet was speaking his messages in the name of God all over the land of Israel, and there were many stories of the wonderful miracles that God had done through him. People told of how he had lodged in the house of a poor widow with only a flask of olive oil to her name, and how he had told her to borrow as many containers as she could from her friends and fill them up from that one flask. She had done so, and the flask hadn’t run out until she had enough oil to pay off all her debts. Another couple had helped Elisha by providing a home for him to stay in when he passed their way, and people told of how, when their son had died suddenly, Elisha’s prayers had raised him from the dead. We don’t know whether or not our Rachel had ever seen Elisha for herself, but she had certainly heard the stories about him, and she knew God could do wonderful things through him.

We don’t know how long Rachel lived in peace with her family, but we do know that one day her life was changed. In those days Israel’s traditional enemy was the kingdom of Aram to the north, with its capital in Damascus. Under its mighty general, Naaman, Aram had won great victories over Israel. But it was not only the big battles between armies that gave Israel trouble; it was the border raids as well. Parties of Aramean raiders would cross the border into Israel, attack villages and plunder them, killing the men and taking the women and children away into slavery. And that’s what happened to Rachel. We can assume that her father was killed, and that Rachel and the rest of the family were taken away as slaves. Rachel was taken into a large house in Damascus where she became a lady’s maid; her mistress was none other than the wife of the great Aramean general Naaman.

Read the rest here.

Goodbye, Mary

I learned my folk music in the 70’s, but the sixties folk icons were still enormously influential in those days. I learned to sing ‘If I Had a Hammer’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and many other songs from the records of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and tried to imitate some of their harmonies in the music I made with good friends.
So I was saddened to read these words on Peter, Paul, and Mary’s website today:

Mary Travers passed away on September 16th. After successful recovery from leukemia through a bone marrow/stem cell transplant, Mary succumbed to the side effects of one of the chemotherapy treatments.

We all loved her deeply and will miss her beyond words.

Goodbye, Mary. You brought us joy and inspiration, and we will always be grateful.