Not surprising, this whole endeavor to understand what it really means to follow Jesus in today’s world is proving to be nothing short of overwhelming. Though I’d like to start my year-long effort to live this out on New Year’s Day, I’m not entirely sure I can get my hands around this Jesus we’re talking about by then. I mean, I grew up reading Scripture, have written several books about Jesus and the Bible, but somehow I’m always left with a sense that there’s more — a lot more — about Jesus and about being a follower than we generally consider.
As part of my effort to approach the year, I’ve decided to break down various dimensions of Jesus, based both on my own reading of the Gospels (and Epistles to a lesser degree), as well as the interpretations of scholars, theologians and activists I respect. So for now, I’ve broken this down into twelve categories, so that I can focus on one per month as intently as possible. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some other things I’ll decide to do all year long (like pray the Lord’s Prayer), or some things I’ll try once that may or may not fit within that month’s “Jesus dimension.” But when I consider the following twelve ways of looking at Jesus, it feels like a pretty comprehensive approach.
I’m also assembling a group of mentors to help me with each of the respective Jesus Dimensions below. I figure that, rather than having a dozen disciples, I could use mentors way more than followers if I have any hope of making this work.
But I’m interested in what you think. Am I missing something? Do any of these simply not ring true at all?
Jesus the Jew — Contrary to some popular misconceptions, Jesus wasn’t a Christian; he was a Jewish man who largely followed Jewish law and culture. Yes, he broke rules on occasion, but like a great jazz musician, he knew the laws and culture really well before he decided which norms to challenge. I grew up with many Jewish families who introduced me to much of the Jewish faith, but I definitely need to better understand what it means to be Jewish if I’m going to begin to understand Jesus.
Jesus the Prophet —Some people mistakenly think that being a prophet is primarily about telling the future. In fact, prophetic speaking and teaching is primarily about exposing truth in radical ways. It challenges systemic obfuscation and brokenness, while calling to the forefront a more clear and undeniable sense of both how things are and how they ought to be, or at least could possibly be. Given that I consider much of my work already to fall within the prophetic discipline, I’d have to say I’m especially looking forward to this one.
Jesus the Teacher —I already teach a weekly class at church on Sundays, and I speak around the country from a teaching context. But the wisdom Jesus possessed, and his ability both to cut through false constructs and to connect deeply with people’s hearts was remarkable. I’m really excited to learn more from that.
Jesus of the Margins —My wife, Amy, told me to change the original name for this one, which was “Jesus the Queer” — namely because of how loaded that word is in our culture. But really, “Queer Theology” is not so much about human sexuality, and rather an exploration of the Gospel of the social margins. We who benefit from so much privilege on a daily basis can easily become blind to it, or even actively guard and defend it, sometimes without knowing it. We have much to learn from the “queers” in our midst, however that is defined for us. We’re called to go out of our way to be uncomfortable, and even to be changed by those who aren’t like us. I’m sure this one will present its challenges, but it seems essential to me in really understanding Jesus’ ministry and message.
Jesus the Radical — Again, this one started out being called “Jesus the Anarchist" — but as that word means so many things to people that don’t apply in this context, it seemed wise to go with something less loaded. But many people believe, as informed by theologians like Walter Wink and Jacques Ellul, that at the core of Jesus’ Gospel message was a challenge to speak truth to power, and to live a life that stood in direct, yet nonviolent, defiance of the systems of Imperialism in its many forms. This one will be hard on many levels, not the least of which is because I’m a part of “the system” in so many ways. But sometimes (like heresy within the Church) the best way to challenge broken or corrupt systems is from within.
Jesus the Healer —I assure you that I have to illusions about trying to become some magical healer. Neither am I going to fast-track a medical degree so I can hand out prescriptions. But I do believe that healing takes many forms, and that it is a challenges that Jesus presents us with that we often overlook because of his more miraculous approach to healing. But it’s also worth noting that when healing takes place in the Gospels, Jesus inevitably says, “Your faith has made you well” — rather than, “Hey, check out what I just did!” So I have a sense that our own healing ministries have something to do with awakening something within others that already exists, but discerning and unearthing this can be arduous, consuming work.
Jesus the Ascetic —Jesus was very social most of the time, but there were points at which he actively withdrew and contemplated in solitude. Similarly, he didn’t deny himself food, drink, and other essentials in some external display of piety, but he did make a practice of fasting, it seems — at least as part of his forty days in the desert. This month will include exploring contemplative practices, physical discipline, and even a month-long fast during which I’m planning to abstain from solid food. Not looking forward to that.
Jesus the Scapegoat/Martyr —This one is particularly sensitive, as I think a lot of Christians distort the role of martyrdom in our faith a lot of the time. I’m also not sure that Jesus called us to go out of our ways to find opportunities to be martyrs or scapegoats. But he did say that if we were living according to what he had in mind, the persecution would come. Not sure how this might look for me during my year, but I’m sure it will be interesting.
Jesus the Feminist — It’s funny to me that one comment I got from a piece on Huffington Post about my project was that if I was going to really get into the mind and heart of Jesus, I had to work assiduously at being a “male supremacist.” I’m not sure, but I’m guessing this has something to do with the text in which Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog, and it’s a fair critique that this passage should not be minimized. But by many accounts, Jesus was incredibly counter-culturally feminist in his time. Though some contend there were only twelve male disciples, it’s clear from other passages in the New Testament that Jesus had female disciples, and that it’s the authors of the Gospels who left them out, by and large. So was Jesus an early feminist? If so, how might that manifest itself in our current world, particularly since there are those who contend that women are treated as equals with men? Clearly, we have to look no further than Church to find many examples where this isn’t the case. And it’s much bigger than just that.
Jesus the Miracle Worker —For the past couple of years, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been haunted by the text in which Jesus claims we will do greater things than he did. How exciting! How terrifying! Did he mean each of us individually, or collectively? How might that look in our midst? No, I don’t want to try and become some over-glorified magician, but I do think at the very least, we have opportunities to participate in daily miracles. I want to understand that a lot better than I do now.
Jesus the Evangelist —This is another one of those words that is so loaded, I almost didn’t use it. But I kept it in there, namely because it does make me uncomfortable. In contemporary terms, evangelism has come to mean trying actively to convert people to our particular brand of Christianity, to incorporate them into our tribe. But a more accurate interpretation of the word “evangelism” would simply be “sharing the Good News.” Jesus didn’t coerce, or even persuade, people to believe what he believed. He listened, shared, helped and invited. My take on this could change, but it seems to me that, at its heart, evangelism has far more to do with relationship than with belief. But spending a month being the best evangelist I can be should help bear this out more for me.
Jesus the Mystic —Particularly in the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as a fairly mystical character. And for centuries, mysticism was at the core of Christian practice, and still is in much of the Eastern Orthodox Church and even some western Anglican liturgies. In a lot of circles, though, we’ve replaced a more open-ended pursuit of the mystical with declarations of certitude. But with that comes lines of inclusion and exclusion that mysticism — and I’d argue, Jesus — sought to blur or eliminate. So what would a more mystical Christian experience look like today? I’m excited and intrigued to find out.
Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
Courtesy Sojourners Magazine www.sojo.net. Photo courtesy Bigstock. The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Florida Conference.