“He is risen!” The anthem proclaimed by Christians all over the world. But who is risen? Which Christ is risen?
My former CEO invited a group of us to dinner in L.A.’s Chinatown, and on the way he asked us whether we wanted 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100% Chinese, a choice that spanned highly Americanized dinners to authentic Chinese cuisine. He warned us there was a vast difference.
What does it mean today when someone says they are a Christian, or a follower of Jesus? There are now hundreds, even thousands, of Christian denominations, movements, and groups; within these denominations there are usually groups and individuals pursuing their particular beliefs and practices with varying degrees of independence. How closely are they following the 100% Jesus, the true Jesus?
“What is truth?” We scorn Pilate for these words, but surveying radically different beliefs held by all these denominations and local churches—about the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, war and self-defense, virtue and sin, abortion, marriage—isn’t Pilate’s question reasonable, and more relevant these days than when C.S. Lewis attempted to identify core Christian beliefs in Mere Christianity? When it comes down to it, wouldn’t many of us rather have a 25% or 50% Jesus we’re comfortable with—a Jesus who won’t demand too much of us—than conforming our lives to that one unique and inimitable voice?
Jesus was well aware of human weakness, human limitations, and our sad slaveries, so he gave us the Means to know him, to know the truth: via the Old Testament and his own words and actions in Scripture; via the Church he established in his flawed apostles; via the Sacraments that signify to our senses what they accomplish spiritually; via heroically saintly men and women in history; via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and our prayer response. We are called to read and reflect on Scripture; to heed the Church; to receive the Sacraments appropriate to our state in life; to learn about, emulate, and recruit those saints who have gone further up, further in; to attend to the Holy Spirit.
Think about it. Aren’t these Means elegantly complementary, revealing Jesus to our intellects, senses, psyches, and spirits, depicting different aspects of Jesus’ personhood without the least contradiction?
Of course, it’s not that simple because the Means Jesus bestowed are “filtered” by human agents, human limitations, and human weakness. That’s precisely why we rely on all of them to keep us on track, rather than just one or two. If someone relies on Scripture alone, if they have a poor translation or an incomplete canon, misunderstand texts, or filter Scripture through deeply rooted biases, one can be led far from the true Jesus. The same could be said of the other Means. When I drive a car, I ought to pay attention to what I see and hear, what the instruments tell me, how the car handles—as in icy weather, and what I know about the performance and limitations of this car from past experience. Attending to all of these makes me a better driver, and less likely to get into trouble.
Even more than being complementary, there’s a powerful cohesion between the Means Jesus gave us because he is the exemplar of cohesion. The reason Jesus baffles us is that we lack his integral cohesion; we do not even understand ourselves. In The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys makes a fascinating observation about this cohesion:
Textual problems have led some modern scholars to question the credibility of the Gospels and even to doubt the historical existence of Jesus. These studies provoked an intriguing reaction from an unlikely source: Julien Gracq, an old and prestigious novelist…which is all the more arresting for coming from an agnostic. Gracq first acknowledged the impressive learning of one of these scholars…as well as the devastating logic of his reasoning; but…he still found himself left with one fundamental objection: for all his formidable erudition, the scholar in question simply had no ear—he could not hear what should be obvious to any sensitive reader—that, underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style, which derives from one unique and inimitable voice; there is the presence of one singular and exceptional personality, whose expression is so original, so bold that one could positively call it impudent. Now, if you deny the existence of Jesus, you must transfer all these attributes to some obscure, anonymous writer, who should have had the improbable genius of inventing such a character—or, even more implausibly, you must transfer this prodigious capacity for invention to an entire committee of writers. And Gracq concluded: in the end, if modern scholars, progressive-minded clerics, and the docile public all surrender to this critical erosion of the Scriptures, the last group of defenders who will obstinately maintain that there is a living Jesus at the central core of the Gospels will be made up of artists and creative writers, for whom the psychological evidence of style carries much more weight than mere philological arguments.
The cohesion—the “powerful unity of style”—Ley and Gracq reference is not confined to Scripture, but is present in all the Means: in the Church’s long (and often painful) stewardship of Jesus’ call to discipleship, in the Sacraments, in the example of the saints, in the winnowing Spirit, and the life of intense prayer the Spirit engenders. This is captured in a passage in Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the nature and mission of the Church:
In order that we might be unceasingly renewed in Him, He has shared with us His Spirit who, existing as one and the same being in the Head and in the members, gives life to, unifies and moves through the whole body. This He does in such a way that His work could be compared by the holy Fathers with the function which the principle of life, that is, the soul, fulfills in the human body.
Christ loves the Church as His bride, having become the model of a man loving his wife as his body; the Church, indeed, is subject to its Head. “Because in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”, He fills the Church, which is His body and His fullness, with His divine gifts so that it may expand and reach all the fullness of God. (par 7)
How intentionally do we embrace these Means at the levels of the institutional church, the congregation or small groups of Christians, and the individual? How closely do our actions, behavior, and decisions conform to the intended fruits of these Means, not in relation to perfection, not in relation to others, but in relation to whom we would be without them?
If a Christian insists on accommodating a political creed, or a comfortable congregation, or human respect, or asserting one’s own choices and preferences, the consequence is a 25%, 50%, 75% Jesus, regardless of how loudly an individual or congregation proclaims their “Christianity”. If one desires to be as close to the authentic Jesus as possible in this life, embracing all the Means he gave us is the surest path.
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