I owe this title to Bishop John Bayton of the Anglican Church of Australia. Bishop Bayton is a sculptor and painter and creative writer and he was the retreat conductor before I was made a bishop in 1994. I was amazed at his breadth of knowledge and his deep compassion as well as his artistic gifts. I had been referred to him by the Bishop of the diocese of Gippsland Bishop Colin Sheumack. I was at that time the Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Sale, Gippsland in Victoria, Australia.
Bishop Sheumack sent me to him as my spiritual conductor because he felt that I needed somebody who was of a more artistic way of being, given my preoccupation with mental analyses. It was a wise decision and he was wonderful to me in the process of being elected as a bishop in 1994.
The Gospels are the almost sole repository of information that we have about Jesus of Nazareth. We have references in Josephus and other writings, but anything about his life and interpretations of his life that we have in the Gospels are our sole resource in many respects. I will refer to the gospel of John, which I prefer to call it The Last Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I do so because it is an interpretation of the other Gospels, even when they are not specifically referred to in it. The Gospel of John coincides with the other Gospels more in the last week of Jesus’ life, the so-called Passion account, than any other place. This Last Gospel, the writings of a Mystic or a Christian Community with mystical leanings, is deeply concerned about entering the mystery that was created by Jesus’ entry into resurrection. It is also the only Gospel that explores the mystery of Jesus in the world and Jesus in God.
Resurrection does not mean resuscitation, as that is the revival of a dead body, but it is the total transformation of a human being drawn into the heart of God. It is replicated in Christian resurrection in the sense of being drawn up into God in a way that preserves the ultimate identity of our person, the absolute assurance of our personhood. Paul did this in I Corinthians 15 through the use of the Jewish concept of the Nephesh, that is,“life in the body”,” the “absolute representation of who we are in our earthly life.”
Jesus rose out of his darkest experiences to bring light back into the world. According to Matthew darkness swept across the land at the time of his death, though we have no verifiable contemporary references to such a happening. This darkness, with its rich symbolism, would not have lasted past the dawn of the next day. It coincided with the ripping of the temple veil from top to bottom, again without historical evidence. Bridging the gap between humanity and God is the purpose of the resurrection narratives. Its purpose was also to certify or vindicate the way in which Jesus entered the life of God in such fullness and blazing glory. This would lead to speculations about what really happened that day in Jerusalem when the light of the world went back to the light in God. This hidden light of glory has prevailed over the earth ever since via the Cross and Resurrection as symbols of humanity linked to the compassion of God.
Authentic prophets spoke with such depth that what they said referred not only to the present circumstances. It also attracted a wide range of applications in the history of a people and beyond them to other people’s pilgrimages. But because of their perception and depth of wisdom, it was a true exhibition of Homo Sapiens, “the wisdom of humanity’. The Cross at Calvary and the Empty Tomb are prophetic symbols of the redemptive purposes of God.
Chapter 1. A Resurrection People
The Death of the master storyteller from Galilee would have been an unalterable tragedy without the Resurrection. Without the Resurrection there would have been no Christianity. It would perhaps have remained as a Jewish sect to honour a prophet called Yeshua, his Jewish name.
One Easter, I saw a sign outside a small but vibrant town in Australia called Junee. It said: “Don’t believe in Easter? Try staging your own resurrection”. As we have observed, we know very little about the details of Christ’s resurrection apart from the focus in the Gospels on his death on Friday and resurrection in and from his tomb on the first day of the week. The rest of the New Testament explores it, but the happenings in themselves are described only in the Gospels. There, resurrection is very matter of fact, but joyful, as in the return of family member coming home. There is no “shock awe” except for Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ conversation with her when it resumes as if it had not ceased when he died. This was facilitated by the fact that he apparently appeared only to those who knew him. Certainly, he made himself known to Paul who had not met him on the Damascus Road, but that is not a full-blown ‘appearance’ as in the post-resurrection accounts. The quirky humour of the sign at Junee brings it into our everyday situations, with all their constraints and opportunities.
It was the interpretation of what happened at the Cross and in the Resurrection that turned the Jesus Movement into a spiritual force. That is, with a message applicable to all humanity to avail themselves of when they chose. The Galilean did not intend to force us into what he was offering, as in the aberration of the Crusades. That was a travesty of his teaching, whatever the original intentions. Yeshua came to resurrect the world, not only in a spiritual sense, but in the human implications of what could happen when true motivations, such as love and persistent compassion, affected the conduct of the people everywhere.
We have a Good Friday World around us all the time. The world that I knew even twenty years ago is crumbling all around me. There never has been a perfect world, and there never will be. But we can do our best to create our own perfect world with families and friends, a safe and supportive workplace and a real interest in matters of justice, the environment and compassionate deeds. Even our own perfect world can crash, but what we can salvage and build on is so crucial, because we still have a model of what it should be. That is, the model of the humanity of Christ vindicated by resurrection and our own wisdom drawn from the experiences of life. It is the only place to begin again and build hope again. No one can completely take the desire for beauty of life and noble intentions in all matters out of our heart and mind, and least of all out of our soul. It was put there at Creation.
The Gospels are almost the sole repository of information that we have about the actual life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. I will refer to the Gospel of John, which I prefer to call The Last Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. I do so because it is an interpretation of the other Gospels, even where they are not specifically referred to in it. The Gospel of John coincides with the other Gospels more in the last week of Jesus’ life, the so-called Passion account, than any other place. This Last Gospel, the writings of a Mystic or Mystical Christian Community, is deeply concerned about entering the mystery that was created by Jesus’ entry into resurrection. Resurrection does not mean resuscitation, as that is the revival of a dead body, but it is the total transformation of a human being drawn into the heart of God. It is replicated in Christian teaching about resurrection only in the sense of being drawn up into God in a way that preserves the identity of our person. That is, the assurance of our personhood through the use of the Jewish concept of the Nephesh, that is, “life in the body,” “the absolute representation of who we are in our earthly life.”
Jesus rose out of his darkest experiences to bring light back into the world. According to Matthew darkness swept across the land at the time of his death, though we have no verifiable contemporary references to such a happening. This darkness with its rich symbolism would not have lasted past the dawn of the next day, but it coincided with the ripping of the temple veil from top to bottom, again without historical evidence. Bridging the gap between humanity and God is the purpose of the resurrection narratives. Its purpose was also to certify or vindicate the way in which Jesus entered the life of God in such fullness and self-authenticating authority. When prophets spoke, they did so with such depth that what they said referred not only to the present circumstances but to future situations because of their perception and depth of wisdom. This was an exhibition of Homo Sapiens, “the knowing wisdom of humanity,” in process. It presented such a wide orbit of applications that it would apply to many situations thereafter in the history of a people and beyond them to other people’s pilgrimage. This would lead to speculations about what really happened that day in Jerusalem when the light of the world went back to the light in God. This hidden light of glory has moved over the earth ever since because the cross is a symbol of humanity linked to the compassion of God.
The blame imputed to the Jews and the Romans in the past and their descendants because of what happened there does to include the whole story. Gustav Aulen saw long ago that what happened there is the great drama of the struggle between evil and light in humanity that has gone on since its symbolic portrayal in the Garden of Eden, and it continues. To attribute it only to those who contributed to his execution is to miss the scope of its application.
Jesus of Nazareth
This is a name associated with a small town not mentioned in the Tanach. The global figure named after no grand place. His mother was under suspicion in the town and a father too weak to set her aside in disgrace, or so they thought. Even this requires reading between the lines in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. We know him only later through his teaching, deeds and what happened to him. The members of his apostolic band tell us little, though Peter may have had some say according to Papaias and early ecclesial fragments. It was thought quite early that Peter passed on more than we will ever know.
Jesus’ sexuality is never mentioned, except that which is assumed in his maleness. We would expect such emotional tremors of identity in the more personal Upper Room Discourses in John 14-16. The personal sexual silence is not broken even when he is under pressure and looking deep into his emotional soul. Jesus’ praying in Gethsemane and the reactions of those with him are not mentioned in the last Gospel. The entry to the garden is connected only with his arrest: the pondering is done in the upper room on the way to Gethsemane.
The Reign of God
Jesus had a preoccupation in his teaching with what he called the Reign of God. The writer of the Last Gospel also gospel looks for some way of expressing the central features of his teaching. The writer does this by invoking the presence of God in Jesus himself as the one who is sent as God’s Shaliach, “manifestly representing” the sender. Jesus’ term for himself, “The Son of Man”, becomes more a divine figure in the Fourth Gospel.
Jesus’ key teaching is also indicated by discourses featuring the term Paraclete. Jesus had declared God to be present in the Reign of God. The Paraclete comes alongside us, speaking the call of God to us, even if we hide from it as Adam did in the primal garden. The meaning of the two terms is very similar, even if the trappings of splendour in the Reign of God and its expectations are different. Jesus associated himself in an integral way with the reign of God. He does this also by prophesying the coming of the Paraclete.
The Paraclete replaces Jesus’ advocacy role for the Reign of God. His ministry was the visible expression of the coming Reign, but the Spirit is the invisible expression of it. It makes itself ‘visible’ as an echo and reminder of the teaching and deeds of Jesus in the world and indeed to perpetuate them. This continues in Acts of the Apostles where the healing power of the Spirit of Jesus is invoked through using the name of Jesus.
The visible and invisible experiences of the Spirit of God in the apostolic preaching gets its authority from its identification with Jesus, even in the stylised form called the kerugma, “the proclamation”. The imprint of the historical and risen Jesus as Lord is stamped on the believer’s understanding, not just by the powers of the words recalled, but by the Spirit of Jesus that accompanies them.
We will never understand the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth if we fail to see him as the exemplar of the guidance of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. As Franz Camphuas has said so eloquently, “Jesus lived so fundamentally out of the Spirit of God that his existence was grounded in him from the very beginning”. This applies from the conception in Luke through to his baptism and the last words in Luke at the Cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Psalm 31:5 has “Into your hands I commit my spirit. Redeem me O Lord God of truth.” This may be his own yetser ha tov, “the good spirit”, but in Luke the definite article indicates the Pneuma of God. This goes beyond the sense of the Psalm, but the person and presence of Jesus sometimes gives added inflections to the quoting of biblical texts from the Tanach or the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.
The Divinity of Christ stands or falls on his capacity to express unity with Abba. In his historical life the Spirit comes to him from the Father. Complete unity with the Father would obliterate his humanity, or rather his capacity to receive or need to receive the Spirit. God’s Spirit not only generated his conception human life. It also gave the Spirit endowment for his ministry at the Jordan and through the ebb and flow in his life. We have no access to that internal process, except in the words and deeds that spring from it. They are our markers and we do well to peruse them with serious intent and the humility of those who can only look on and wonder.
The human journey of Jesus resonates with the pilgrimage of humanity in every age for those who love him. It applies now for us. Otherwise, his saving death is not authenticated now. It becomes as it has done for many, a huge tragedy that loses any lasting shape in our time.
But there are still current eikons of suffering around that remain to haunt the pretensions of humanity towards any achieved nobility, such as the Holocaust. The notion of a Good Friday world brings him back to us on our earthly pilgrimage, because it immerses the Cross in our violent world. But it would only be violence resonating with violence without the figure of innocent suffering at the centre of it all with his arms outstretched in peace and blessing to the world. Christ was most definitely not a violent man, though he met a violent end.
But under extreme pressure he still stays true to his inner core principles and beliefs and his mission to declare and exemplify the reign of God, his most passionate purpose in life. What remains and what still convinces?
Jesus From Conception to Ministry
The gospel-proclaimed supernatural conception of Christ is attended by a prophecy that Mary herself will have her heart pierced as with a spear over his life and ministry. This prophecy resounds as a caution to accompany the sometimes mutely perceived fulfilment of the angelic promises about him.
The salvation that Zechariah sees in the child in the Temple brings him consolation, but it will bring a Cross of agony to the one that he is lyrical about. The presentation of Christ in the Temple is powerful in its simplicity as Mary carries the glory of God in her arms. But the enormity of the task in front of him is still there even in that sublimely etched setting.
The baptism at the Jordan brings the affirmation of God and the empowerment of the spirit for the Ministry of Jesus in Palestine and by implication beyond. The temptation in the wilderness where he has been driven by the Spirit of God is a crucial test of his will carry out the ministry that is already taking shape in his heart and mind. He will suffer from the enormous collision of being entirely a vulnerable human being and yet connected in an apparently singular way to the heart of God. Speaking to his Heavenly Father must have been the same for him at times as a child stuttering into speech trying to say words from the heart to a parent. It was an enlargement of what he said to Joseph.
We should never minimise the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity and his search for spiritual reality and truth just as we have to make that search. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews who speaks so tenderly of his humanity tells us that “he was tempted in every respect as we are,” yet apart from deliberately usurping the will of God, which is what sin in its biblical sense is all about. It is not the province of moralists, and judgemental religious people in every age, but it resides in the mind and will and scope of God’s love for us. Sin stretches the elasticity of even the love of God.
Jesus came from the Jordan affirmed and refreshed with the Dove whispering in his ears about the words of God. He is then driven into the wilderness to face the powers of darkness and all that seeks to destroy goodness in him and in the world. He is offered bribes and tested with the subtle voices of power tempting him against the resistance of God to do such things. He responds to the Devil with words from Scripture that deny the evil one access to his relationship with God. The devil longs for that relationship and cannot find it in the darkness of his intent.
The ministry that follows is marked by healings that take on scourges of humanity within the whole spectrum of spiritual, mental and physical aspects of the damage of the body, mind and spirit through ill-health, confusion and despair.
Jesus’ use of parables was a means of conveying in comparative ways the presence of the Reign of God in the world. It was also to teach us about our relationship to God. It is both extensive and clearly pointed in giving us the inner flow of his mind and heart. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a masterpiece of teaching that reflects his own radical approach to the way in which people should seek God and acknowledge the presence of God in the world.
The feeding of a large crowd near Lake Galilee is intended to be seen as a miracle and its perceived importance is emphasised by its appearance in all four Gospels. It is a nature miracle that is a precursor to the Last Supper and it includes the pattern of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that marks what happens there to the crowd and at the Last Supper.
Even at his highest moments the voices of dissent are all around as the forces of evil see the Cross long before it happens and rejoice in its coming. But what happens there turns everything around