The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luk 1:30-33 NRS)
It was a cold crisp fall evening in the mountains outside of Asheville where my son went to college at Warren-Wilson. My husband and I had the habit whenever we visited him of taking him and dozen or so of his friends out to dinner. These were not your average group of college kids. Their families were quite affluent – some of their parents were even famous. But they had chosen to go to a school where you worked 15 hours a week doing everything from raising livestock, tending the vegetable farm, cooking and cleaning in the cafeteria, or maintaining the facilities. The students were also required to do 40 hours of community service. They volunteered in the local elementary school, the homeless shelters, or the food bank – to name a few. The school was a community like nothing I have ever encountered. I longed to be 18 again and attend! The thing that I noticed more than anything else was that their experience there instilled in them both the desire to make the world a better place and the confidence that they could do it.
I was a pastor at the time and that fascinated my son’s friends mostly because I wasn’t anything like the pastors they had encountered before. Pastors were supposed to preach fire and brimstone, be anti-woman, and most certainly be against the LGBT community. The Christians that they had encountered were against protecting the environment, caring for the vulnerable people in the world, and having any kind of real fun. These kids weren’t enamored with the church at all.
But oddly – they had no argument with Jesus. Love your enemy. Take care of the least of these. All of this was simple truth to them. And they longed for a mystical experience of the numinous. They weren’t afraid of believing in the supernatural. Some of them even practiced praying daily to a God they had not yet named.
That night, as I sat at the long table in the storefront window of a downtown Asheville restaurant all eyes turned to me when someone asked me to tell them about Jesus. In other words, they liked Jesus’ teachings so now they’d like to learn about him.
This question jolted my thoughts back to an older man – an ancient man, really – who had been in one of my congregations. I had no idea of his real age, but he was old. He did the opposite thing these kids were doing. He was from India and had converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a young man. He, like these kids, had been looking for an encounter with God. He told me that he went on a quest as a young man and studied all the major religions of the world. In the end, he decided on Christianity because we believe that we follow the teachings of a living God, not the teachings of prophets long dead. He said that only a living God was worth worshiping. It was after he made that decision that he found a church and started attending. Unlike these kids, he liked Jesus’ claims of deity and then decided to study his teachings.
But either way you approach Jesus, he had many good teachings that regardless of his divinity, if followed, would make the world a better place. But he also made some outrageous claims about himself. In the Gospel of John alone, he says some incredible things. In Chapter 4, he confirms to the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah. He claims to be from heaven and eternal – having no beginning or end – in Chapter 8 of John. He claimed to be equal with God in Chapter 10. He claimed he was the complete revelation of God and the way to God in Chapter 14. He claimed to be more than just a prophet. He claimed to be both God and the Son of God in some unearthly relationship that we can’t entirely understand.
I think we have three conclusions that we can come to about who Jesus was. The first is that Jesus’ claims are true and he is both God and a great teacher. The second is that Jesus was a religious-demagogue, who set out to control people for his own personal gain and failed. However, this isn’t remotely in line with his teachings and life. He never seemed to seek to please those who could have made him more popular – nor did he seek any personal gain whatsoever. Finally, he could have been a nut case believing himself to be God, but in reality just being one of us. His closest friends (and one of them was a doctor) never give us any hint of this possibility. And all but one of them were tortured and died for their faith in Christ.
I believe Jesus was God. But in honesty, my belief doesn’t come from reasoning it out. It comes from experiencing Christ in my everyday life.
My ancient friend from India told me once that every morning he goes into a quiet room in his house, lights a candle, and prays. He said this time of being in the presence of Jesus is more real to him than what the rest of the world considers reality. He experiences God every day. And he has named the God he prays to: Jesus.
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.