The Intensity of His Walk

What does it mean to follow Jesus? This question is at the heart of Christian discipleship and yet there’s no simple answer. Following Jesus presumes knowledge of where he has gone before us. However, there is no single map by which we can track his footsteps. The Gospel stories—written decades after the person of Jesus walked the earth—read like travel diaries of explorers arguing for their preferred path over the same mountain based on a collection of rumors and reports of a man named Jesus who once made the journey. And they differ and conflict in their accounts of where Jesus went or why he took the trip in the first place.

Traditionally, these differences and discrepancies have been overlooked and the narratives themselves merged into a cleaner, more linear route toward faith as almost any Nativity pageant can attest. But even the most beloved signposts on this popular Christian path can mislead earnest followers who believe, for example, that Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” instructs them to choose the path of passivity and meekness in the face of injustice; a path that results from a grave misreading of Matthew 5:39-41, which, as Walter Wink effectively argues, subversively instructs followers of Jesus to take up the trickier path of non-violent resistance.1

Thus, seeking a deeper understanding of the historical context and development of the Gospels may assist us in our search for the path(s) Jesus took by a kind of process of elimination. In the instance above, it is unlikely that Jesus’ teachings would have caused the offense they did to the religious and political powers of the day—an offense that resulted in his state-sponsored execution—if he had simply been telling his followers “to grin and bear it.” At the same time, navigating the endless stream of commentary and analysis on the historical Jesus may yield more information about us as readers of the Gospels than it will about Jesus himself. As Richard Smoley, a scholar of Christian esotericism, writes:

There is no way of really determining how much of what the Gospels say about him really happened and how much was legend. Consequently, Jesus has become a Rorschach blot. We do not have to read many books about him to realize that that authors are telling us far more about themselves and their own interests than about the carpenter of Nazareth. Jefferson saw him as the exponent of a rational system of ethics; Morton Smith, as a folk magician; Albert Schweitzer, as a street-corner prophet of doom; and in a 1920s best-seller entitled The Man Nobody Knows, an ad man named Bruce Barton even portrayed Jesus as the 'greatest salesman of all time.' Probably it was always so. 'Tell me what I am like,' Jesus asks Peter, Matthew, and Thomas in The Gospel of Thomas. Peter says he is like a righteous angel; Matthew, that he is like a wise philosopher. Thomas says, 'Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.' Jesus replies, 'I am not your master, Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.'2

Who we say Jesus is often reveals more about who we want or need him to be. And yet, the mystery and beauty of Jesus is that he eludes all of our attempts to explain, define, and defend who he is. No one can corner the market on having Jesus for themselves. When we approach “the bubbling spring” through prayer or contemplation we can drink from its source, watch our expectations and beliefs dissolve in its depths, and let it wash over our hearts and minds. But we can no more capture Jesus than a child trying to catch water from a garden hose with their hands.

As I examine my own fluidly changing relationship to him, I see how the Jesus I have known has all too often mirrored my own location in life. As a child, he appeared remarkably similar to my parents—in appearance and mannerisms, he was deeply loving and keenly aware of my behavior, capable of feeling “disappointment” when I did not follow his example, and was always ready to embrace me when I said “I’m sorry.” In late adolescence, I went through a period of “Jesus as my boyfriend,” where I yearned and sought after his affection with the fervency of any young love and experienced heartbreak and self-loathing when he did not feel to me the way he always had.

Those were the days of tearful altar calls, summer camp spiritual highs, and a blissful ignorance of having any future apart from his very soon return to me. During those young adult years, my spiritual life resembled my first attempts at learning to drive a stick shift—lurching forward, trying not to stall, tending toward accidental but dramatic peel outs.

In seminary, however, my picture of Jesus became more complex—suddenly there was a gallery of portraits to choose from. I adopted terms into my vocabulary like “the historical Jesus” and “the Christ of faith.” But no longer able to trust what I had been taught about Jesus, I found a critical distance emerging in my relationship to him and my relationship to the sources of my faith to that point—especially the Church. It was a painful period of separation—one that included intense feelings of betrayal, anger, sadness, and fear—but it was also a time of liberation and, in retrospect, healing as I let go of the map of faith I had been given and began a long period of wandering and exploration.

At each of these stages, I believed in my heart that I was “following” Jesus—or later, the God of Jesus—by responding in good faith to the information I had. But when the information changed or when an experience of life challenged the validity of that information, I had to respond anew. For example, in the early days of seminary when I first heard about the Jesus Seminar, I scoffed at the idea of scholars coming together to “decide” what the historical Jesus had said or done, assuming such an endeavor to be the unfortunate outcome of people of faith getting too much education for their own good.

Seven years later, I re-read Marcus Borg’s own Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and was, where I had not been before, deeply moved by the sincerity of his own journey, his own evolving relationship to and reverence for Jesus, and, ultimately, his profound experience of God’s very real, transformative presence in our world.3 I was humbled to read his spiritual autobiography as I now saw how his story was reflected the journeys of so many others—including mine—and as I remembered how many judgments—mostly uninformed—I had once carried about him and how those judgments had apparently prevented me from seeing the truth and beauty present in his spiritual journey.

The commitment to “follow” Jesus, then, can become oppressive if it means that we bind ourselves to an idea of Jesus or God or the world that we refuse to let change or let go of even when our lives are telling us we must.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I do my best to help people connect to their sources of sacred rest and meaning at the end of their lives regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs and affiliations. I see this as evidence of spiritual and personal growth as I remember all too well how I did not always have space in my heart for other spiritual paths. So I accept that I have entered yet another stage in my own spiritual journey, one that is full of curiosity and wonder at the many faces and many mysteries of God.

Notes and References

1. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 98-103. 2. Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.), 122. 3. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 3-15.

Heather Isaacs Royce writes from California’s Napa Valley, where she works as a hospice chaplain.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/609
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