It dawned on me suddenly one day as a six or seven-year-old Mennonite girl that I loved Jesus. It was a lack-luster moment, sitting quietly in the back seat of the car, as we meandered through the country roads near my Pennsylvania home. I was lost in my elementary school thoughts when a feeling rushed over me so suddenly and dramatically I hardly knew from where it had come. Desperately, I realized, I loved Jesus and wanted him as Lord. And so I tossed a simple prayer heavenward saying, “Come and be with me. I love you and I want to follow you.” And that was that.
I grew to know the stories of Jesus through illustrated Bibles, flannel-graph, and audio-tape/story book combos. They were simple. Jesus was loving and kind. He helped and healed people. He paid for my sins. And I loved him for it.
My love for Jesus has grown over the years, yet as an adult, the ‘I love Jesus’ proclamation sounds elementary. The power and meaning and goodness of the phrase is lost in a sort of naive sentimentality. But I say it anyway.
When I say “I love Jesus” it’s not because I have adopted an over-inflated heroic image of a person who cannot live up to my adoration. Instead, it’s because I’m learning to see Jesus not just as my Lord and friend, but as the one who lived in real-time in our world. I’m beginning to know Jesus not just as the flannel-graph man, but as the real historical figure, and the more I do, the more impassioned for him I become.
In a sermon at Wheaton College on June 29, 2010 entitled “Jesus and the People of God,” N.T. Wright speaks of this important transition in how we view Jesus saying,
“It’s not enough to know that Jesus is your savior, you must know who Jesus himself was and is. Otherwise, simply saying ‘he lives within my heart’ or ‘I have a sense that Jesus loves me’ or whatever can easily turn into mere fantasy. That has happened before, it will happen again unless it is earthed in the actuality of who Jesus is. How do you know it’s not a wish fulfillment? You may feel it very strongly, but lots of people feel all sorts lots of things very strongly. And in order to know you are not fooling yourself…you have to be able to say no, the Jesus of whom I am aware in my prayer, the Jesus I meet when I’m working with the poorest of the poor, the Jesus I recognize in the breaking of the bread – this Jesus is recognizably the one who walked and talked and lived and died and rose again in the first century.”
The better I get to know him, the more exciting a person Jesus becomes.
Wright goes on to explain how seminaries, churches, and other pastors had taught him for many years that examining the historical Jesus can be difficult, angering even, as it can challenge notions we have always had of him, notions we have perhaps held sacred. But challenge them we must, Wright says. The gospels are proclaiming to us a different Jesus than what we have been taught in our churches for many years, he asserts. And then he asks a terribly uncomfortable question.
What if Jesus is a different person than we once thought him?
What if the image of Jesus we have held to be sacred is, in fact, a misrepresentation, an idol itself, in place of the real historical Jesus presented in the gospels?
“One of the great German exegetes of the second half of the 20th century said we must do historical Jesus study even though it’s difficult…because when we weren’t doing it during the 20s and 30s what happened was that Hitler’s tame theologians were able to invent a Jesus figure in the image of the sort of ideology they wanted, a Jesus who was recognizably non-Jewish for a start, and who would legitimate the ideologies that people then wanted to espouse…Even though this is going to be tough, we’ve got to do the history [of Jesus], otherwise the church is all too easily capable of being deeply deceived. Look where it’s got us by not doing that history. As John Calvin said, ‘the human mind is a perpetual factory of idols.’ Among the idols we can make all too easily are idols that we give the name Jesus to but in fact are not the real Jesus. How are you going to prevent that happening?”
How indeed am I going to prevent that from happening?
The only solution is to know him more and better.
We cannot know Jesus intellectually only, spiritually only, emotionally only, or even Biblically only. We must know him for who he was, as both man and God. This is the never-ending quest. This is what it means to be a true disciple, a follower not just of the flannel-graph Jesus, but of the actual real man who walked our dusty middle-eastern roads.
I hope to God that I am discovering each day a closer, more accurate picture of who Jesus actually is and was. I have found that as I learn more about him each day, I grow to love him more, not with the simplicity of childhood, but with the depth of Old Testament and New Testament overlapping and colliding with one another in the Kingdom of God coming to earth through the incarnated Yahweh. He was among the most unorthodox of people, a man I find to simultaneously intrigue, inspire, and infuriate me. If that’s not love, I’m not sure what is.
I love him. I do.
And the Lenten season seems to be an appropriate time to reflect on why it is that this real historical Jesus is worthy of our love.
- I love Jesus because he is the image of a God who became personal with us. God Almighty, Yahweh, come to earth, come to us, come to me. Familiar with the confines of our humanity, treading our dirt, and limiting himself so that we might know him and be known by him, he came. I love him for it.
- I love Jesus because He is wild and passionate, zealous and out of line, unpredictable, defender of the defenseless, lover of the unlovable, friend of the most unlikely folks to receive anyone’s friendship.
- I love Jesus because He was courageous in his moments of fear, believing unyieldingly in the character of the God who was both His Father, and his own true self.
- I love Jesus because he was smart and witty and he spoke with power. He was a master story-teller and analogist. He made simple the things that we religiously complex people want to complicate and highlighted those things and people we seem to want to ignore.
- I love Jesus because He loved the Scriptures. He understood God with clarity and insight and intimacy, and he taught us. At least, he tried.
- I love Jesus because he was the softest to the most abused, and the harshest with the most abusive.
- I love Jesus because he defied the meaningless and empty customs of his day in exchange for redemptive relationship, boundless mercy, and hospitality to strangers.
- I love Jesus because he took on both my brokenness, and the brokenness inflicted on me, so that none of us have to be broken anymore.
- I love Jesus because he is the fulfillment of all things promised. His life means I can live mine in deep intimate relationship with God, his death means I can stay forever with him, and his resurrection means that there is nothing that can finally defeat me when I am with Him.
- I love Jesus because he is good, and kind, and honest, and true.
- I love Jesus because he came into the world full of both mercy and truth, and he knew when to dole out each of them.
- I love Jesus because he served us.
- I love Jesus because he shepherds me.
- I love Jesus because he washed his betrayer’s feet, walked with those who abandoned him, even to the last hour, and forgave the ones who nailed him on the cross, even as he hung there dying. His love was fierce, his forgiveness unbreakable, his goodness able to shatter all the bad in the world.
- I love Jesus because he freed me.
- I love Jesus because he understands suffering, pain, brokenness, betrayal, abandonment, shame, sorrow, loneliness, terrible accusations, burnout, disappointment, being misunderstood, disillusionment, frustration, grief, and heartbreak. I love Jesus because he could go through all of that and somehow still be tender, even to the worst of people.
I am hopelessly, deeply, consumed with love for this Jesus, both the flannel-graph one and the historical one. And, like a lover longs to know her beloved, I am overwhelmed with zeal to discover him more.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
- What do you make of the historical Jesus?
- Is he the same man you grew to know on the flannel-graphs or from well-meaning Christians who told you his stories?
- What are the reasons you love Jesus?
- And what are the books that have made you love him more?