On the road to one of the villages in the Golan Heights, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Several explanations were offered then, and different answers are being given today. Jesus’ response to the disciples holds true today, as well: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29) On this Easter weekend, it’s worth considering our answer once again.
Let’s begin with the basics. Jesus was a true historic figure and not some fictional character of third-century churchmen. Jesus is better verified by historic cross-reference than, for example, Socrates, and many other historic figures. So we know that Jesus was a man.
At this point, faith comes into play. Traditional Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, born through Mary without the participation of human sperm. Other Christians believe that Jesus’ son-ship came not at conception, but when, as an adult, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. John testified that he “saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.” (John 1:32)
What you believe about the nature of Jesus determines what seems most important to you about Jesus’ time on Earth. If you see Jesus simply as a gifted teacher, then his teachings of lovingkindness, as preserved in the Gospels, will best define him for you. But if he was the son of God, then his death at our hand, coupled with his forgiving statement from the cross — “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), is the blessing that preserves us.
Can we determine which is the truer picture of Jesus? Yes, but only by a personal initiation into the mystery. Jesus had to be wholly man, otherwise his temptation by worldly power would have been meaningless. If Jesus had come as Superman, neither his temptation at the beginning of his ministry, nor his agony in the garden, nor his resolution to die at our hand to save our souls would have contained the power of its possibility. The God part of the son of God is seen in the Resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday, which will be verified in Christ’s return to save us from destroying ourselves.
Until now it has been the duty of the Christian church to teach Jesus’ story to each generation. Some do it by sermonizing on the Bible, others by re-enacting it through the sacraments of bread and wine. At the Union Street Brick Church, we just performed, for the 10th year, a theatrical telling of the Passion of the Christ. But the age of the churches may be coming to its end. With the politicization of faith in some churches, and the greed and sexual corruption of clergy in others, the message of God’s love is being lost. The self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees Jesus confronted in his day is happening again.
Fortunately there is another way to know the mystery of Jesus’ gift. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, a variety of spiritual insights have demonstrated over time that heaven and its residents are close at hand. As Jesus taught, “the kingdom of God is within you and among you” (Luke 17:21).
From Jesus’ Resurrection, when he appeared to many, to the visions of saints, mystics and yes, even ordinary people, communication between God and us happens every day. It can take place in great public appearances, such as the miracles at Fatima, Garabandal or Medjugorje, or in personal mystical experiences such as near-death experiences, or NDEs, where the soul leaves the body and travels into the light, only to be told it’s not yet one’s time to die. A Gallup poll has estimated that 5 percent of Americans (more than 15 million people) have experienced NDEs. That’s 15 million potential “preachers” God has gifted with a vision of the truth.
Such experiences not only confirm the immortality of our souls, they also confirm the availability of spiritual guidance through our life’s struggles. If only we would listen.
Traditional Christians have always believed that this world, this beautiful gift from God, has been corrupted by evil — and with it, our understanding of reality. Blame Satan if you want, but mankind’s greed has poisoned our relationships with God, the Earth and one another. When God saw our failure was irrevocable, he sent Jesus to take the sins of the world on his shoulders, because the cross was too heavy for us to bear. On whatever level we come to Jesus, we should at least acknowledge that fact.
But it’s still not working. Environmental destruction is about to overtake us; the dire predictions of Revelation are being fulfilled by our own hand. Now the great Abrahamic faiths — Jews, Christians and Muslims — look to God to send a Messiah to save us from ourselves. Christians are betting it will be the return of Jesus, and they are praying his anger will be tempered with love — that once again he will tell his father, “Forgive them, for they still do not know what they are doing.”
It is both our blessing and our curse that Jesus’ birth, death and Resurrection have made “not knowing” a weak excuse indeed. My best wishes for a joyous Easter!
The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.