Last snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #11

Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper with his disciples reveals something of this point of view. “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do,” Jesus prayed, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Before the world began! Like an old man reminiscing— no, like an ageless God reminiscing— Jesus, who sat in a stuffy room in Jerusalem, was letting his mind wander back to a time before the Milky Way and Andromeda. On an earthly night dark with fear and menace, Jesus was making preparations to return home, to assume again the glory he had set aside.

All along he had planned to depart in order to carry on his work in other bodies. Their bodies. Our bodies. The new body of Christ.

Jesus left few traces of himself on earth. He wrote no books or even pamphlets. A wanderer, he left no home or even belongings that could be enshrined in a museum. He did not marry, settle down, and begin a dynasty. We would, in fact, know nothing about him except for the traces he left in human beings.

Would it be too much to say that, ever since the Ascension, Jesus has sought other bodies in which to begin again the life he lived on earth? The church serves as an extension of the Incarnation, God’s primary way of establishing presence in the world.

I find it much easier to accept the fact of God incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church — and in me.

A believer prays, and heaven responds; a sinner repents, and the angels rejoice; a mission succeeds, and Satan falls like lightning; a believer rebels, and the Holy Spirit is grieved. What we humans do here decisively affects the cosmos. I believe these things, and yet somehow I keep “forgetting” them. I forget that my prayers matter to God. I forget that I am helping my neighbors to their eternal destinations. I forget that the choices I make today bring delight— or grief— to the Lord of the Universe.

Jesus knew that the world he left behind would include the poor, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick. The decrepit state of the world did not surprise him. He made plans to cope with it: a long-range plan and a short-range plan. The long-range plan involves his return, in power and great glory, to straighten out planet earth. The short-range plan means turning it over to the ones who will ultimately usher in the liberation of the cosmos. He ascended so that we would take his place. “Where is God when it hurts?” I have often asked. The answer is another question, “Where is the church when it hurts?”

I remind myself that the apostle Paul’s soaring words about the bride of Christ and the temple of God were addressed to groups of hideously flawed individuals in places like Corinth.

To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs …

If I cannot show love to such people, then I must question whether I have truly understood Jesus’ gospel.

A political movement by nature draws lines, makes distinctions, pronounces judgment; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across lines, transcends distinctions, and dispenses grace.

We in the church, Jesus’ successors, are left with the task of displaying the signs of the kingdom of God, and the watching world will judge the merits of the kingdom by us. We live in a transition time— a transition from death to life, from human injustice to divine justice, from the old to the new— tragically incomplete yet marked here and there, now and then, with clues of what God will someday achieve in perfection. The reign of God is breaking into the world, and we can be its heralds.

Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #10

That Jesus succeeded in changing a snuffling band of unreliable followers into fearless evangelists, that eleven men who had deserted him at death now went to martyrs’ graves avowing their faith in a resurrected Christ, that these few witnesses managed to set loose a force that would overcome violent opposition first in Jerusalem and then in Rome— this remarkable sequence of transformation offers the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection. What else explains the whiplash change in men known for their cowardice and instability?

One detail in the Easter stories has always intrigued me: Why did Jesus keep the scars from his crucifixion? Presumably he could have had any resurrected body he wanted, and yet he chose one identifiable mainly by scars that could be seen and touched. Why?

I believe the story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. When human beings fantasize, we dream of pearly straight teeth and wrinkle-free skin and sexy ideal shapes. We dream of an unnatural state: the perfect body. But for Jesus, being confined in a skeleton and human skin was the unnatural state. The scars are, to him, an emblem of life on our planet, a permanent reminder of those days of confinement and suffering.

I take hope in Jesus’ scars. From the perspective of heaven, they represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe.

Easter makes him dangerous. Because of Easter I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings. Moreover, Easter means he must be loose out there somewhere. Like the disciples, I never know where Jesus might turn up, how he might speak to me, what he might ask of me. As Frederick Buechner says, Easter means “we can never nail him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail him to is a cross.”

Killing Jesus, says Walter Wink, was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.

If Easter Sunday was the most exciting day of the disciples’ lives, for Jesus it was probably the day of Ascension. He the Creator, who had descended so far and given up so much, was now heading home.

More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #9

A conspiracy also would have tidied up the first witnesses’ stories. Were there two white-clad figures or just one? Why did Mary Magdalene mistake Jesus for a gardener? Was she alone or with Salome and another Mary? Accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb sound breathless and fragmentary. The women were “afraid yet filled with joy,” says Matthew; “trembling and bewildered,”  says Mark. Jesus makes no dramatic, well-orchestrated entrance to quell all doubts; the early reports seem wispy, mysterious, confused. Surely conspirators could have done a neater job of depicting what they would later claim to be the hinge event of history.

In short, the Gospels do not present the resurrection of Jesus in the manner of apologetics, with arguments arranged to prove each main point, but rather as a shocking intrusion that no one was expecting, least of all Jesus’ timorous disciples. The first witnesses reacted as any of us would react— as I would react if I answered the doorbell and suddenly saw my friend Bob standing on my front porch: with fear and great joy. Fear is the reflexive human response to an encounter with the supernatural.

There actually was a conspiracy, of course, one set in motion not by Jesus’ disciples but by the authorities who had to deal with the embarrassing fact of the empty tomb. They could have put a stop to all the wild rumors about a resurrection merely by pointing to a sealed tomb or producing a body. But the seal was broken and the body missing, hence the need for an official plot. Even as the women ran to report their discovery, soldiers were rehearsing an alibi, their role in the scheme of damage-control.

Soldiers standing guard outside Jesus’ tomb were the only eyewitnesses of the greatest miracle in history. Matthew says that when the earth quaked and an angel appeared, bright as lightning, they shook and became like dead men.* But here is an astounding fact: later that afternoon the soldiers who had seen proof of the resurrection with their own eyes changed their story to a lie, parroting the priests’ line that “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.”

Author Frederick Buechner is struck by the unglamorous quality of Jesus’ appearances after resurrection Sunday. There were no angels in the sky singing choruses, no kings from afar bearing gifts. Jesus showed up in the most ordinary circumstances: a private dinner, two men walking along a road, a woman weeping in a garden, some fishermen working a lake.

I see in the appearances a whimsical quality, as if Jesus is enjoying the bird-like freedom of his resurrection body. Luke, for example, gives a touching account of Jesus’ sudden arrival alongside two forlorn followers on a road to Emmaus. They know about the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, and Peter’s eyewitness confirmation. But who can believe such rumors? Is not death by definition irreversible? “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” one of them says with obvious disappointment.

A short time later, at mealtime, the stranger makes a riveting gesture, breaking bread, and a link snaps into pace. It is Jesus who has been walking beside them and now sits at their table! Most strangely, the instant they recognize their guest, he disappears.

When the two rush back to Jerusalem, they find the Eleven meeting behind locked doors. They spill out their incredible story, which corroborates what Peter has already learned: Jesus is out there somewhere, alive. Without warning, even as the doubters argue the point, Jesus himself shows up in their midst. I am no ghost, he declares. Touch my scars. It is I myself! Even then the doubts persist, until Jesus volunteers to eat a piece of broiled fish. Ghosts don’t eat fish; a mirage cannot cause food to disappear.

The appearances, approximately a dozen, show a definite pattern: Jesus visited small groups of people in a remote area or closeted indoors. Although these private rendezvous bolstered the faith of those who already believed in Jesus, as far as we know not a single unbeliever saw Jesus after his death.

In the six-week interlude between Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus, if one may use such language, “broke his own rules” about faith. He made his identity so obvious that no disciple could ever deny him again (and none did). In a word, Jesus overwhelmed the witnesses’ faith: anyone who saw the resurrected Jesus lost the freedom of choice to believe or disbelieve. Jesus was now irrefutable. Even Jesus’ brother James, always a holdout, capitulated after one of the appearances— enough so that he became a leader of the church in Jerusalem and, according to Josephus, died as one of the early Christian martyrs.

More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #8

No theologian can adequately explain the nature of what took place within the Trinity on that day at Calvary. All we have is a cry of pain from a child who felt forsaken. Did it help that Jesus had anticipated that his mission on earth would include such a death? Did it help Isaac to know his father Abraham was just following orders when he tied him to the altar? What if no angel had appeared and Abraham had plunged a knife into the heart of his son, his only son, whom he loved? What then? That is what happened on Calvary, and to the Son it felt like abandonment.

It took time for the church to come to terms with the ignominy of the cross. Church fathers forbade its depiction in art until the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine, who had seen a vision of the cross and who also banned it as a method of execution. Thus not until the fourth century did the cross become a symbol of the faith. (As C. S. Lewis points out, the crucifixion did not become common in art until all who had seen a real one died off.)

People who discount the resurrection of Jesus tend to portray the disciples in one of two ways: either as gullible rubes with a weakness for ghost stories, or as shrewd conspirators who conceived a resurrection plot as a way to jump-start their new religion. The Bible paints a distinctly different picture.

As for the first theory, the Gospels portray Jesus’ followers themselves as the ones most leery of rumors about a risen Jesus. One disciple especially, “doubting Thomas,” has gained the reputation as a skeptic, but in truth all the disciples showed a lack of faith. None of them believed the wild report the women brought back from the empty tomb; “nonsense” they called it. Even after Jesus appeared to them in person, says Matthew, “some doubted.” The eleven, whom Jesus had to rebuke for a stubborn refusal to believe, can hardly be called gullible.

The Gospels show the disciples cringing in locked rooms, terrified that the same thing that happened to Jesus might happen to them. Too afraid even to attend Jesus’ burial, they left it to a couple of women to care for his body. (Ironically, for Jesus had fought Sabbath restrictions against works of mercy, the dutiful women waited until Sunday morning to finish the embalming process.) The disciples seemed utterly incapable of faking a resurrection or risking their lives by stealing a body; nor did it occur to them in their state of despair.

According to all four Gospels, women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, a fact that no conspirator in the first century would have invented. Jewish courts did not even accept the testimony of female witnesses. A deliberate cover-up would have put Peter or John or, better yet, Nicodemus in the spotlight, not built its case around reports from women.

More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – #7

I know of no more poignant contrast between two human destinies than that of Peter and Judas. Both assumed leadership within the group of Jesus’ disciples. Both saw and heard wondrous things. Both went through the same dithery cycle of hope, fear, and disillusionment. As the stakes increased, both denied their Master. There, the similarity breaks off. Judas, remorseful but apparently unrepentant, accepted the logical consequences of his deed, took his own life, and went down as the greatest traitor in history. He died unwilling to receive what Jesus had come to offer him. Peter, humiliated but still open to Jesus’ message of grace and forgiveness, went on to lead a revival in Jerusalem and did not stop until he had reached Rome.

Only Pilate could get any kind of confession out of him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. Once again Jesus, hands tied behind his back, face puffy with sleeplessness, soldiers’ palm prints impressed on his cheeks, replied simply, “Yes, it is as you say.”

Many times before, Jesus had turned down the chance to declare himself. When healed people, disciples, and even demons recognized him as Messiah, he had hushed them up. In the days of popularity, when crowds chased him around the lake like fanatics pursuing a celebrity, he had fled. When these fans caught him, eager to coronate him on the spot, he preached a sermon so troublesome that all but a few turned away.

Only on this day, first before the religious establishment and then before the political, only when his claims would seem the height of absurdity, did he admit to who he was.“

Weak, rejected, doomed, utterly alone— only then did Jesus think it safe to reveal himself and accept the title “Christ.” As Karl Barth comments, “He does not confess his Messiahship until the moment when the danger of founding a religion is finally past.”

I have marveled at, and sometimes openly questioned, the self-restraint God has shown throughout history, allowing the Genghis Khans and the Hitlers and the Stalins to have their way. But nothing— nothing— compares to the self-restraint shown that dark Friday in Jerusalem. With every lash of the whip, every fibrous crunch of fist against flesh, Jesus must have mentally replayed the Temptation in the wilderness and in Gethsemane. Legions of angels awaited his command. One word, and the ordeal would end.

More snippets from The Jesus I Never Knew by Yancey – 5

There is only one way for any of us to resolve the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves: to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to. We are judged by the righteousness of the Christ who lives within, not our own.

Absolute ideals and absolute grace: after learning that dual message from Russian novelists, I returned to Jesus and found that it suffuses his teaching throughout the Gospels and especially in the Sermon on the Mount. In his response to the rich young ruler, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in his comments about divorce, money, or any other moral issue, Jesus never lowered God’s Ideal. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he said. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Not Tolstoy, not Francis of Assisi, not Mother Teresa, not anyone has completely fulfilled those commands.

Yet the same Jesus tenderly offered absolute grace. Jesus forgave an adulteress, a thief on the cross, a disciple who had denied ever knowing him. He tapped that traitorous disciple, Peter, to found his church and for the next advance turned to a man named Saul, who had made his mark persecuting Christians. Grace is absolute, inflexible, all-encompassing. It extends even to the people who nailed Jesus to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” were among the last words Jesus spoke on earth.

For years I had felt so unworthy before the absolute ideals of the Sermon on the Mount that I had missed in it any notion of grace. Once I understood the dual message, however, I went back and found that the message of grace gusts through the entire speech.

How could I have missed it? Jesus did not proclaim the Sermon on the Mount so that we would, Tolstoy-like, furrow our brows in despair over our failure to achieve perfection. He gave it to impart to us God’s Ideal toward which we should never stop striving, but also to show that none of us will ever reach that Ideal. The Sermon on the Mount forces us to recognize the great distance between God and us, and any attempt to reduce that distance by somehow moderating its demands misses the point altogether.

The worst tragedy would be to turn the Sermon on the Mount into another form of legalism; it should rather put an end to all legalism.

Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.

~ Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew

Yancey snippets #5

~  Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew

By any account, Jesus was a master teacher. Followers were drawn by the magnetic power of his words which, in poet John Berryman’s description, were “short, precise, terrible, and full of refreshment.” Jesus gave his most enduring lessons on the spot, in spontaneous response to questions. A woman had seven successive husbands: Whose wife will she be in the life to come? Is it lawful to pay taxes to pagan authorities? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? How can a man be born when he is old?

Jaroslav Pelikan tells of an old rabbi asked by his pupil, “Why is it that you rabbis so often put your teaching in the form of a question?” The rabbi shot back, “So what’s wrong with a question?” Very often Jesus too deflected the question back in Socratic style, pressing the seeker toward a crisis point. His answers cut to the heart of the question and to the hearts of his listeners. I doubt I would have left any encounter with Jesus feeling smug or self-satisfied.

I would have marveled at Jesus’ parables, a form that became his trademark. Writers ever since have admired his skill in communicating profound truth through such everyday stories. A scolding woman wears down the patience of a judge. A king plunges into an ill-planned war. A group of children quarrel in the street. A man is mugged and left for dead by robbers. A single woman who loses a penny acts as if she has lost everything. There are no fanciful creatures and sinuous plots in Jesus’ parables; he simply describes the life around him.

A. N. Wilson, a biographer of Tolstoy, remarks that Tolstoy suffered from a “fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather than of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.” With crystalline clarity Tolstoy could see his own inadequacy in the light of God’s Ideal. But he could not take the further step of trusting God’s grace to overcome that inadequacy.