Theology, Thoughts & Coffee

Sundays, 8 a.m., Zoom

We are reading Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence by Diana Butler Bass. All are welcome to join in the conversation as we discuss this timely and important book.

For Zoom information, contact Dr. John Franke.

Reading and Class Schedule

Introduction: Liberate Jesus

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Who do you say that I am?
–Matthew 16:15

Diana opens by telling the story of hearing Jesus say to her “Get me out of here” while kneeling at the altar during a worship service at the Washington National Cathedral.

“Jesus spoke to me almost a decade ago. It was not completely unusual, as I have heard whispers from the sacred in prayer, walking along the beach, in the wind, or while meditating. Having God or the universe or my own inner voice speak to me in such ways is really no big deal. Until that day at the cathedral, however, I had never heard as out-loud, clear God-voice arising from something other than my own spiritual intuitions, especially one issuing a completely unexpected directive like, ‘Get me out of here’… Truthfully, I did not know how to respond.”

“During the intervening years, millions of Americans have left the church behind, probably many more have left emotionally, and countless others are wondering if they should. One of the most consistent things I hear from those who have left, those doubting their faith, and those just hanging on is that church or Christianity has failed them, wounded them, betrayed them, or maybe just bored them—and they do not want to have much to do with it any longer.”

It is common to hear people say, “I’ve left the church, but I still want to follow Jesus.”

“Ecclesiastically approved theology will not let you separate Jesus from the church. But the millions of those who have done so beg to differ. They are more than content to have fled institutional Christianity, deconstructing their faith and disrupting conventional notions of church. Even while exiting the building, however, some of these religious refugees seem to have heard that same voice I did at the altar, ‘Get me out of here,’ and are trying to free Jesus that he might roam in the world with them.”

There are also, of course, those who continue to stay and work within the church who hear Jesus pleading to be freed from many of the social and cultural restraints often placed on him and his teachings.

The sense that somehow, weather inside the church or out, the person and message of Jesus have become captive to forces that are at odds with what he had to say has become a commonplace in contemporary North American Christianity. From this perspective Jesus needs to be released from this ecclesial and cultural captivity. But what does it really mean to set Jesus free?

The discussions and debates between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith have shaped the conversation about Jesus since the nineteenth century.

“Understanding the Jesus of history has proved helpful (and even life-giving) for me; and I appreciate the theological traditions surrounding the Christ of faith. Yet neither historical scholarship nor conventional doctrine quite captures who Jesus is for me—the skepticism bred by one and the submissiveness inculcated by the other do not fully tell the story of the Jesus I know: the Jesus of experience.

Well before I studied Jesus the Jewish peasant or worshipped Christ the King, I knew Jesus. Even as a small child, I knew his name. I had a sense of his companionship. I know he was the heart of Christian faith. Although I now understand both history and theology, neither intellectual arguments nor ecclesial authority elucidates the Jesus I have known.”

“I love sharing stories; and I love listening to others’ stories. There is a way—maybe even the way—we can live together in this diverse and divided world—learning from each other’s stories. Even stories of Jesus. My story can never be your story…But my story might inform yours, or be like yours, or maybe even add depth or another dimension to yours. If nothing else, sharing our stories might lead to greater understanding, tolerance, appreciation, and perhaps even celebration of our differences.”

“This is not a story about a fundamentalist, liberal, orthodox, unconventional, demythologized, or liberationist Jesus (even though some of those Jesuses show up in this tale). Instead, this is a story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when least expected.

“Your six Jesuses may be different, or they may be the same but in a different order. Perhaps you have known eight or ten Jesuses. Or maybe you have known only one and are looking to know that Jesus more deeply or anew. Whatever the case, you are welcome here—to this story of Jesus, a rediscovery of the Jesus who is liberated from constraint and whose company releases the possibility of peace, healing, and compassion in our lives and for our world.”

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of Diana’s story about hearing Jesus say “Get me out of here” at the altar of the Washington National Cathedral? Does it resonate with your own experience? Why or why not?
  • What is your reaction to those who say, I’ve left the church, but I still want to follow Jesus? Does this make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • How do you understand the differences between the Jesus of history, the Christ of faith, and the Jesus of experience? Do these differences matter to you in your own experience?
  • Who is Jesus for you? What Jesuses have you known? What is the Jesus story you have to tell?
  • What did you learn?

Chapter 1: Friend

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The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)

“Miss Jean, my favorite Sunday school teacher, held up a picture of Jesus surrounded by children. He seemed to be laughing, and boys and girls were sitting next to him or on his lap and hanging around his neck…’Jesus loves little children…He will always be your friend.’”

Jesus loves me,this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

“That song was the first theology I learned. Jesus loved children, and he was a loyal friend, one who protected those he loved. We sand that song in Sunday school and at bedtime. I sometimes sang it in the bath or while walking to school. ‘Jesus Loves Me’ was the soundtrack of my early life.”

While “friend” seems like a simple and noncontroversial way of understanding Jesus, it is often ridiculed not only by those outside the church and also some inside the church as well. “I have heard famous preachers and theologians explicitly attack the idea of Jesus as friend as juvenile and instead argue for a more ‘mature’ Jesus.”

However, the Bible makes it clear that friendship with God is a great gift. Two of Israel’s greatest heroes, Abraham and Moses are specifically called friends of God. This phrase occurs not only with the giants of Israel like Abraham and Moses but throughout the Hebrew Bible. “Friendship with God is not a biblical side story; rather it is central to the promises and faithfulness of being a called people, in which we are friends, companions, intimates, siblings, and beloved.”

“Early Christians, most of whom were Jews, knew all this and extended the idea of divine friendship to Jesus. The New Testament vividly recounts the closeness of Jesus’s circle of friends, women and men transformed through their relationship with him.”

“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

“Imagine how Jesus close followers felt when they heard those words for the first time…They had come to suspect their companion was something more than a regular friend—a great rabbi, a spiritual healer, a mystical prophet, the Son of God. That last one made no intellectual or doctrinal sense to them. They were Jews, and there was only one God. Yet this friend of theirs knew and loved God more intimately and more uniquely than they had ever imagined possible.”

“Jesus brought them to the very heart of God and then revealed that God’s heart longed for friendship.” And “not just to special people of the past whose names were recorded in sacred memory, but to the ragged fishermen and curious women, sitting around him listening to his tales, trusting for the first time that the God of Israel had not forgotten them, souls broken under the weight of Roman oppression, suffering under imperial slavery. They were not slaves, not even servants. They were friends of Jesus, friends of God.”

“The story of the New Testament is that the risk of friendship is the risk that frees us from fear and reshapes our lives—it is better to go together than to go alone. Jesus befriends us, opening our hearts to genuine love and the capacity to forgive each other, welcome all, and act justly in the world.”

“Friendship makes us different from the person we would be if we were alone, and, I daresay, it makes Jesus different as well, for friendship is mutuality, shared vision, and affection. Some versions of Christianity insist that Jesus is immutable, but if Jesus invites us into friendship, how can that be?”

“Friendship is not just for friends. Friendship is for the good of the world.” True friendship has the power to change the world. Human beings joining together with God and each in true friendship unleashes the transformational energy of God’s cosmos that brings “freedom and equality for all in beloved community. The friendship of two changes little; the friendship of many changes everything. I have called you friends.

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea that Jesus is a friend? How do you understand this and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as your friend? Why or why not?
  • How do you understand friendship and what does it mean to you? What is the difference between an acquaintance and a friend? How has friendship impacted your life?
  • Studies consistently show that many adults have few or no true friends? Why do you think friendship is difficult for adults? What are the implications of this for our society?
  • What do you think of the Diana’s statement that friendship is not just for friends but for the good of the world? What does this mean to you? How can the act of friendship change the world?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?

Chapter 2: Teacher

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You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.
(John 13:13)

“Although Christians call Jesus by many names, those who knew him best mostly called him ‘teacher.’ Of the ninety or so times Jesus is addressed directly in the New Testament, roughly sixty refer to him as ‘teacher,’ ‘rabbi,’ ‘great one,’ or ‘master’ (as in the British sense of ‘schoolmaster’). In the gospels, the preponderance of action that occurs is Jesus teaching. He teaches at the Temple, on a hillside, by a lake, in a field, by a campfire, at a dinner table, while at a wedding, and in the center of the city. He teaches, individuals, his disciples, large crowds, small groups, his friends, and his foes.”

“Jesus was born teacher and a born-again one, and he was still teaching on the night before he was arrested and even while being tortured by the Romans. He lived and died a teacher.”

“The word typically translated ‘teacher’ was the title ‘rabbi’ or ‘rabbouni,’ a fairly new—and even revolutionary—term in the first century. The word ‘rabbi’ did not mean Jewish clergyperson, as it does today, nor did the title appear in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, it was just coming into use during Jesus’s time for one whose teachings bore spiritual authority—a sage, a storyteller, an insightful interpreter of the Law, or a particularly wise elder.”

According to Amy Jill-Levine and Marc Brettler, Jesus was the “earliest person in literature to bear the title ‘Rabbi.’” In her book, The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine reminds us that in the Christian tradition Jesus must “be more than just a really fine Jewish teacher. But he must be a Jewish teacher as well.”

“To be a rabbi in the first century was to be a teacher who was crafting a new approach to Hebrew texts, traditions, and interpretations. And, sadly, both Christians and Jews have forgotten how completely innovative and challenging Jesus was as a rabbi.”

Diana came to understand “that Jesus was indeed my rabbi. He had been for a long time. Follow his teachings—the rules and commands—listen to the stories, embrace the word, and live his wisdom. Rabbi Jesus shows the way.

The difference between the “rules” of the church and the “rules” of Jesus. Growing up Diana began to notice that the Methodist church rules weren’t the same as the rules articulated by Jesus and that the Methodist rules weren’t usually followed except one day a week. “I began to wonder if the same was true for Jesus’s rules about love and doing nice things for others. Did grown-ups keep rules in church and play by a different set the rest of the week. There wasn’t much following of the Methodist rules, and I began to notice that following Jesus’s rules was sort of rare too.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus places himself in the line of authoritative voices in the Hebrew tradition (such as Moses) and, as most of Jesus’s first hearers would have understood, restates the written Torah in the context of current situation. The Law of Moses was “aimed at an Israel whose people would prosper in their own land, and Jesus’s directed at an Israel whose people were oppressed by Rome in an occupied land.”

“As a teacher, Jesus is not contradicting Moses or demeaning other Jewish teachers. He is offering his interpretation of the law, teachings that surprised his followers with their originality and insight. To understand Jesus as a teacher in this sense—even if one does not consider him divine—is to remember that teachers, even those with great authority, teach within a long line of communal interpretation, something that Jesus himself would have known. Jesus does not replace. Jesus reimagines and expands, inviting an alternative and often innovative reading of Jewish tradition.”

Looking back it was pretty clear to Diana that the churches she attended were not fundamentalist and did not take the Bible literally. But, she also notes that “we did not really know who we were (other than something called ‘Methodists’) or how to engage questions about the Bible. Because of this lack of clarity, all the churches of my childhood reflected a more general understanding of the Bible as a book literally written by God and delivered from heaven to a surprised people below.”

“Understanding the Bible is key to understanding Jesus. The writings of the Hebrew Bible formed him as teacher, and the writings of the New Testament contain his teachings and the earliest Christian interpretations of those teachings.”

“Over the years I have wrestled with scripture…and settled into an understanding of the Bible as a collection of inspired and extraordinary texts that rehearse the spiritual experiences of two ancient faith communities—Jews and Christians—and all the tensions, conflicts, and struggles within and between them.”

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea that Jesus is a teacher? How do you understand this notion and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as your teacher? Why or why not?
  • Diana describes Jesus as teacher who was crafting a new approach to Hebrew texts, traditions, and interpretations; a teacher who was challenging and innovative. How does this compare to your understanding of a teacher?
  • What do you think it means to follow the rules and commands of Jesus? How do you do this and what difference does it make in your life? Do you find following the teachings of Jesus confusing or difficult?
  • Diana says that understanding the Bible key to understanding Jesus. What do you think of this idea? How do you understand the Bible and how does this shape your understanding of Jesus and your and relationship to him?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?

Chapter 3: Savior

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"Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Every night while growing up Diana recited this prayer with her mom: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep; If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” It was the one prayer her mom taught her. “A prayer of protection against death in the night and, if death should come, a prayer to go safely into the arms of Jesus.”

This prayer was, in many ways, deeply countercultural in a world consumed with chasing away the fears of death. “My parents seemed part of a generation molding a plastic future where nothing would ever grow old, decay, or die.” In the midst of this, impermanence managed to sneak in nevertheless. “The idea of the Lord taking my soul in sleep resulted in terrors of the night.” Diana was afraid of dying and cried out one night, “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!” In that night she was feeling the first pangs of mortality and crying out for comfort and certainty.

“The friendly Jesus of earliest memory and the instructive teacher Jesus who helped me understand the commands seemed absent in the dark. I wanted to believe that whatever this life was that I had been given, the consciousness I experienced, was more than a brief sojourn through time. I wanted to believe that life meant something. I wanted to be remembered. Not endless nothing. Anxiety surrounded me, forming nightmare clouds before sleep.”

It was in that context that she started to think about the two words that formed a glowing red cross on the neon sign that hung outside a storefront church on the edge of her neighborhood: Jesus Saves.

“Savior may well be the most ubiquitous term that Christians use to describe Jesus. This is especially true in Western Christianity, and among Protestant churches in particular, where the emphasis on Jesus as the One who saves us from sin and death is a primary focus of both preaching and piety…’Jesus saves’ is understood as the central and continued meaning of his work for both individual Christians and the life of the world.”

“Yet, oddly enough, ‘Savior’ appears only twice in the gospels to describe Jesus. One is at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, and the other is in John 4:42, where neighbors of the Samaritan woman proclaim, ‘This is truly the Savior of the world.’ Other titles, like ‘teacher’ and ‘rabbi,’ appear far more frequently…If, however, you ask random Christians who Jesus is, I am willing to bet the answer ‘Jesus is my Savior’ would be high on the list, and perhaps the top reply.”

When Diana moved to Arizona with her parents as a teenager, she attended a small independent church, Scottsdale Bible Church. It was there that she leaned about the intense focus on Jesus as Savior that has shaped the thought of so many North American Christians.

In this church and the circle of teens that became Diana’s friends, “Jesus was not a tender friend or a moral teacher. Instead, he was their Savior and the Savior of the world, who would reward them with heaven and punish all who did not believe in him. He died on the cross to cleanse them from sin, to take their place when God rightly judged them sinners. Jesus saved them from God’s eternal wrath. They trusted in him. They believed in him. The put their lives in his hands. And they would be with him forever in heaven, not consigned to eternal nothingness. Their faith burned as brightly as the neon cross back…in Baltimore: Jesus saves.”

This description is reflective of a particular theology of atonement, or a particular idea of how “Jesus saves.” Theologies of atonement try to answer the question of how we are reconciled with God, how we come into relationship with God through the cross of Jesus. The interesting thing about the Bible is that it contains several different motifs or metaphors of what has come to be called atonement theory. “Yet Protestant Christians, and even a good number of Catholics, are not aware of the multiplicity of images for atonement and are, instead, stuck in the single story of sacrifice. A strange vision of God lies under the story—that God is angry with humankind and must have that rage assuaged.”

Throughout the centuries of church history, Christians have employed different explanations and theories to explain what happened on the cross. For Diana, “Salvation is not really about heaven; it is not an escape. It is about living beyond fear, knowing that death comes for each of us, often in mundane and quiet ways.

Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century mystic wrote: “It is characteristic of God to overcome evil with good. Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother.” Diana concludes: “Jesus Christ, Savior, our true Mother.”

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea that Jesus is a savior? How do you understand this notion and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as your savior? Why or why not?
  • Are you familiar with the idea of sacrifice as the primary meaning of Jesus as savior? What do you think of this idea and its implications for human beings and the world?
  • Does it surprise you that the Christians have not arrived at a uniform understanding regarding the meaning Jesus as savior? Why or why not? What is your response to this situation?
  • What do you think about the idea that the Bible contains more than one way of understanding the meaning of Jesus as savior? Does this make sense to you? Are you familiar with other ideas or motifs? If so, which ones?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?

Chapter 4: Lord

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"Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them." (Luke 6:46-47)

In college, Diana reveled in the study of the Bible and theology, reading, thinking about, and discussing the ideas of the great thinkers in the history of the church like Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth and concepts like double predestination and realized eschatology.

“In the avalanche of words, someone in class remarked. ‘Jesus can’t just be your Savior; he must also be your Lord.’ I was riveted by the idea—Lord, Master of all, a God who cared about justice and peace and things that happened here on earth. Admittedly, the Jesus I had encountered as a teenager could manage to save people from sin and death, but maybe there was more. Maybe Jesus could save the world.”

Around 112 CE the Roman governor Pliny reported to the Emperor Trajan about a new religious sect called Christians. In his efforts to learn more about this group he tortured two female slaves who were called deaconesses and told Trajan that while he had not discovered much about this new group but had learned something of the faith of these women because of their confession, “Jesus is Lord.”

Historians refer to this “as an early creedal affirmation, but it was really more of a theological slogan. At its simplest level, the Greek term kyrios, meaning ‘lord’ or ‘master,’ quite literally meant the one who owns you…In a world where millions were held in slavery and millions of others lived in poverty and powerlessness at the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy, claiming Jesus as ‘Lord’ announced one’s liberation from oppression.”

“Jesus is Lord” made sense in an empire of slaves as submitting to his lordship amounted to spiritual freedom, especially in the new community called the church where apparently, female slaves held leadership positions and Roman social status was upended…Everything and everyone in the Roman Empire was, however, owned by master other that Jesus. The Roman Emperor had ultimate authority, power, and control over everything. “When slaves and women said that Jesus was Lord, they surely meant that Jesus was now their master, no matter the claims of earthly masters.”

However, because Rome claimed that Caesar was Lord of all, asserting that Jesus is Lord “also carried political connotations. Especially when those who professed ‘Jesus is Lord’ also refused to say ‘Caesar is Lord.’”

In other words, “Jesus is Lord” meant far more than “Jesus is my personal master,” it also meant that Caesar “is not my master.” Early Christians moved quickly from the spiritual freedoms they acquired by following Jesus to sedition and treason against the political order.”

In addition, “Lord” or Adonai in the Jewish context was used in place of the name for God, YHWH, in the Hebrew Bible since that was considered too sacred to utter aloud. In the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, kyrios was the translation of the Hebrew Adonai. In other words, “Lord” became a term used to identify the living God.

“Thus, ‘Lord’ had multiple meanings in the biblical world, meanings that were personal, political, and theological, and expanded as a term to include multiple ways in which believers experienced Jesus. Writers in the New Testament use kyrios more than seven hundred times to refer to Jesus—making the word seem so common that contemporary readers seem to take it for granted.” Yet kyrios was a startling word to describe an itinerant rabbi. It signifies one who “holds dominion over the lives and fates of those under his sway."

Jesus is Lord was “subversive and empowering, a form of submission one could choose in a world of otherwise little choice, a way of life that resulted in finding oneself by giving oneself totally and unreservedly to this crucified Jewish peasant kyrios.

With this background in place, the chapter goes on to develop and unpack several terms and ideas that are related to the idea that Jesus is Lord: Master, Ruler, God, the Mission of God, the Kin-dom of God, and the Orderly Lord. In each case Diana introduces some the common conceptions in traditional mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity in North American and expands on them, developing some of the ideas of scripture that are less emphasized by mainstream Christian culture.

The commitment to Jesus as Lord has raised numerous debates and controversies throughout the history of the church. What does it really mean to say that Jesus is the Lord of ones life? To truly follow his life and teaching regarding non-violence, the use of money, solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed, and the love of all people including our enemies.

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea that Jesus is Lord? How do you understand this notion and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as your Lord? Why or why not?
  • Are you familiar with the notion that the Lordship of Jesus was viewed as seditious by the Roman Empire and a challenge to its authority? What do you think of this and what are its implications in the present?
  • Does it surprise you that the Christians do not have common understandings and commitments concerning the Lordship of Jesus? Why or why not? What is your response to this situation?
  • Diana says that she was riveted hearing by the idea that “Jesus can’t just be your Savior; he must also be your Lord.” What do you think of this? Does this make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?

Chapter 5: Way

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I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)

“Throughout the New Testament, Jesus invites people to follow him. To walk with him, to go on a journey. There is nothing particularly new in this, as the Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of wanderers, pilgrims, exiles, and immigrants. And, of course, in the ancient world, teachers of all sorts…gathered followers, those who embraced the master’s message and put it into everyday practice. However, in the gospel of John, Jesus upped the theological ante. He not only taught a way of inviting the curious to follow him, but he said he was the way.”

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” What does this mean? Diana tells of the struggle to interpret these words more broadly in the face of the narrow interpretations that have come to dominant contemporary North American Christianity.

It is worth remembering that Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he said it, and his arrest death were imminent. In this context the real possibility existed that his disciples would be next since they had chosen to follow him. Perhaps he is assuring them that they had made the right choice in following him.

Jesus statement could perhaps at least be taken to mean that he is in charge of deciding who is on his way and who is not. If there is no other way to God, there is no other guide. Jesus alone is the arbiter of salvation in his name.

Diana tells the story of beginning to lose her way while attending seminary. She matriculated at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary outside of Boston. “In the 1980’s, the seminary was divided into two groups. One group was made up of those professors who were generously minded…supportive of women, and willing to engage new methods of biblical studies. The other group included those who were concerned with boundaries, purity, order, and orthodoxy, especially as interpreted through the theology of John Calvin. The first group was open to changes in American culture, wanting to ask new questions of the Bible and theology; the second group was increasingly worried that Western Christianity was being overly influenced by secularism and compromised by sin.” This is similar to the old school/new school debate that led to the formation of Second in 1838.

The chapter goes on to develop and unpack several terms and ideas that are related to the idea that Jesus is the way: is the way of Jesus a map or a maze; the idea that following the way of Jesus leads to a less-traveled road; the risks involved with in following the way of Jesus; the intellectual and moral wrestling involved; the way of love; and intention of liberation.

To say that Jesus is the way, means we should look to the life and teachings of Jesus to discover how God acts in the world. As the embodiment of God’s love and purposes in the world, Jesus lives out and exemplifies the way of God in the world. He was sent not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17) by telling not only teaching us about God but to demonstrate how God wants us to live.

And how does God want us to live? While sometimes complex, the short answer is to love: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). We learn about love by looking at Jesus and following his way of life.

Jesus is the living embodiment of God’s gracious character as the One who loves. This love is not an abstract notion or a set of feelings, but is rather characterized by the action of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Our understanding of love, the love of God, is shaped by the particular way in which God loves in and through Jesus.

We might say salvation from this perspective is exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique truth of the revelation of God in Jesus, but not in the sense of denying the reality of salvation to those outside of Christian faith; inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians; and pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not in the sense of denying the unique nature of what God has revealed in Jesus Christ.

“The way of Jesus is the way of love. It is also a labyrinth, a meandering but purposeful path, from the edge to the center and back again…Jesus is no interstate to glory, as I had thought in high school, college, and seminary. I had been so certain. Then I was not certain anymore. Everything fell to pieces. And then new life began, and love. The Jesus way is full of switchbacks, spirals, and unexpected turns; mystery, paradox, unknowing, unsaying. Whenever you think you are near the center, the path suddenly veers in a different direction and you find yourself again at the edge of the way. No wonder Jesus says, ‘follow me’ and “I am the way.’ But for a guide, you might never find a path, even if sometimes you are only following bread crumbs he left behind.”

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea that Jesus is the way? How do you understand this notion and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as your way? Why or why not?
  • Are you familiar with the broader understanding of John 14, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” developed by Diana? What do you think of this and what are its implications in the present?
  • Does it surprise you that the Christians have debated so fiercely about the meaning of Jesus as the way and divided over their differing conceptions? Why or why not? What is your response to this situation?
  • Diana says that while the way of Jesus is the way of love, it’s a labyrinth rather than an interstate. What do you think this means? Does this make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?

Chapter 6: Presence

Download chapter 6 notes.

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

“Early Christians had a hard time figuring out who Jesus was, especially those new Jesus followers who were Jews. ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (Deut. 6:4)) is a central vision of Judaism. There is no other God, no worship of idols. Yet Jesus’s first disciples, those Jews who embraced him as their teacher, struggled. Even though they believed he was the Messiah, they wondered how they could worship him. Only God could be venerated. Yet the young Christian community experienced Jesus in ways that seemed to make him equal to God. Did God exist as two, as Father and Son? If so, how?

“If this was not hard enough, an additional question emerged: What of the Spirit? When Jesus breathed on his friends and gifted then his Spirit? When the Spirit fell like fire from heaven? When the one called the ‘Comforter’ makes her presence known? Was God one? Two? Or three?”

“There were difficult questions for the early church, not easily answered, and they prompted nearly five hundred years of theological speculation before being distilled into a set of philosophical ideas that, at the very least, framed a doctrinal vision of who Jesus was. The formal answer of the church was that God existed as the Trinity, as three persons (from the Latin, a term that has caused great theological woe throughout the ages but nevertheless remains), who are distinct yet—at the same time—completely one. Jesus, the ‘second person of the Trinity,’ is fully human and fully divine.”

While Diana appreciates the historic creeds that teach these things and admires their capacity to shape liturgical ritual and stoke intellectual passion, she also wonders “why it is that words so treasured, ideas fought over to the point of death, somehow fail to communicate the lived experience of millions of Christians throughout these same ages. Every week, I recite words about Jesus that actually communicate nothing he taught, lack mention of his passionate love, avoid the fact that he welcomed and fed all sorts of sinners and outcasts, say nothing about the poor (whom Jesus spoke of all the time), leave out the Beatitudes, conveniently omit Jesus’s harsh words against Caesar, and studiously avoid the uncomfortable reality that he radically transformed the lives of those who followed him.”

“It is not so much that I disagree with the creeds or find their teachings intellectually difficult. I bear no ill will toward those ancient thinkers who tried to weave diverse strands of the biblical story together with their Greek and Roman culture to create a theology that made sense in their world; nor do I think it bad that they bequeathed that work to subsequent generations. Rather, I cannot believe how much they left out of the story—and how distant they seem from the life I and countless others have lived with Jesus.”

“But to experience Jesus is the work of divine activity; Jesus is known as the presence of God, made alive to us through the Spirit. God, Jesus, Spirit. You cannot really separate the threads, as much as philosophical theology differentiates. In nothing else, lived experience underscores the confusion felt by the early church. The first Christians experienced Jesus and the Spirit without reference to creedal certainty.”

“The Spirit empowers Jesus to be continually present in the world, and it must be admitted, the same Spirit has been fully at work since the creation, in the life of Israel, in the Word, and in the world. Indeed God’s Spirit conceives Jesus, initiates hid public ministry, and sustains his spiritual life. The Spirit is the driving force, the animating creative life of the entire cosmos, responsible, in particular, for the vision of those in human history most attuned to the heartbeat of God.”

“In the scriptures, the Spirit is called the ruach, pneuma, and the shekhinah, the ‘wind,’ the ‘breath,’ and the ‘dwelling.’” These three can helpfully be viewed as God’s enduring presence, wisdom, and power. These “are the heart of redemption, of experiencing the full life God intends for all…When Jesus is understood in relationship with Spirit as presence, wisdom, and power, we can experience Jesus as a dynamic figure, one related to God’s mysterious activity and one who dwells with us, always present.”

The chapter develops and unpacks several key scriptural and formative ideas and symbols associated with the Spirit of God that are connected to the presence of Jesus: birth, bowels, body, mother, quotidian (ordinary) Jesus, rock, and mystery.

“Jesus as mystery is, indeed, the Christian faith’s greatest spiritual enigma. A human being who is fully God? That is what Christianity proclaims—that beyond our wildest imaginings, the ever-creating Love of the cosmos made its way into our small, hurting world, living and dying with us and for us, and promises never, never, never to leave us alone. Love is in the world, and inside of us, dwelling with us even as we dwell in it.”

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think of the idea of Jesus as presence? How do you understand this notion and what does it mean to you? Do you think of Jesus as present with you? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever thought about all that is left out of the story when the creeds and confessions are recited in church? Do you think this makes a difference in the life of the community? Why or why not?
  • Diana draws a picture of the intimate relationship between the Spirit and Jesus and points out that the same Spirit dwells with us. What do you think of this? What does this mean for your life and the life of the church?
  • What do you think of the idea of Jesus as mystery? Do you find this notion to be positive or problematic and why? What are its implications for the life of faith and the ministry of the church?
  • What did you learn?
  • What questions do you have?