Talking about Jesus Then and Now - The first 4 chapters
13 of us met today including two newcomers whom we are very pleased to welcome.
Our conversation concerned the first four chapters of John Simmonds’ short book Jesus Then and Now. In these chapters Simmonds talks about the growing claims made for the Divinity of Jesus starting with the first Easter and progressing through to the Nicene Creed. He distils the essential teaching of the pre-Easter Jesus – his validation of the poor and the marginalised and his critique of the way they are treated. Jesus did not seek to change the religion of the time, the religious laws were not overturned, but he did challenge the way that the religious hierarchy of the day abused the spirit of those laws and considered themselves a cut above the ‘rabble’. Simmonds also claims that Jesus would never have considered himself Divine, as that would have been blasphemy to a Jew.
So how did we react? Did these chapters make us feel uncomfortable?
For those of us who struggle with the Church’s elevation of Jesus to God status, it came as a relief to read a book where these things were side-lined in favour of what Jesus actually taught while alive. R, a newcomer to our group, commented that when growing up her minister used to say that the Church worshipped God and followed Jesus. She felt this was a good recipe for avoiding the hollowness of worshiping Jesus while ignoring social justice.
And we were all agreed that Jesus’ treatment of the poor and marginalised is key to what makes us Christians. In this respect, H made a powerful comparison between the ‘sinners’ who didn’t manage to obey all the ritual religious laws of Israel with the poor of today who do not follow the Covid rules because they cannot afford it.
It emerged that some of us were more content to dispense with the Divinity of Jesus than others. It seemed to depend partly on what is meant by Divinity. H saw Divinity as ‘that something larger than ourselves’, the opposite of mundane, part of our creative energy, something that Jesus had in spades. The fact that others were attracted to Jesus was down to that spring of Divinity they could see in him. She agreed that the spring is not unique to Jesus and can be seen in others too, such as Martin Luther King.
E saw Jesus as being attuned to the will of God in a way that it is difficult for others to repeat and for this reason is worthy of worship. For example, Jesus had no sense of personal acquisition. B wasn’t sure it was correct to say that Jesus acquired no personal goods.
C asked if by calling Jesus Divine we were implying something supernatural about him. Most thought not. E said that Jesus would probably have agreed with that verdict but that didn’t alter the possibility that there was something supernatural about Jesus.
N suggested that humans define what is Divine/God by reference to what we think is good and worthy of that title. She thought that the quality of Divinity attributed to Jesus arose after the resurrection. It doesn’t matter exactly how you interpret the resurrection story but it produced a turning point in the minds of those who were previously feeling defeated by Jesus’ death.
A read a made-up story by Peter Rollins about a group of disciples who set up a community after the crucifixion but before the story of the resurrection emerged. Living in isolation far away from Israel, they pursued good Christian lives based on the sacrificial values that Jesus stood for. When they finally learned of the resurrection their leader saw a danger that the news would change the dynamic of the community. In future Jesus would be seen less as an inspirational example, but more as a personal treasure. (How not to speak of God P.80).
R expressed her concern about an overemphasis on a personal saviour. What mattered more was having a community of faith like Iona which can carry everyone’s doubts and be a safe space to express them.
P expressed a problem with the concept of atonement. J spoke of a sense of empowerment that came to him this Christmas.
C brought us back to the final question at the end of Chapter 4 - if we stripped away the Divinity ascribed to Jesus, would there still be value in living the Way of Jesus? We took a show of hands and everyone agreed that there would still be value in living the Way of Jesus.
Next time we will look at the final two chapters of John Simmons’ book where he asks what living the Way of Jesus means.