|Honest to Jesus
Gregory C. Jenks 
In 1906 Albert Schweitzer commented in The Quest for the
The critical study of the life of Jesus has been for theology a
school of honesty.
That is a most revealing observation, and it comes from someone who
had just reviewed the efforts by historical Jesus scholars over more
than 100 years. It reminds us that coming face to face - or even
reasonably close - to the historical Jesus may not be a comfortable
experience. The Jesus who trod the pathways of ancient Galilee is a
stranger to our times and to our churches. We may not find it easy to
take on board what he has to say to us.
So: Jesus scholars, beware! Anyone with two good ears had better
I will now provide a thumbnail sketch of Jesus best summarised as the
"Jesus of the parables and aphorisms" :
Jesus appears to have been an itinerant sage - a wandering wise
man. He delivered his parables and aphorisms in public and private
venues for both friends and opponents.
He never claimed to be - nor allowed others to call him
- the Messiah or a divine being.
Jesus taught a wisdom that emphasised a simple trust in
God�s unstinting goodness and the generosity of others. Life was to be
lived and celebrated without boundaries and without thought for the
future. He rejected asceticism.
For Jesus, ritual ceremonies had no value. Purity taboos and
social barriers were never allowed to come between the people who
responded to God and one another in simple trust.
There were no religious "brokers" in Jesus� vision of
God�s domain. No priests, no prophets, no messiahs. Not even Jesus
himself was to be inserted between a person and God.
To experience forgiveness one simply had to offer
forgiveness to others.
No theological beliefs served as a test for
participation in God�s domain.
Apocalyptic speculation with future punishments for the
wicked and rewards for the virtuous played no part in Jesus�
Jesus was killed because he refused to compromise this
radical vision of life. He may even have taken direct action in the
Jerusalem Temple to express his view of God�s imperial rule. Those
defending the status quo with its elaborate brokerage system for
religious favors had to destroy him or lose their hold over others.
If this glimpse of Jesus is valid to any extent, it poses a
significant challenge for the Christian churches. After all, we claim
his name and to be his exclusive representatives in our society. Yet, on
virtually every point in that sketch, the churches� views are in
contrast to those which now seem to have been typical of Jesus.
The ordained sons of Adam have numerous places to lay their
heads, offer little by way of original wisdom, and have become settled
householders rather than itinerant sages.
The churches insist that Jesus was both divine and the Jewish
We have often embraced asceticism, and we have certainly
encouraged a negative attitude towards bodily life in this natural
world. If it feels good it must be bad for the real, eternal,
Rather than teach a wisdom that supports simple trust, the
churches have often cultivated a fear that feeds on guilt and anxiety.
Church experience is full of boundaries. Living dangerously in
the freedom of God�s sons and daughters is rarely encouraged.
Ritual and sacrament have immense value, as seen by the steps
taken to protect the privileges of those authorized to celebrate them.
Purity taboos and social barriers have too often crept
back in, especially those based around gender and sexuality.
Religious brokers have established and sustained immense power
within the church.
Many a saint and cleric have been inserted between Jesus
and us, let alone us and God.
Forgiveness is meted out by the clerical brokers, and even sold
for financial and other gain.
Theological beliefs have certainly served as tests for
participation. Indeed, they have even been necessary for physical
survival as when heretics and schismatics have been hounded and slain.
Apocalyptic expectation has been used to sustain a hold over
people, and to validate accommodation with the present empires of
Dying for the integrity of one�s radical vision is
hardly typical of church life.
It is not hard to sense that the institutional church would
most often vote with the Sanhedrin. The churches have had many hundreds
of years experience in handing Jesus over to the Governor. I believe
that we gladly accept Barabbas in place of the disturbing Jesus of
Were Jesus to arrive at many of our congregations today he might
find us no more inclined to embrace his vision of God�s domain in
everyday life than did his peers in ancient Galilee.
I want to consider now what might happen if this historical Jesus
were brought into the picture. What if we set Jesus free from our Sunday
School portraits and let him loose in our communities?
Would he be welcome there? Would he fit in? Would it be an explosive
combination? Would it renew and invigorate the churches? I am also
mindful of the Jesus sayings about new wine in old wineskins (or, new
patches on old cloth). Could Christians handle a less supernatural Jesus
and a lesser role for dogma and ritual?
What are the implications of Jesus studies for the churches today? In
very broad terms, they might be described as follows:
1. They include the assertion that the historical Jesus deserves to
have a powerful say in the way people imagine and express their
faith in word and symbol.
2. They include the idea that people have a right to know that
there is a difference between the Jesus of history and the various
frames of faith in which he has so often been presented by the churches.
3. They include the insight that we can learn more about being people
of faith in our own day by listening to both the original voice of Jesus
and also to the voices of his first followers.
4. They also include the realisation that the actual historical
humanity of Jesus is the focus of his divine significance to us. It is
in Jesus-as-human that Christians see God at work within and
amongst us - not as the Holy Stranger, but as the Familiar Sacred. Jesus
is the one who called us into being, who would call us out of our exile
and into that reality beyond personal death that we presently label
If we now have an historic opportunity, what might form the agenda of
a historical Jesus project?
First, we must integrate scholarship into the fabric of church
life. We need translations of sacred texts which are ecumenical,
interfaith and truly inclusive. We need networks and programs to offer
well-informed education resources to raise functional literacy levels in
religion. We need curriculum materials for children and adults. And we
need to move beyond paper and into cyberspace.
Then we must also destabilize the canon of the Bible. That sounds
like a radical proposition. But why should decisions made under the
constraints of long-vanished philosophical and political realities
continue to shape the way we hear the diverse Christian tradition? We
must draw on texts beyond the canon so as to broaden the range of those
voices that we hear within our communities of faith.
Next, our lectionaries and liturgical resources will need a
thorough overhaul. We must draw widely on texts within and outside the
canon. We can use Scripture in different ways than those we have favored
in the past. We need to move beyond text as content - as information or
correct ideas - and discover text as dialogue. We must rediscover myth
and symbol in reading biblical texts, and help our people to escape the
leaden touch of literalism.
The Church as an Inclusive Community
The communities that comprise the Church have been tamed to be
instruments of the powerful. We are no longer communities with an
alternative vision of life. Churches rarely speak for real people (who
are mostly in any case absent these days). We rarely serve as
vehicles for their hopes and hurts. Our structures are collapsing under
the weight of their own baggage as our memberships age and decline.
The contrast with the historical Jesus is clear. The sign of cross that
decorates our churches spells it out. It is the price of integrity. There
were neither national nor imperial flags in his meeting rooms. God�s domain
belonged to those who did not fit in with others� expectations. The
communities formed by his followers could not be co-opted by any empire - at
least, not for 300 years or so.
As the old ways of being church collapse we have an opportunity to
develop new forms of being church - ways that set the people of God
free. We can - and must - develop forms of community as people of faith
that are free from co-option by ruling powers (including grants from
foundations and government agencies).
They will be communities free from clerical ownership (and thus require
a fundamental rethink of the role of clergy). Most importantly, they must be
communities of freedom: places where it is safe to be as a human person -
somewhere to doubt as well as to believe, somewhere to make mistakes,
somewhere to grow in grace.
One of the features of the future Church that reflects the character
of Jesus is clear: it will be a lay church. Can we imagine churches
without brokers? Are we willing to work for lay ownership with new
structures? Can we imagine a role for clergy that celebrates leadership
and vision, but does not assume that power - and payrolls - should be
limited to the ordained?
Worship as celebration
As many of us are painfully aware, worship is losing its character
as community celebration. It reflects the churches� loss of significance
in the wider community. This is possibly not yet so profound in USA, but
it is dramatic in the UK and Europe. It has always been so in Australia,
even if now seen more clearly (as in the alienation from church life of
those seeking baptisms and weddings). Sadly, worship is too often
centered around the symbols and concerns of a long-lost world.
Jesus lived within a religious tradition we�ve been taught to
disdain. He was nurtured by a tradition still linked to the everyday
concerns of his community. This is not to say that he was uncritical of
organized and doctrinaire forms of religion , but it is to warn
ourselves to put aside traditional Christian stereotypes of a legalistic
and barren Judaism. Time and again, the early Jesus tradition portrays
Jesus as invoking an interpretation of Torah observance that presupposes
integrity rather than literal compliance.
Let�s apply that principle from the historical Jesus to our liturgies
as the people of God. After centuries of rigidity we have new
opportunities to renew and reform our liturgies. We have access to new
understandings of scripture and tradition. We also have a new
appreciation of human nature, as well as of the power of symbol and
myth. We enjoy fresh understandings of the universe and our place in the
cosmos. And we have access to multicultural and multi-faith perspectives
not available to earlier generations of liturgists.
Worship that reflects the heritage of Jesus will be marked by
celebration, not judgment. Our liturgy will be truly inclusive. We will
pay attention to the question of who our liturgies are supposed to
serve. And we will escape Sunday morning.
Discipleship as faith integrated with life
For too many people - within the churches and outside them - faith
or discipleship ("being a Christian") is seen as assent to doctrines and
morals. Assenting to particular (and mostly incredible) beliefs, and
behaving in certain (and mostly conservative) ways, have come to be seen
as fundamental to Christian identity. Worse, there has been a collapse
of the essential link between values (or faith) and everyday life.
As a window into the perspective of the historical Jesus, let�s take
the well known encounter with the "rich young ruler". This young man had
it all, but he did not have what he needed. I conclude from this episode
- along with many other episodes in the authentic Jesus materials - that
beliefs and behavior both matter, but they are not central
to God�s domain.
What is needed is willingness to put oneself at risk. Those called to
discipleship were not called to a formula, but to an open ended journey into
If so, then the legacy of the historical Jesus is a glimpse of life
as God�s domain that is essentially affirming and celebratory. Rather
than being negative and antagonistic towards a world seen in terms of
opposites, our churches should be embracing and celebrating life.
If we stopped being so religious and became more authentically human,
churches might indeed have a future rather than being leftovers from the
past. We might even deserve a future.
The first priority is surely to fashion communities of meaning and
hope. These will require us to work at creating and sustaining
communities that get beyond formulae. They will be places where both
beliefs and actions will matter, but even more valued will be the
willingness to act out of trust into the future. In that kind of
community people find meaning and hope, not answers or control.
Of course, faith communities of this kind will integrate faith with
life in its various dimensions. Such communities will draw on the
real life skills of their members, and learn to reflect on their shared
experience. These communities will look outside their own lives. They
will engage deeply in the issues and concerns of everyday life - as a
church, as individuals and as clergy. Social justice cells will be as
common place as prayer chains.
 This article has been somewhat shortened to better serve online
 Worked out by the controversial Jesus Seminar.