DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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CHRISTMAS DAY
Was Jesus Naughty?

Hebrews 1.4
The Son was made greater than the angels. 

Was Jesus naughty? This isn't the facetious question it might seem. Lurking behind it is an important difference between ourselves and those first Christians who attempted to work out what Jesus meant for them.

Most of us are so familiar with the "Christmas story" that it takes some effort to reinterpret it and, as it were, come down to earth.

It may help to recognise that Jesus as Son of God is an invention of theologians. There is no good evidence that he thought of himself in such terms. How was Jesus the man made into Jesus the God?

  • The earliest followers of The Way (Acts 19.9) thought of themselves as Jews. They believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who would return to take over the world.
  • Through the work of Paul, Christianity quickly spread to the Greek and Roman cultures. But they had no tradition of a Messiah. What made sense to them was to perceive great people as gods. Roman and Persian emperors often declared themselves divine. It was an easy step in this kind of culture to redefine Jesus as Son of God.
  • The authors of the Gospels have preserved more than one tradition about the importance of Jesus. He's called "Son of David", "Son of Man", "Son of God" and one or two other variations. There seems to have been a definite "Vote for Jesus as God" movement some 35 years or so after Jesus died.
  • The author of John's Gospel was another pioneer of the "Jesus as God" movement. His primary theme as a theologian was that Jesus was the eternal Word "made flesh". There is little history and much theology in his Gospel. It was used by the early Church authorities to promote the teaching that Jesus was God come down from heaven to earth. This teaching was codified (some would say cast in concrete) in the Christian creeds.

The Nativity accounts are part of the early "Jesus as God" movement. They are not history, but delightful stories intended to make a statement about the nature of Jesus, to advance the "Jesus as God" movement in the early Church. Tales of strange stars, of kings and shepherds, of angels and wondrous prophecies were the TV and popular movies of the times. 

They were used by the "Jesus as God" movement as the ancient equivalent of an advertising campaign. We're wrong if we condemn early Christians for what we nowadays call "spin" or "factual inexactitudes". They thought differently about truth and falsehood. The Gospel authors would not have understood our need to know "what really happened". Their work was intended primarily as theology rather than as history

Does it make sense in the 21st century to perceive Jesus as a Man-God? It it worth wondering if he somehow constantly switched from a "man" state to a "God" state and back, like a light switching on and off? The way our minds work today makes it nearly impossible to think in Man-God terms as did our predecessors in the Christian faith.

So to ask, "Was Jesus naughty?" is to venture a statement about his nature. It explores what happens if Jesus is perceived as human in every sense. We can be absolutely certain that the baby Jesus needed to be cleaned up just like any other infant. He learned to walk and talk as you and I did, falling over, bumping his head and yelling blue murder. He went through the "terrible twos" like everyone else. He learned the rules of good behaviour as we did - and such learning requires behaviours that grown-ups call "naughty". Other Jewish boys were probably spanked from time-to-time. Was Jesus given the same discipline? I'd be surprised if he wasn't.

The same considerations continue into Jesus' teenage years. He learned about sex as we all do. He wouldn't have been normal without sexual thoughts and no doubt some physical exploration. Part of growing up is to say "No" to one's parents. Like most teenagers he probably struggled to achieve independence from his family. As a young adult he had to experiment, to find his way around the adult world just as we all do.

In short, it makes more sense today to regard Jesus as a man and nothing else. It doesn't feel real to regard him as God encased in human flesh, pretending to be fully human but in reality a fabulous sort of split personality. The historical fact is that we know nothing about the baby Jesus, about his birth and the circumstances surrounding it. In the absence of good evidence, therefore, we must assume that he was a child like everyone else. Jesus was naughty.

A legitimate and endless source of wonder today is that this Jesus of Nazareth, who began life as the baby we revere at Christmas, was so great and loving a person that his way of life has persisted over many centuries to this day. We worship or "give worth" to him because no other man has had so extraordinary an effect on the world. 

We rejoice in the birth of Jesus because he has sown in us the knowledge that nothing - not life nor death, not powerful people, nor politicians, nor threats of suffering, nor anything in this existence - can separate us from God's love. His gift to mankind is the proclamation that those who seek to imprison us by threats of alienation from God are ultimately powerless. Jesus the man lived out the message that God is with us, that God always has been and always will be by our side.

In celebrating the birth of this extraordinary man - so extraordinary that our ancestors in the faith called him "God-in-the-flesh" - we celebrate the gift of life. Life transcends death in the same way that Jesus has transcended death for two thousand years. The baby Jesus was a real child, who became a real teenager, and a real adult, just like ourselves.

Through Jesus we are able to live our lives to the full with the same wonder, joy and steadfastness with which he approached his life.

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