Ways of relating to Jesus Christ

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The churches have a curious relationship with Jesus. I want to explore here the four main ways in which people relate to Jesus.

One initial thing to notice is that some people talk about ‘Jesus’, and others talk about ‘Christ’. On the whole evangelicals are for Jesus, Catholics are for Christ. This is in some ways surprising because evangelicals take their lead from Saint Paul in many things, and St Paul definitely talks more about Christ more than about Jesus. On this the Evangelicals depart from St Paul. 

I have always found the evangelical relationship to Jesus rather curious. It focuses entirely on the sense of relationship with the living Jesus. However, it almost entirely ignores the historical Jesus. Evangelicals generally seem to know nothing about Jesus of Nazareth and have no interest in him. Also, the relationship seems with the spiritual Jesus seems very anthropomorphic . I certainly don’t assume that Jesus is just a historical person, but I don’t think about the living Jesus in as anthropomorphic a way as evangelicals do.

For Catholics, the focus is on the presence of Christ in the sacrament. I sense something of the presence of Christ in the sacrament, and have no problem with it as a way of relating to Christ. However, I think there is sometimes too much ‘localisation’, too exclusive a focus on Christ in the sacrament that rather tends to confine Christ to the church where the sacrament is held. It then leads to a weak theology of all society as being in Christ.

Outside the church there are two more significant strands of interest in Jesus or Christ. There are historians interested in Jesus of Nazareth. I guess the most influential in recent decades has been Geza Vermes. Among Christian writers, the person who seems to me to get Jesus best is Werner Pelz, especially in his classic book (misleadingly entitled ‘God is No More’). He gets the teasing, visionary disruptive pattern of encounters that Jesus has with almost everyone. Historians talk about ‘Jesus’ rather than Christ. Jesus of Nazareth is the historical personage about whom we can be reasonably confident, in the light of Josephus etc; whereas Christ in contrast is a title of faith.

The fourth strand focuses on the Christ mysticism to be found in the new Testament in the later writings of St Paul, especially in Ephesians and Colossians. I have not found much interest in Christ mysticism amongst church people, though it is common in the new age movement. It is rather bizarre that there is currently more interest in this significant strand of new Testament theology in the New Age movement than there is in the Christian churches. In as far as New Agers talk about Jesus at all they tend to refer to him, like the Catholics, as ‘Christ’. I used to have a slight acquaintance with the New Age guru, Sir George Trevelyan, who spoke portentously about the ‘Cosmic Christ’. 

Having identified these four main ways of relating to Jesus, or Christ, in contemporary spirituality, it is worth noting that many people operate with just one of them. I see them as complementary, but most Christians tend to be quite narrow. Evangelicals just have their love affair with the spiritual Jesus. Catholics tend to focus on him just as Christ in the sacrament etc.

No one I meet in the church currently seems very interested in the historical Jesus. Certainly, I hardly ever hear churchgoers talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Also, there seems very little interest among churchgoers in Christ mysticism.

I am passionate about Jesus of Nazareth and what he was up to in his “Kingdom” project, and how we can best keep that project going now. I also feel very in tune with the Christ mysticism of St Paul. In my own approach to Jesus Christ, I bring the two together, though I am also open to Christ in the sacrament and to a a relationship with the historical Jesus.

My lament is that I can find very little interest in either the historical Jesus or in Christ mysticism in the Christian churches. The two ways of relating to Jesus Christ that mean most to me are the ones that no one in the churches seems interested in.