In Which I Set Out to Find the Real Jesus

April 11, 2013

Actor John Cusack made a splash recently with this statement about Christianity, which appeared in Vanity Fair:

Let’s go with Jesus. Not the gay-hating, war-making political tool of the right, but the outcast, subversive, supreme adept who preferred the freaks and lepers and despised and doomed to the rich and powerful.

Icon of Jesus

I love that.

We are beyond weary of seeing Jesus used as a hammer to bash others. We are heartsick at this other thing Christ has become. It’s time to get back to Jesus. Just Jesus. The real Jesus.

Cusack and I are not the first to feel this. Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians,” or something similar. And the search for this  historical Jesus has been going on for over two hundred years.

Everybody gets it that Christians are the problem, so the notion of dumping the church and getting back to Jesus is always appealing.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan put it this way:

More and more people are saying, you know what, I don’t have trouble with God, I don’t have trouble with Jesus, I don’t have trouble with faith, I do have some troubles with the church. That’s a major pastoral challenge, not only for us as Catholics, but for the other revealed religions.

No kidding.

Almost everybody wants to take Jesus and leave Christianity right there on the table. We want Christ to be our private property, free from the haters and the dogma and the oppressive church. Just give me Jesus.

It sounds simple enough, but as I began my search I soon discovered why this quest for the real Jesus is into its third century: they keep finding more of them. There are now more real Jesuses running around than pretenders to the Russian throne. 

For example, if we choose the “outcast, subversive, supreme adept who preferred the freaks and lepers,” what do we do with that other Jesus, who is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

If we take the neither-do-I-condemn-you Jesus, what do we say about Mr. Go-and-sin-no-more? If we want the “bless those who curse you” Jesus, will we ignore the one who brings “not peace but a sword”?

You see the problem.

That’s why everyone who goes out in search of the real Jesus eventually returns with scissors in hand, cutting words out of Jesus’ mouth to make him sound like a broken record of themselves. In spite of our good intentions we, too, make Christ a mouthpiece for our own ideology.

So if we’re going to narrow our faith to just Jesus, let’s at least take all of him—the comforting Jesus and the afflicting Jesus, the warm fuzzy Jesus and the I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that Jesus. Let’s accept the full mystery of Christ.

And what about Jesus’ friends? What do we do with those odd people who claim that they, too, are just following Jesus? Can we have Jesus without his apostles? Can there be a Christ without a Church?

We dream of creating Jesus in vitro. We want a little test-tube Jesus, who lives in our minds pristine and pure, undirtied by the world. But I can’t separate Jesus from his family any more than I can separate myself from mine.

It is not possible to disentangle the real Jesus from the one re-created by his followers every day. He is the only Jesus there is. We truly are his hands, his feet, his body. That is the essence of incarnation, making God appear in the broken, imperfect form of a human being.

Yes, give me Jesus, but not some intellectualized, sterilized ideal. Give me the Jesus who lives and breathes and inhabits the world. Give me Jesus and his people too.

Some of them are gay bashers, that’s true. And some are gay. Some are Roman Catholic, and Orthodox, and Pentecostal, and Reformed, and a lot of things I am not.

To follow the real Jesus is to accept that he did not die for me alone. No, as John tells it, Jesus gave his life not only for me and mine but for all “the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.”

That includes the Jews and the Greeks, the men and the women, the poor and the rich, the oppressed and the oppressors, the outcasts and the moralizers—everybody.

If the people who do not know Jesus are ever to believe that the man who walked the earth 2,000 years ago really is God-in-the-flesh and alive today, it won’t be because you and I have a greater sense of morality or a keener social conscience than some other Christians do. It will be because that beautiful, mystifying, humbling, inspiring, huge, audacious dream of gathering all God’s children into one big family has finally come true.

Even so, Lord Jesus, come.

Who is Jesus?

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.