Jesus said that “eternal life is to know God.” At the heart of our faith is the idea that God is relational, can be known and wants to relate to us. He is a community of persons, a Trinity, three in one.
This term, we want to root our pursuit of justice in ‘the knowledge of the Holy’: Father, Son and Spirit. We began last week with the Father, and with the compassion of God; this week we look at Jesus.
In 1870, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is reported to have undergone a profound existential crisis. He emerged from it a few years later as an unlikely disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, and what followed was a decades-long spiritual journey in which this existentially charged literary aristocrat plunged himself deeper and deeper into the words of Christ. Summarising the infusion of life he experienced encountering Christ in the midst of nihilistic despair, Tolstoy wrote:
“Suddenly I heard the words of Christ and understood them, and life and death ceased to seem to me evil. Instead of despair I experienced happiness and the joy of life undisturbed by death.”
Elsewhere, simply that:
“People need only trust in Christ’s teaching and obey it, and there will be peace on earth.”
Tolstoy was messy, profound and fascinating. His way of following Jesus led him to a radical political anarchism, economic egalitarianism and strident pacifism. His writings on the sermon on the mount came to shape the lives of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. His theology was far from orthodox, in either sense of the word. But whatever you make of Tolstoy and his ideas, he was a man trying hard to anchor every inch of his life and worldview in the teachings of Jesus, and then to live it out with integrity. He understood something about the inseparability of Jesus’ words and actions, about the unbreakable unity of thought and practice in the Christian faith. He had given himself to his rabbi, and everything had changed.
At Just Love, our conviction is that Jesus is an extremely good teacher, that he died ‘to take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29) and that he was raised from the dead to bring about a transformed humanity. Undergirding all this, we believe that he is God himself, the divine with human form. God with skin in the game. We believe what Jesus himself said in John’s gospel: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father” (Jn 14:9), that he is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). And among many, many other ways Jesus revealed the truth about God, we see these: Rabbi, Servant, King.
“and he began to teach them, saying…” (Mt 5:2)
First and foremost, Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher. We know this because everyone treated him as a rabbi, because he behaved like one, and because he invited people to follow him like one.
Everyone called him a rabbi – from the women and men he healed to the religious leaders who came to question and test him, people called Jesus “rabbi.” Fishermen, tax collectors and political radicals ‘dropped their nets,’ both literally and metaphorically, to wander around Israel listening to his teachings and spending every waking hour with him. This was the usual practice of a student with their teacher, of people aspiring to be ‘cloaked in the dust of their rabbi’.
Jesus behaved like a rabbi. When in a new town, Jesus would often go to the Synagogue and teach there. When he taught, whether on a mountainside or in a friend’s home, he would sit down – this was the traditional posture taken by a rabbi instructing and encouraging their disciples. Interestingly, Jesus was unusual in that he let women sit with him as he instructed, like Mary at her house in Bethany (Lk 10:39). This was almost, if not completely, unheard of in the ancient Jewish world, particularly as those sitting at the feet of their rabbi would eventually go on to become rabbis themselves, just like the one they followed.
And on that note, he invited people to follow him like a rabbi. He gave people the summons: “Come and follow me.” He invited them to be with him, to become like him and to do just what he did. In almost every way, Jesus conducted himself just like the other rabbis around him in his time, he slot right into the social category of teacher. Not only that, but ‘he taught as one who had authority, not like the teachers of the law’ (Mt 7:29). He was a rabbi par excellence.
But beyond that, what kind of rabbi?
There were lots of rabbis in Israel around the time of Jesus, and still more flung across the Mediterranean, North Africa and Persia in the places where the Jewish people had been forced into exile by the Romans, Greeks, Persians and Babylonians over centuries gone by. Some were relatively ordinary, some were famous across entire regions. Some were more politically conservative and some more liberal. Some preached a very close reading of the Torah texts, and others approached things more flexibly, and everything in between. Jesus came as a rabbi into this context of rabbis, who thought and spoke in different ways.
For example, Jesus’ teachings on objectification, sex and divorce were not spoken randomly into a vacuum, but into a theologically and politically charged conversation between many different voices. I listened recently to a fascinating sermon explaining how Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce (Mt 5:27-32) was a direct riposte to a set of highly misogynistic teachings from another rabbi of the time. What reads to us a fairly conservative marriage ethic was a theologically explosive teaching of Jesus, designed to destabilise male power structures in Jewish marriage traditions in favour of women’s rights, especially the rights of economically and socially vulnerable women. We don’t pick that up from the text, because most of us aren’t familiar with rabbi Hillel, rabbi Gamaliel and their views on sex and gender, but Jesus was, and what he said was a direct (and radical) contribution to that dialogue.
The point is that Jesus taught and spoke into a context, and it bears spending the time working out what he meant. Deep time. As Just Love, we’re committed to doing that. We’re on a journey, and we’d be the first to admit we’ve got a long way to go, but we want to plunge ourselves deep into the life and teachings of Jesus, and see where he takes us. Above all, we want to know Jesus, and not just his teachings. For like no other rabbi, his teachings centred on himself, and on his proclamation that he was the embodiment of everything good that God is doing.
But whatever else we can or can’t say, it’s clear that Jesus was radical. He presented a totally different vision of life, humanity and social order to anyone else around him. The moment you thought he fit a certain camp, he would say something that broke the box and stuck him somewhere else– until he broke that box as well. To use the language of the biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, Jesus ‘violated his perceptual field’: that is, he took the field of vision of his community – its assumptions, ideas, words and theories – and exploded them. He fulfilled the Old Testament scriptures, but not in a way that anyone imagined. This radicalism touched every area of his life and teaching. He was radically non-violent, but he was also radical on sexual integrity. He was radically opposed to the excess, cruelty and hypocrisy of the Jewish ruling elites, but radical too in his teaching on the way we use our words to challenge others. But radicalism isn’t just about politics or external behaviour – as Shane Claiborne puts it in The Irresistible Revolution, true radicalism is a radicalism of the heart. The word comes from the root ‘radix,’ meaning ‘root’. Jesus got to the root of things.
And nowhere was this more evident than Jesus’ relationship with power. Jesus was a rabbi who lived his teachings to the full, who became the servant king.
“for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28)
Now and then in the New Testament, you get a bit of a ‘summary verse’ where someone describes Jesus’ life and teachings in shorthand form. One of those is in Acts 10:38. Peter is in the middle of an expansive sermon, articulating the way of Jesus to the Roman officer Cornelius at Caesarea, and he says:
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
As summaries of Jesus’ life go, it’s not bad. It describes the posture of service which characterised Jesus’ life. From the moment his ‘ministry’ began, Jesus placed himself at the service of others and of God. He abandoned a stable house and home to live an itinerant life, fully absorbed in the Father’s will for his life and seeking to bless as many people as he could with his healing and teaching ministry. Rather than taking his own path, every waking hour was given in total surrender to the voice of the Father in his life – “I do nothing except what I see my Father doing” (Jn 5:19, Jn 5:30). His very will was given in absolute, loving submission to the one he knew as Father.
He poured his life, soul and energy into the people around him. He spent hours, if not days, ministering to sick, downcast and broken bodies, not only physically healing people but eyeballing them and engaging them in conversation. Often pressed to the point of exhaustion, Jesus woke early and found the desert place, the wilderness where he could rest and be replenished in the presence of his Father, but even here the crowds would find him and he would again be ‘filled with compassion’ (Mt 9:36). He had a band of erratic, immature friends and followers, comprising former members of the court of Herod who had left wealth and power to follow him; women delivered from oppressive evil, political revolutionaries who had been plotting the downfall of Rome and the compromised Jewish pseudo-state; likely illiterate peasant fishermen and farmers; and sold-out tax collectors who had spent years extracting wealth from those fishermen and farmers. He committed wholeheartedly to this group of women and men, pouring out his heart and mind to them again and again to teach them his way of life, and to set them up for the time when he would go and entrust them with his work. All this while emotionally and psychologically preparing himself for the fate he knew with total clarity would come upon him, the execution of his body at the hands of the Roman state.
But Jesus’ posture of service also far exceeded his healing miracles and relentless compassion. John:
“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (13:1)
“He loved them to the end.” Or to quote the very earliest worship hymn recorded by the early church, “he poured himself out,” he “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). This was the heart posture of Christ. The story of God’s servant love spilled over, ran free and culminated in the crucifixion of that very same God.
“Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is Jesus, King of the Jews.” – Mt 27:37
As any number of theologians have pointed out, Jesus’ crucifixion was also his coronation. Across the New Testament, the moment of Jesus’ death and burial is portrayed as the moment he also ‘became king.’ This is a strange thing to grapple with.
Many, many things are happening on the cross. But just two of them are these:
On the cross, Jesus is bearing the burden of human evil inside his own body. Isaiah’s words prophesying this strange event are famous, but they are worth returning to again and again:
“he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.”
Every writer of the New Testament frames it in their own way. John urges the church to rest and grow in God’s unending forgiveness: “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2); Peter says that we are purchased with “the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:19), while Paul writes that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). There is a mystery here, and it’s beyond my words to summarise it adequately. But somehow, strangely, Jesus is bearing our sin in himself – and he is extinguishing it.
Jesus describes it as a ‘cup’ that he must drink – a cup of evil, injustice and burden that he must in some way drink to its depths, until it would be gone, finished and consumed (cf. Mt 20:22).
But there’s more to the story. On the cross, Jesus is also becoming King. Again, each writer frames it in their own way. The gospel writers emphasise the placard nailed above Jesus’ head, reading “Jesus, King of the Jews”; John records Pilate’s encounter with Jesus in such a way that it’s clear who the true power is in the room; the entire books of Colossians and Ephesians are extended meditations on how God became King, and how he did it through the strangest of means – the cross of Christ.
In some ways, this is not surprising. Jesus has spent his entire ministry talking about the Kingdom of God, so it’s not surprising that the climax of the story, his crucifixion and resurrection, focus on the fulfilment of that story. In another sense, this is completely surprising. As the Bible Project video on ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ makes clear, the idea that Jesus would overthrow the world’s corrupt and evil power systems by dying at their hands was absurd, if not laughable, to pretty much everyone looking on.
And yet the more you press it, the more these two stories are interwoven throughout the New Testament – Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s kingdom, God’s atonement for human sin and God’s construction of a brand new human community filled with grace and power. The ideas are inseparably joined – suffering love and kingdom newness.
Practicing the way of Jesus
What does all this mean for us? Well, the implications are boundless. But the central point is this: that Jesus reveals the kind of God who builds a new world order through suffering love, rather than unopposable power. Jesus’ vision for a transformed creation involves taking the world’s evil upon himself, rather than inflicting more of it.
In King’s Cross, Tim Keller writes this:
“All love, all real, life-changing love, is substitutionary sacrifice. You have never loved a broken person, you have never loved a guilty person, you have never loved a hurting person except through substitutionary sacrifice.”
Keller’s point is simple. When confronted by the world as it really, actually is – and in particular by the vast and crushing weight of evil and injustice endured and perpetuated by human beings – we are essentially faced with two options. The first option is to respond in kind, to continue the flow of injustice and greed, to play along with the way things are. The second option is to bear that pain within ourselves: to bite our tongue and refuse to lash out, eating our words before we say them; to endure the cost of material simplicity, kerbing our consumer desires to give radically and lavishly in the interests of others’ flourishing; to oppose violence by surrendering our bodies to our enemies, rather than to strike back. Every single day in the capitalist west, I am faced with a choice to “go with the flow” or bear in my body the cost of the resistance movement Jesus began, which has elected to treat everyone as a human being, and not a commodity on a production line. The only way through is love, because duty runs dry. Paradoxically, Jesus’ claims, it is actually in doing these absurd and costly things that we will discover the truest and most beautiful form of life. That’s probably why you need faith to live like this. “The righteous will live by faith.”
There is nuance here, and this is not to glorify suffering or make the gospel all about pain and hardship. That’s not the point. Everywhere Jesus went, there was life and flourishing, and he quite literally said he came to bring “life in all its fulness”. The problem is that he meant life in all its fulness for all of us, not just for me. In a world often marked by darkness, selfishness and extreme injustice, the only way to bear that kind of life in the world is to face up to the suffering and walk through it. The road to a redeemed world means people choosing to move towards the suffering in ourselves and others, to embrace it and to carry it, not out of duty but out of burning love.
The only way to do this is to bear the very same weight of love in our bodies that Jesus did. If your passion is what you’re willing to suffer for, we need the passion of Christ to so fill us that we are willing to give anything to see the new world that he’s building – and so to practice the way of our rabbi, and our servant king.