Jesus, our contemporary

Richard Tighe Harris was my great, great grandfather. The only reason I know this is that he was relatively eminent, having co-founded Juneau, Alaska. I also know that his wife, my great, great grandmother, was a Tlingit woman named Kitty. However, I know very little about my other 14 great, great grandparents. I could probably only name one of them. Unless someone is deemed historically significant, they are quickly forgotten, even by their own descendants.

We tend to measure time in relation to our own lifespans, so 100 years ago seems far away now. And it’s true that it is a long time ago when you consider how much the world has changed in that period, due to the exponential development of technology. But have we changed that much? Has human nature changed that much? Although we live in a very different world from our historical ancestors, we’re basically identical from a developmental and biological standpoint.

Imagine plopping the power of airplanes and iPods into the laps of people 2,000 years ago. Apart from the initial shock and amazement that would be fun to watch, people—or at least their kids—would have no trouble learning to use the technology. They’d be no less cognitively equipped (or ill-equipped, depending on your perspective) to handle it than we are. Even so, 2,000 years seems like a long time ago to us, and for Christians especially, it represents an important time in history, the coming of Jesus the Christ. We now have two millennia of Christian heritage (some honorable and some not so honorable) to draw on and point to and live from. Our long history seems to add stability and credibility to our tradition and our faith.

But from a deep time or “God’s eye” perspective, 2,000 years is a drop in the bucket. When you consider scientists’ estimates for the age of the Universe (13.7 billion years), the advent of human religion suddenly becomes an extremely recent phenomenon. This is a humbling reality. All of a sudden, scriptures like Psalm 90:4 have a lot more meaning:

A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.

If you feel threatened by such suggestions, consider what exactly is being threatened. God? Or your too-small view of God?

There are many advantages to a deep-time perspective. For one thing, it is absolutely mind-boggling and awe-inspiring, just as a deep-space perspective is in a galaxy of hundreds of billions of stars in a Universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
(Psalm 8:3-4)

As deep space puts our size in proper perspective, deep time puts the span of our days in proper perspective:

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
    the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
    even those who seem secure.
(Psalm 39:4-5)

From a deep time perspective, religion is a tiny speck on the cosmic timeline. But the good news is that Jesus is on that same speck with us. Why is this good news? Because the closer we allow Jesus to be to us, the closer we allow ourselves to be to God. Put another way, the more human we allow Jesus to be, the more like God we allow ourselves to be. In contrast, when we separate ourselves from Jesus, putting him safely on a 2,000-year-old pedestal, we don’t really have to worry about being like him. We tell ourselves that it’s impossible. We regularly describe Jesus as “fully God and fully human,” but if we really took “fully human” seriously then we’d also have to take seriously just how fully God a human can be. That’s what Jesus demonstrated for us.

The Apostle Paul called the Son “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Are we to then say that Jesus is but we are not? Did Jesus bear the image of God but not us? If we were not created in the image of God, then who exactly are we? Was God at work in the world during the time of Jesus but not in our time? If he worked through Jesus in his time, then who does he work through now in our time? And if it’s not us, then who is it? How can we say that God was present then but not now, when on a cosmic scale we live in virtually the same instant as Jesus? In God’s eyes, we could say that Jesus came and went about two days ago. From this perspective, Jesus is truly our contemporary.

Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter how much time has passed between Jesus’ time and ours. The Spirit of Christ is eternal, and we have that same Spirit! But that’s precisely my point. If we think 2,000 years is a long time, or that 2,000-year-old Christianity is a big enough container to hold the Spirit of Christ, then we’re failing to see who Jesus really was, which also means that we’re failing to see who we ourselves are. The truth is that we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17) Just as we are brothers and sisters in Christ to each other, so too are we brothers and sisters in Christ to the 1st-century man, Jesus of Nazareth. He is one of us!

Ultimate security

Whatever we envision for ourselves is the form we give to our faith. Faith is something we all have. It’s just a question of what we are putting our faith in. Early in life we construct our model of the world, deciding who and what can or can’t be trusted. We develop our sense of security based on a variety of different things: work, money, religion, knowledge, etc. These become the foundation of our world. They mitigate our fears, protecting us from what would otherwise threaten us. Yet they are powerless against our deepest fears, precisely because our deepest fear is that what we have placed our trust in will give way—that the foundation of our security might not actually be a true foundation. We keep such thoughts in the back of our minds if anywhere, because otherwise we would not be able to function. We would be paralyzed with fear.

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
— Matthew 7:24-27

Is it even possible to “build your house” on the rock, on a trustworthy foundation that you know will never give way? Or is it a foregone conclusion that you will always have doubts about that foundation, fears that it might crumble and turn to sand? For me, one of my deepest fears was that what I believed about God might not be the whole story, or even the right story at all. My deepest fear was that I might be alone in the Universe. Not everyone thinks in these terms or even believes in God for that matter, but it doesn’t change the fact that we each have built systems of security into our lives and this security usually revolves around our sense of identity—who we conceive ourselves to be.

I used to wonder how anyone could go on living without believing in a God that watches over them. This was inconceivable to me, but that’s because I imagined that my system of security was the only one available. I imagined my belief in God being torn away from me, how terror-stricken I would be, and assumed that that’s what it must be like for other people who don’t believe in God. What I failed to understand is that those people have their own system of security—their own “belief in God”—which, if torn away from them, would leave them just as terror-stricken. Not only that, but not everyone who believes in God places their ultimate trust in that belief. If they identify more with their work, for example, or their net worth or social status, then they have a different security system and a different set of deepest fears. Religious belief is only one of many possible “safety nets.”

Jesus spoke of the inadequacy of such systems of security when he said, “whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) In the metaphorical first half of life, we spend all our energy constructing our self-concept. When the crisis comes, we realize we’ve been building our house on sand. Our identity is existentially challenged and we realize we are vulnerable. The paradox is that when we abandon ourselves to that vulnerability, no longer seeking to deny it, we find that we are inexplicably safe.

How is it that someone can no longer fear death?

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
— John 12:25

When we “love our life,” remaining attached to the identity we have constructed, death remains a threat. But when we “hate our life in this world,” seeing our self-concept for what it is—a house built on nothing but sand, and when we let go of it, embracing death as essential to who we are, then we realize that death is not the end of us. We see beyond our limited, tiny, self-constructed identities to our true Identity, which is eternal. Then nothing can ever threaten us again. We may forget this from time to time, but the truth remains that our true Identity was never threatened in the first place.

Jesus understood his true Identity as the Son of God. “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.” (John 8:54) For Jesus, self-glorification “means nothing.” Instead, he derived all his glory from the Father—the Ultimate—whom he identified with. “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:59) This expanded sense of Self was borne out in the way Jesus lived his life and in the way he gave his life. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1) Jesus did not reserve this way of life for himself alone. He calls us to do the same. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) With Jesus, we must deny our false self, our tiny self whose glory “means nothing.” But also—and here’s the kicker—with Jesus, we must affirm our True Self, in whom we find eternal life.

This is what the world is waiting for. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19) Before that can happen, the children of God must be revealed to themselves! This marvelous revelation lies on the other side of a chasm, a wall of terrible flames beyond which we cannot see. It is only when we go through the flames, when we dive into the chasm, that we will wake up to the reality of who we are and the truth that our fears were always illusions. Then and only then “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) Then and only then will we find the solid ground we’ve been looking for, seeing clearly that it lies in who we truly are and putting to death once and for all the search for security outside of ourselves. We will have found the Treasure that never runs out, the Well that never runs dry, the Life that never ends.

I am infinite Love

The way people usually seek God is by mustering up a “hunger for righteousness,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. But eventually you must move beyond seeking to finding—actually believing the promises of God. Jesus said, “Ask, believing that you have already received it, and it will be yours.” In this case, you don’t stay with seeking except to decide what you want—for example, a deeper experience of God’s love for you. Once you’ve made that decision, you immediately begin believing it even if you don’t know it yet. That’s why it’s called faith.

Typically, when we pray, we present our requests to God, wording them as just that: requests. A more effective prayer for us (after all, prayer is for us) would be to state our “requests” as declarations. At first this may feel like lying, but what it really is is speaking the truth in advance. It’s heeding the words of Jesus by formalizing your new belief into words. “I am infinite Love.” If we have God’s Spirit, then this is already a true statement, even if you don’t believe it yet. And guess what! If you’re alive and breathing right now then you do have God’s Spirit! To be filled with the Spirit is to realize that you are already filled with the Spirit.

The only thing that’s in the way of our direct, knowing experience is our unbelief. Unbelief, by the way, is not simply a binary status as in “you either believe or you don’t believe.” No, faith and unbelief are as complex as our very psyches. “Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.” At a certain conscious level, we do believe that God lives within us. But at other deeper levels or barely-hidden levels, we don’t believe. And this is the only thing that stops up that flow of expression. It is not that God withdraws from us. We would cease to exist if He did, for He is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” It’s that we blind ourselves to who God is and who we are as divine emanations of God.

Spiritual growth is thus largely a matter of finding those pockets of darkness within ourselves and shining the light of God’s presence on each one. In so doing, we progressively reveal to ourselves and each other who we truly are: expressions of God’s infinite Love.