Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg

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Jesus and the Christian Life

Written By Marcus Borg

I begin with the importance of distinguishing between the historical Jesus and the risen, living Christ, between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. When I was young, growing up in the church, I didn't make this distinction. I didn't know about it and, perhaps, couldn't have made it even if I had heard about it. As a result, I saw Jesus as more divine than human. That is because I lumped everything together that I heard about Jesus from the Gospels and Christian preaching and Christian hymns, creeds, and so forth. Hence, I thought of Him, even as a historical figure, as already having the mind of God and the power of God. Because I thought of Him as more divine than human, I really lost track of the utterly remarkable human being that he was.

South African Jesus scholar Albert Nolan makes the same point when he says in a quotation that I've grown very fond of, "Jesus is a much underrated man. When we deprive Him of His humanity, we deprive Him of His greatness." This leads me to state the premise or the starting point for my sermon today, which is the classic and traditional Christian affirmation about Jesus, namely that Jesus is for us as Christians the decisive revelation of what a life full of God is like. I see this claim as the central meaning of the Christological language of the New Testament. The human Jesus is the Word Made Flesh. The human Jesus is the Wisdom of God. The human Jesus is the Spirit of God embodied in human life. In short, the meaning of all the statements [regarding] Jesus show us what a life full of God is like.

So what was Jesus like? I'm going to begin by providing you with my most compact summary of the historical Jesus. A three-fold summary. For those of you who know my books, this will be very familiar but it is also very compact so, hopefully, not too tedious.

I speak of Jesus first of all as a Jewish mystic. By this I mean that Jesus is one who knew God, who knew the Sacred, who knew the Spirit— terms which I use synonymously and interchangeably. He was one for whom the Spirit of God was an experiential reality.

Secondly, I see the historical Jesus as a wisdom teacher. As a wisdom teacher, He was a teacher of a way or a path. I speak about that way or that path with four short sentences, all of which I understand to be saying the same thing. It was a way that led beyond convention. It was the road less traveled— to use a phrase that we know from M. Scott Peck, who in turn borrowed it from Robert Frost. It was, to use language from Jesus Himself, the narrow way, the narrow gate. The contrast is to the broad way of conventional wisdom. Fourth, and finally, it was a subversive and alternative wisdom.

The third statement in my three-fold summary of what the historical Jesus was like is that He was a social prophet. As a social prophet, He was like the great social prophets of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament—people who also had vivid experiences of God and who in the name of God became God-intoxicated voices of religious, social protests directed against the domination systems of their day. These were domination systems that were marked by an economics of exploitation, a politics of oppression, and legitimated most frequently with a religious ideology, legitimated in the name of God. Jesus was like them—a radical critic of the domination system in the Jewish homeland in His day. Indeed, it was His passion as a social prophet that counts for Him getting killed. This is the political meaning of Good Friday. To put that three-fold summary into three phases, there was to Jesus first, a spirit dimension, secondly, a wisdom dimension, and thirdly, a justice dimension.

Now, what would it mean to take a figure like this, namely Jesus, seriously as a disclosure or a revelation of what a life full of God is like? What do we see? What would such a life look like? I will speak about this again with the three same subheadings I have just named. First, it would be a life lived in relationship to the same spirit which Jesus knew in His own experience. It would mean that the Christian life would not be very much about believing, and would not be about believing for the sake of Heaven later, but it is about the transforming relationship with God in the present. Indeed, I see this to be the central meaning of spirituality.

Spirituality I define as becoming conscious of and intentional about our relationship to God. I say conscious of because I firmly maintain that we are all already in a relationship with God and we have been so since our very beginning, whether we know that or not, believe that or not. Spirituality is about becoming conscious of that relationship. I say intentional because I see spirituality as being about paying attention to that relationship, being intentional about deepening that relationship and letting that relationship grow. Just as human relationships grow and deepen through spending time in them and paying attention to them, so also our relationship with God grows in this same way.

Secondly, a life that takes Jesus seriously as a disclosure of what a life full of God is like would be a life lived by the alternative wisdom of Jesus. The alternative wisdom of Jesus, the way less traveled, is, in fact, the same as a life lived in relationship to the spirit. The wisdom of Jesus leads us into a radical centering in the Sacred, in God. The contrast is to the life of conventional wisdom, which is the life that most of us live most of the time. I have described conventional wisdom a number of times in my books, and I don't want to be tedious by repeating all of that, and don't have time to do so anyway. I do want to call your attention to two of the many consequences of living in the world of conventional wisdom. The first is that conventional wisdom blinds us to wonder.

Let me move into this by explaining briefly what conventional wisdom is. Conventional wisdom is a culture's most taken-for-granted notions about two things—about what is real and about how to live. Conventional wisdom is cultural consensus. Conventional wisdom is what everybody knows, and it is what we are socialized into as we grow up. Growing up is basically learning the categories, labels and language of your culture. The effect of all of this is to blind us to the wondrous reality in which we live, and it does that by becoming a grid that is imposed on reality—a grid made up of language of categories and labels.

Let me try to illustrate this in a very simple way. Imagine that you had never before in your life seen a four-legged furry creature and then you see a cat. You would be utterly fascinated by that. Your attention would be riveted on that cat. Because cats are familiar to us and because we have the word cat, most often when we see a cat a little label goes on in our head that says "cat," and we don't pay any more attention to it unless it is an especially striking cat or we've got a lot of time on our hands or it is our cat. The point being, conventional wisdom blinds us to the sheer wonder of what is. It makes things look ordinary and familiar and nothing special.

When you think about it, the real wonder, in a way, is that this could ever look ordinary to us. You know how remarkable it is that we are, and that there is anything, and that we are here, and that this is all around us. There is a religious form of conventional wisdom as well. The religious form of conventional wisdom blinds us to the mystery and wonder of life with its excessive certitude. There is also a secular form of this. The secular form is that reduction of reality to the visible world of our ordinary experience, which is nothing special. Secular conventional wisdom has its excessive certitude as well.

A second effect of conventional wisdom is that it tells us how to live. It gets embedded within our minds as we grow up—the central values of our culture. One could make a very good case that the central values of modern Western culture are centered in what I have called the three As—appearance, affluence and achievement. All of us, at least in the first half of our lives, are, to a large extent, driven by these values. Driven by these values, we become blind to much else as well as burdened and preoccupied as to how we measure up to those values of appearance, affluence and achievement. Now, the way of Jesus is an invitation out of that kind of life—an invitation into a radically different kind of life.

To put it abstractly, the wisdom teaching of Jesus invites us to a radical decentering and recentering. A decentering from that world of conventional wisdom and a recentering in the spirit of God. To put it less abstractly by using one of the familiar images or metaphors of the New Testament, the way of Jesus involves dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being. That death and rebirth are at the very center of the Christian life…This way of Jesus has as its central fruit growth in compassion; delivered from the blinders of conventional wisdom, we become more compassionate beings. We see the wondrous creature that each of us is. We are also delivered from the preoccupation with pursuing the values of our culture that beat like a drum in our heads.

The third [subheading] is in a sense what I want to highlight in this sermon, because it is the most unfamiliar and most unsettling to us. It is the justice dimension of taking Jesus seriously. The God of the Bible, as we see that God disclosed in Moses, the prophets, and Jesus, is passionate about justice, about social justice, not about criminal justice. Why this passion for justice? Why is the God of the Bible so passionate about justice? The answer it seems to me is disarmingly simple. Because God cares about human suffering and the single greatest source of unnecessary human suffering, of unnecessary social misery, is systemic injustice. By systemic injustice I mean sources of suffering caused by cultural systems, by the structures of society. I think in many ways, this is a difficult notion for us, made more difficult to grasp by the ethos of American individualism.

So let me say a bit more about systemic injustice. Think of all the suffering caused throughout history in the ancient world and in the contemporary world by economic exploitation and destructive impoverishment, by the way elites in every society have made the system work in their own self-interest, by political oppression, by all the isms—racism, sexism, nationalism, imperialism, and you can add your own isms. These are all examples of systemic injustice. Injustice is built into cultural systems. More subtly, think of all the suffering caused by rigidly held convention and the cultural shaming that frequently goes along with it.

… Jesus as a social prophet, in the tradition of the great social prophets of Israel, stood against the systemic injustice of His day. Taking Jesus seriously means that our own consciousness needs to be raised regarding the way in which cultural systems cause enormous suffering for people. We need to understand that the ethical imperative that flows from Jesus is both personal and political. It is both compassion and justice. So to sum this up, taking Jesus seriously means a life increasingly centered in the spirit of God, a life lived by the alternative wisdom of Jesus and a life marked by compassion and justice.

To move to my conclusion, I want to relate all of this to the word repent. Repenting, … is  one of those very heavy words. When I was growing up, repenting was always associated with becoming really contrite about one's sinfulness and experiencing guilt. (Here I think of a remark made by one of my colleagues, John Dominic Crossan, about a week ago. It is one of those wonderful remarks that he makes so often. He said that he thinks of guilt on the heart as like gas on the stomach—something to be gotten rid of, a flatulence of consciousness, if you will.)

The roots of the word "repent" are very interesting and suggest something quite different— not intensification of guilt and contrition. When we look at the Greek roots of the word repentance, the verb is metonoata. The noun is metanoia. The Greek roots are very interesting. Meta means beyond. The noun from which the second part of the word repent is derived is noose in Greek, and it means mind. Putting that together, to repent means "to go beyond the mind that you have."

We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have— minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities and preoccupations—to minds and hearts centered in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have—minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism—to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, to minds alive to God's passion for justice.

All of this, it seems to me, is what it means to take Jesus seriously. The path of following Jesus is an invitation to go beyond the minds that we have. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 Dr. Marcus J. Borg
Excerpted from a sermon preached at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, March 16, 1999.