Spirit Alive: It's Time for a Bit More Jesus


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and beyond.

April 9, 2019

Food for the Soul:

What Can the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Teach Us About Our Own Life and Times?

As the Post-General Conference reality settles in and we continue seeking to find our spiritual bearings in the midst of troubled and turbulent times...it's not a bad time, in the middle of Lent, to turn to Jesus for guidance and direction. All too often, as we go through the rituals of the church, we do so as if we are visiting some distant, far off reality. But in many ways, Jesus' time, context, and challenges are a lot like our own.

In recent months, I've been reading a number of books about Jesus and his times. In one of them, Selina O'Grady's provocative book, And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus, O'Grady writes: "At the end of the first century BC, the world was full of gods....Kings, queens, and emperors were riding on the back of religion as they had always done....Empire and religion often used each other....The ancient world was undergoing a period of globalization every bit as dislocating and traumatic as our own."

It wouldn't be farfetched to say that the stark divisions that we find ourselves in today are occurring because many of our beliefs are expressed through fundamentally different religious principles, even within Christianity itself...And add to that our inability to connect with each other across borders, as the pace of  globalization continues to accelerate, and it is easy to see why we struggle on so many fronts to find our collective equilibrium. It is always a difficult task to confront and integrate various perspectives across cultures and traditions in a cohesive, understandable manner. So maybe Jesus' reality isn't so distant from us after all. 

And because of the similarities between Jesus' times and our own, I think it's important to pause and think about Jesus once again. Not in terms of the simplistic WWJD?...as in, what would Jesus do? And not as Marcus Borg says in his powerful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. Because the reality is that it's hard to say exactly what Jesus would do today (although I have a lot of ideas about things he wouldn't do!)...and we are probably spending time with Jesus during this Lenten Season for the 100th time, not the first.

But our times so resemble Jesus' own times...which were filled with political power plays, social inequality, religious turmoil, and spiritual longing.....that not to focus on Jesus would be foolish on our part, especially as people who call ourselves Christians and who seek to follow his Way of living.

So here's where this journey and encounter with Jesus takes me....

When I was in college and started my tradition of reading biographies regularly, the first one I read was Albert Schweitzer's autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought. It was there that I encountered Schweitzer's quest for the historical Jesus. This quest was on the minds of lots of scholars at end of the 1890s and early 1900s. And it was central to Schweitzer's life, as a philosopher, physician, theologian, missionary, philanthropist, and musician.

To Schweitzer, "Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from him and flows through our being also. This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery. It is the solid foundation of Christianity." In fact, Schweitzer deeply wanted to understand who Jesus was and what his life meant for him...and for his times. For Schweitzer, his quest ended in the ethic of love and a reverence for all life. So it should not be surprising that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for his humanitarian work.

But understanding what Jesus can teach us about our present journey does not end with Schweitzer. Recently I've jumped in head first to read a number of books about Jesus in hopes of getting some guidance about how he navigated his own world. I just completed reading the four Gospels once again, which serve as the "Owner's Manuel" for Christian living. But it was also through reading several other resources on Jesus that my understanding of him expanded and I came to know my own times and struggles better as well.

This should be easy for many of us to consider, since we've all been invited by Bishop Stanovsky to study Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking. It is here, in his journey with Jesus, that McLaren says: "Who was Jesus? People of his day would have given many answers-- a healer, a troublemaker, a liberator, a threat to law and order, a heretic, a prophet, a community organizer. His friends and foes would have agreed on this: he was a powerful teacher. When we scan the pages of the gospels, we find Jesus teaching in many different ways."

McLaren goes on to say that Jesus taught through signs and wonders, public lectures, surprising impromptu moments, private retreats and field trips, public demonstrations, and parables. And McLaren concludes that it was through all these means that Jesus made his main point: "To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to seek first the kingdom and justice of God...(and) to become a student of the one great subject Jesus came to teach in many creative ways."

For Schweitzer this meant: "Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us...The essential element in Christianity as it was preached by Jesus and as it is comprehended by thought, is this, that it is only through love that we can attain to communion with God." This is wise counsel for troubled times!

Love... simply love God and others...and you will find sacredness residing there! It is the essence of the Christian faith.

But let's be clear about what Jesus' kind of love means....It is not passive. It is not lukewarm. And it is not without risks...as Jesus clearly demonstrates.

Instead, Jesus' love engages people where they are...Sure it is about kindness, patience, and perseverance...but love also confronts injustice, bigotry, social alienation, and imperial/colonial ways of living. And in the end it is the greatest of gifts-- both spiritual and political-- because through love we come to know both God...and neighbor in profound and lasting ways. 

In his bestselling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan reminds us that there are many important sides of Jesus to consider as we remember and honor his Way: "The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth-- Jesus the man-- is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in."

So as we approach Holy Week, let us return to Jesus' Way as we enter this dramatic historical moment in time, knowing that the events of this journey still have much to teach us about our own times and lives.

And in the process of doing so, we learn the Way to abundant living. Jesus put it like this: "I give you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other." (John 13: 34)

Blessings on your journey,


Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.






Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org