Living the Future Jesus Started

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This essay is part of the Jesus Then and Now project and relates especially to the Jesus Now - Emerging new forms of the Jesus assembly series

It was originally the conclusion to a keynote address for the SnowStar Institute of Religion annual conference at Niagara Falls, Canada in March 2002. The full text of that paper, "In the Name of Jesus: Contested claims to the legacy of Jesus," is available as a PDF file.[1]

Living out the future of what Jesus started

This address began with an invitation and a challenge. To my mind, the best response to the challenge is to take up the invitation and see if we can identify what it would be like to have human communities that are committed to living out the future of what Jesus started. Where is the dangerous memory of Jesus being kept alive in our time? If not in the churches, then where?

The memory of this ancient figure is indeed a dangerous thing to keep alive. As already noted, it does not fit well with the 2,000 year old tradition that claims to speak for Jesus. This misfit of Jesus and his most enthusiastic followers is one of the things that we must address when looking for places where the future of what Jesus started is being lived out today.

To start with, Jesus must be rescued from his fundamentalist friends: whether they be armed with Bible, prayer book or apostolic succession. In the end there is not much to choose between militant conservatives convinced that some past formula of faith provides them with the means to control the future of faith.

What is involved is no less than a choice between the Bible and Jesus, or between Church and Jesus, depending upon the variety of fundamentalist encountered. In both cases the choice itself sounds impossible at first hearing, but is worth a second thought.

The conservatives—including even such fine scholars as Luke Timothy Johnson—will tell us that it is the second order traditions about Jesus that matter most, not the first order information about the practice and teachings of Jesus himself. Now this is very strange.

They are happy enough to suggest that historical truth matters while ever we agree to equate that truth with the traditional accounts of the Gospels and the creeds. But as soon as the Gospels are shown to be already second or third generation interpretations of Jesus, we find that history is discounted as inimical to “true faith” and we are urged to trust the Church’s eternal witness to the Christ event rather than the shifting sands of historical reconstructions. Without claiming finality for any current or future reconstructions of the historical Jesus, we can assert that our best information about Jesus and the times in which he lived are vital clues for our task of keeping alive his memory within the Church and setting about the task of living out the future of what he began.

Contrary to Bultmann, we do need to know more than that there was once a person called Jesus who died on a cross. We need to know, as best we can, how he saw life within his vision of God’s basileia. How he integrated those insights with the society in which he lived. How he responded to the traditional expressions of religion in his community.

If — as is certainly the case — our best current accounts of Jesus will always have gaps in them, so be it. We must work with what we have. The historians’ proposals are still far more realistic accounts than what we find in the New Testament, even though those accounts give us precious insights into some of the ways that the earliest Christians tried to make sense of the Jesus tradition.

Indeed it is by paying careful and critical attention to those ancient accounts that we gain fresh insights into the historical Jesus. We can glimpse both the original vision and its early distortions as we seek to build basileia circles in our own time. As a result, we are better placed to fashion basileia communities that are less shaped by the imperial culture of ancient Rome and the mercantile empires of the modern world.

If the dangerous memory of Jesus is not likely to be found in the synods and conventions of the contemporary churches, how will we recognize it in other places? What are some of the hallmarks of this subversive sage that even his followers often seek to keep out of our churches?

Here is a preliminary list of such hallmarks. I will suggest five, but doubtless there are others.

First of all, since — as Marcus Borg would say — Jesus was a Spirit-person, one of the hallmarks of his memory being kept alive will be a capacity to engage with the classic spiritual traditions of our global community. Jesus lived from within his own Jewish tradition, and yet had the freedom to critique it and even initiate a renewal movement that would ultimately move beyond the limits that his Jewish tradition acknowledged. He could well have been asked why he stayed in the Jewish tradition given what he apparently believed about God’s basileia, but he chose not to leave it even when it killed him.

That capacity to glimpse God’s basileia will be the second hallmark of a community that seeks to live out the future of what Jesus started. Contemporary insights into that divine order may not capture the same vision that Jesus glimpsed, but they will surely recognise the compassionate and generous nature of the Sacred that seems to have been foundational to his vision of God. This captivating holiness will be experienced as non-violent and invitational, rather than as coercive and imperious.

Thirdly, such glimpses into the sacred heart of the universe will be expressed in a provocative wit and wisdom that subverts the ordinary and tests whether we really have eyes that see and ears that hear. That subversive wisdom will trade in the everyday stuff of real people’s lives, not in the scholars’ love of ancient texts or the abstract doctrines of the churchmen. Such wisdom will prove itself Sophia’s child by its capacity to confront evil without becoming violent and coercive.*

Fourthly, around such people inclusive and transformative communities will take form. In the places where the future of what Jesus began is being lived out, the lame will walk and the blind will see. In exchange for the message of the basileia and the blessing of healing, doors will open and tables will be set. In the absence of power brokers, these will be safe places to experiment with the realities of basileia. There will be no conditions for participation beyond a desire to take part. It will not be necessary to be correct. All that matters is that we are there.

The fifth hallmark is rather more sombre. In the communities where the dangerous memory of Jesus is being kept alive there will be suffering. There will be no late night camels out of Jerusalem for those who have glimpsed God’s basileia. While death will not be glorified, sometimes faithfulness means yielding to death rather than dying to truth. Most of the deaths will be little ones, and all the more tempting to avoid for that reason. But faithfulness in the small things is just as important within the basileia as faithfulness in the major things.

If I am right in identifying these as some of the hallmarks of the dangerous memory of Jesus, where might we expect to find communities seeking to live out the future of what Jesus began?

I appreciate Elizabeth Johnson’s instinct that this is the fundamental calling of the Church. I agree with her that keeping the dangerous memory of Jesus alive should be what the Church is best known for. But history suggests otherwise and, as we have seen, there are other parties who also have a claim to be custodians of the legacy of Jesus in our time.

My hunch is that there is already a diverse array of places where the future of what Jesus started is being lived out, even if the influence of Jesus and his vision of the basileia is not a conscious reality. This is not simply another version of the anonymous Christians argument. Let’s be quite plain about that. A whole host of people and organizations are promoting what we would identify as the basileia without ever being connected with the legacy of Jesus. They are not Christians, they have absolutely no need to be connected to the Jesus tradition, and I have no need to convert them!

What they — and we — have in common with Jesus is a glimpse into the basileia dynamics of life. Somewhere at some time their tradition, be it ancient or recent in origin, has caught a glimpse of the Sacred. To the extent that they are seeking to realise those basileia principles in their own lives and in their communities we are all engaged in living out the future of what Jesus started.

They may choose to stake a claim to the Jesus label themselves, but I have no need to impose it on others nor to withhold it from anyone. I am more interested in identifying common ground than in erecting billboards.

But there remains the matter of those of us who explicitly identify ourselves and our communities with the legacy of Jesus. Surely in our faith communities, at least, we can hope to find places where the future of what Jesus started is not only being lived out but also places where his dangerous memory is being kept alive?

In the end, I suspect that is why I remain in the Church and why I continue as a priest.

Here — at least in my dreams and occasionally in real life — I find myself in the company of other people who are indeed keeping the dangerous memory of Jesus alive. In their company I find that I can be a person of faith. Perhaps no longer believing in Jesus, but certainly someone believing with Jesus.

©2002 Greg Jenks

  • Walter Wink has written on these themes. See The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1998). In his essay, “Nonviolence for the Violent” The Fourth R 14/5 (Sept–Oct 2001) 3–5, Wink notes the provocative character of several of the core Jesus sayings.