Which Jesus Do We Believe In?

As an on-fire teenage Christian, I knew the importance of shouting my faith to the world. So I emblazoned the trunk lid of my rusted Ford with a bumper sticker that did the trick: bright green, huge type, and the words from an old hymn -- I have decided to follow Jesus.

It never occurred to me to ask: which Jesus?

Back then, of course, there was no question. I hewed to the Jesus that the Church has long considered the definitive Jesus, with his definitive story. Jesus died for our sins. Jesus rose for our salvation. Those events defined Christianity like nothing else.

I still cherish that Jesus. The story still resonates deeply, as it does for many Christians. But it leaves us with at least two problems -- or maybe they're opportunities.

First, so much of it makes so little sense in the world of 2016. What does died for our sins really mean, in language we postmoderns can understand? What kind of God requires a blood sacrifice -- of his own son, no less? Why would this Jesus condemn people to hell anyway? Salvation from what? We hear a story neck-deep in ancient language as people swimming in today's culture. No wonder we get blank stares when we venture to tell this story.

Second, there are other Jesuses, as it were. Sure, there's the Jesus who moved his disciples, and us, by telling them that "no one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13). But then there's the Jesus who violently overturned the tables of merchants in the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 11:15-17). There's the Jesus who told the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-9), which contains the un-Jesus-like line "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth."

As if that weren't enough, many of us who've tried to follow Jesus have found him more demanding than we might like: calling us to do things we don't want to do, challenging us to love people we can't stand, changing our attitudes from the inside out. In his book A Sacred Voice Is Calling, psychologist John Neafsey describes what happens when this calling meets our cultural values: "contrary to our expectation that we will be carried upwards, we experience instead a downward pull" -- away from upward mobility, away from material wealth, away from tangible results.

At this point we might be tempted to echo St. Teresa of Avila's famous rant to God: "If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them." So what do we do?

I would suggest two things. First, let's embrace everything about this Jesus -- all the Jesuses we find in the Bible and in our lives. Yes, let's celebrate how the love expressed by Jesus has blessed us. Let's also admit that some of the parables baffle us, and that we don't understand hell either, and that sometimes we believe God asks us to do things that scare us, like leaving a secure job to serve the poor.

Think of it this way: Every one of us has many facets to our personality. Every one of us contains paradoxes, mystery, things that are hard for others to understand. Why should Jesus be any different? Why can't we love this Jesus and find him occasionally aggravating?

Second, let's see where we can translate the gospel's ancient language for the world we have now. Maybe we focus less on blood sacrifice and more on the God who insisted on living human life to its dregs -- including the shame and pain of death -- because that's what it took to love us completely. Maybe we rethink our idea of God as a judge to note that he comes to judge us every day: not in punishment, but in correction, guidance, transformation. Maybe we focus less on whether Jesus rose bodily from the dead and more on the thunderous hope and life that the resurrection provides, weaving through our misery and somehow, ultimately, defeating it.

How do we do this in our everyday lives? Methods of silent prayer (like centering prayer) open our deepest selves to God's presence and voice. Playing with sacred texts -- not just analyzing, but reading and seeing what emerges in our hearts, or imagining ourselves in the scene -- opens our minds to fresh ways of seeing long-proclaimed truths. The more we open to God, the more God opens to us, and the more our lives reorient themselves to God like a compass to true north.

The life of the spirit actually becomes fun.

None of this is easy. It may involve a lot of giving up and setting aside: of ideas, beliefs, life plans. But it can bring us to a life lived closer to God -- a life more different, much deeper, more filled with joy than anything we thought imaginable.