Howard Bess

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer.

Central to Christian belief is that God was fully present in Jesus of Nazareth.

Officially, early bodies of followers concluded that Jesus was fully human and also fully divine. Intellectually they attempted somehow to reconcile God and a chosen human son without damaging or compromising either. Early church leaders left us with many descriptions but never satisfactory explanations. Probably more people have left the Christian Faith because of irrational, non-sense theology than for any other reason. Some would argue that creedal Christianity is completely irrational. I am willing to embrace a Christianity that is non-rational and I continue on with our religious conversations.

The writings of the New Testament are a part of the witness about the divine nature of Jesus. The gospels are quasi history at best. None were written by eye witnesses of the teacher from Galilee. They flesh out their descriptions of Jesus with myth and legend with a bit of history corrupted by questionable memory. The pursuit of the divine nature has been a merry chase. I have participated with a smile on my face and a chuckle in my voice. I reject the trinity and the irrational creeds of the Christian Church. I am a devout Christian. I am an ardent follower of Jesus from Nazareth, special son of God.

Paul wrote a major portion of the New Testament. He never met Jesus from Nazareth in person, and relies on the mystery of a onetime encounter on the road to Damascus. Paul heard Jesus but never saw him. Understandably Paul writes a lot of material about a theological Jesus and very little about the Jesus of flesh and blood and of history. When he does attempt to put the divine Jesus together with a human face and body, he ends up describing a Jesus with two bodies, one physical and the other spiritual. His theology ends up as a rewrite of Israelite theology with Jesus as the ageless center figure. Jesus’s death on a cross at the hands of Roman soldiers ends up a sacrifice on a temple altar.

In their obsession with making Jesus divine, the Church’s theologians gave little attention to the full humanity of Jesus. Mary became a virgin with an immaculate conception. They robbed Jesus of his full humanity and took away the real significance of the social, political and financial reformation that he attempted to lead. We are now in the full bloom of a search for the Jesus of human history. It is now being led by very fine scholars in state universities. A religious studies department is now standard fare in many major state university in the country. We now have a growing number of Bible scholars without theological commitments. A focus of their scholarship is the humanity of Jesus, who grew up in Nazareth and became a political reformer in a poverty stricken community in Northern Palestine.

This new band of scholars are not about communion and baptisms, about holy water and changing grape juice into the blood of Christ. They are a part of a look at Jesus who was executed by Roman soldiers for being an insurrectionist.

I welcome the fast moving discussion of the Jesus of history. By doing so, I do not abandon my interest in the fullness of God living and dwelling in the body of the Jesus of history. My best understanding of a true incarnation is that it does not and cannot do damage to either the humanity or divinity of the teacher from Nazareth.

There are two particulars of the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth that I insist we return to full involvement In the everyday world. The first is the speaking of truth to power. We live in a nation of law. Our great American founding documents are not and were not intended to be moral statements. They are designed to produce order, not justice and morality. Our courts do not make decisions of morality. They make decisions according to the law. Our U.S. Supreme Court does not make moral decisions. They make decisions based on their best judgments according to the laws of the land.

Who then speaks for the justice and moral concerns of our civil society? In Jesus’s day Jesus spoke out for the well-being of the poor and disfranchised in distressing circumstances. Jesus spoke, marched and demonstrated. Roman soldiers killed him for insurrection. Ministers, individual Christians, and churches abandon their Christ when they remain silent in the face of injustice. The humanity of Jesus demands our presence in the public square. The neglect of the Jesus of history is one of the horror stories of the Christian Faith.

The second neglected particular of the humanity of Jesus from Nazareth is his sexuality. The reality is blunt. Jesus was not fully human, if he was not a sexual being. Jesus was like the rest of the male population. He too had to decide the meaning of responsible sexual behavior. I have no insight into how Jesus handled his God given sexual abilities and desires. I am confident that he was sexually responsible, but sexual indeed. In today’s world to demand sexual abstinence of the priesthood is a blatant violation of the true humanity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Until the full humanity of Jesus is embraced by Christ followers, the genius of the incarnation will be sadly compromised.

THE END

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. He is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant. His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.

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