Flannery O’Connor understood something disturbingly true about the real Jesus. In her novel Wise Blood she wrote of her protagonist Hazel Motes, “He [Hazel] knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”1
This is a figure too scary for Sunday School children to hear about and perhaps that is part of our problem. The Jesus we were taught about as children is not the real Jesus at all. And having been taught about a phony Jesus when we are children the real Jesus encountered as an adult is unrecognized. What we might really need is a Jesus who sometimes scares the hell out of us!
The Jesus of the Gospels was often a frightening figure. In the very passage that O’Connor references where Jesus is walking on the water he comes to the disciples like a ghost (Mark 6:49-50). We often miss the frightfulness of this experience for them. Other examples of the disciples feeling afraid in the presence of Jesus occur in Mark 4:40, 5:15, 9:32 , 10:32, and 16:8. To walk with Jesus was not to walk on the sunny side of the street. Jesus led them into the darkness, the shadows, through graveyards, and into the midst of the storm.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked (Mark 8:29). Clearly he was not expecting them to parrot back something they learned in catechism class. He was asking them to make a declaration based upon their own personal experience. This experience would have been an ever-changing (orienting-disorienting-reorienting) cycle of interpretation. What kept them around until that so-not-bitter-end we call resurrection was the continual discovery that Jesus was always more than they imagined him to be. If they had left the scene early (see “rich young ruler” or “Judas Iscariot”) they would never have known that. They would have remained bound by their not-high-enough-expectations of him.
It’s crucial to understand that it was the reality of Jesus that kept blowing them away! Jesus kept surpassing their noblest ideas and their wildest dreams. That is one reason they eventually felt at ease equating Jesus with God. They had learned never to underestimate this man.
“Jesus is Lord” became a declaration of that first generation’s intense experience of him and the hold he had upon them. The disciples experienced Jesus as someone surpassing all their past prejudices, presumptions, and paradigms. They tried to append traditional titles to him (Lion of Judah, Son of Man, Messiah, etc); but these were inadequate and they kept inventing others (Lamb of God, Alpha and Omega, etc) which also remained inadequate.
Nicaea a few hundred years later finally collated and codified these titles as “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” We’re a long way from Mark chapter 8 now! But what remains valuable in the Nicene Creed is the bringing together of two questions that help us in understanding Jesus. The first is “who do we say that God is?” and the second is “who do we say humanity is?” Nicaea asserts that Jesus provides a clue to answer both questions — and perhaps more than just a clue.
Both God and humanity are mysteries to be explored. We are questions not answers. Jesus is a landmark and touchstone to both. He functions as a landmark that we move toward as we follow him in discipleship. He functions as a touchstone who continually helps us test discernments about ourselves and God.
By “believing in Jesus” I am staking my life on the suspicion (the strong and overwhelming suspicion) that following him will take me further in the direction I need to go than following anyone else or striking out in any direction I may sometimes want to go. I may be wrong about that or I may even at some point change my mind. Who knows? On the other hand, I might also be wrong “to set my hand to the plow and turn back” (Luke 9:62) because this “wild, ragged figure” has surprised us before. If Jesus really is Lord then we should never count him out nor give up on him too soon.
Albert Schweitzer in the conclusion to his Quest for the Historical Jesus wrote: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”2
Schweizer emphasizes that the following precedes the knowing. Discipleship in this view is more important than orthodoxy – our walk more important than our talk. The revelation of who Jesus is comes to us in the toil, conflict, suffering we pass through in actually following Jesus. It is not that the identity of Jesus is unimportant, but that the way to knowing that identity comes through the following. Peter’s confession that “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” comes as both a gift of grace and as part of the discipleship that made that gift possible.
And yet even then Jesus will remain “an ineffable mystery”—a wild ragged figure motioning us to turn around and come off into the dark where we are not sure of our footing. “Come and follow me,” says Jesus. Be my disciple. Take a walk on the wild side.
- Flannery O’Connor. Wise Blood (Farrar Strauss, & Giroux, 2004), page 16
- Albert Schweitzer. The Quest for the Historical Jesus (Dover Edition, 2005), page 487
Ric Hudgens is a "conspiratorial consultant" for ProActive: The Prophetic Activism Initiative: "creating spaces for God's freedom dreams". He is a perpetual newcomer to intentional Christian community at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois and pastor-in-residence at a local African-American congregation.