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Unwrapping Jesus, by Philip Yancey

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Jesus is Not the Church

George Buttrick, former chaplain at Harvard, recalls that students would come into his office, plop down on a chair and declare, “I don’t believe in God.” Buttrick would give this disarming reply: “Sit down and tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.”

Many people who reject Jesus are rejecting not Jesus, but a distortion of him as presented by the church. To our everlasting shame, the watching world judges Jesus by a church whose history includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadores in Latin America, and a slave ship called the Good Ship Jesus.

In order to get to know Jesus, I had to strip away layers of dust and grime applied by the church itself. In my case, the image of Jesus was obscured by the racism, intolerance, and petty legalism of fundamentalist churches in the South. A Russian or European Catholic confronts a very different restoration process. “For not only dust, but also too much gold can cover up the figure,” wrote Hans Küng about his own search. Many abandon the quest entirely; rebuffed by the church, they never make it to Jesus.

Many people who reject Jesus are rejecting not Jesus, but a distortion of him as presented by the church.

I often wish that we could somehow set aside church history, remove the church’s many layers of interpretation, and encounter the words of the Gospels for the first time. Not everyone would accept Jesus—they did not in his own day—but at least people would not reject him for the wrong reasons.

Once I was able to cut through the fog clinging from my own upbringing, my opinion of Jesus changed remarkably. Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, merciful, slippery, loving, irreducible, paradoxically humble—Jesus stands up to scrutiny. He is who I want my God to be.

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Yet the Church is Jesus

What I have longed for, nonetheless, is not only impossible; it is unscriptural. Jesus planned from the beginning to die so that we his church could take his place. (“Once again,” as Robert Farrar Capon reminds us, “God was—and still is—throwing us sinkers.”) He stayed just long enough to gather around him followers who could carry the message to others. Killing Jesus, says Walter Wink, was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.

The church is where God lives. What Jesus brought to a few—healing, grace, the good-news message of God’s love—the church can now bring to all. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he explained, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

As I worked through the Gospels I concluded that the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith—not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles.

It seems odd to admit such a notion—I have never read a book or article designed to answer doubts about the Ascension—yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if Jesus had stayed on earth to direct us?

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 1998, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Philip Yancey is the award-winning author of over twenty books. You can learn more about him at his website, PhilipYancey.com.

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