This is 'Shot at Dawn' at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. A reminder of the men and boys executed during WW1 for 'cowardice'.
According to the book of Acts, the first followers of Jesus (or rather Jeshua – ‘Jesus’ is an English word translated from the Greek, neither of which he spoke), were known as the 'Nazarenes’ or the ‘Followers of the Way’. They only became ‘Christians’ later. Jesus, and his first disciples, lived and died as Jews. The ‘Jesus sect’ existed within Judaism - alongside continuing Jewish practice – until the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the community scattered, in 70CE. Then it gradually became all about non-Jews, Gentiles. You can see the tensions between the two groups throughout the New Testament.
It is therefore impossible for me to respond to his story in the same way as those who had previously been, or still were, Jews. Christians often use the word ‘Christ’ to refer to this historical person. ‘Christ’ was raised from the dead’ etc. That is wrong. ’Christ’ is a title ascribed to Jesus after his life, not his surname! It means ‘Messiah’, again translated from the Greek. It refers to who they believed Jesus of Nazareth had become, not to who he was.
If Jesus ever made such a claim about himself, and, because the gospel writers weren’t there at the time we can’t be sure he did, he would have been referring to its meaning within Judaism, not Christianity. It would have been in line with his reported quotation from Isaiah about justice, peace and freedom. His self-giving death may well have been a response to his understanding of Isaiah's 'suffering servant' on behalf of the nation. But the idea of 'atonement' with God by the cross and the need to be individually 'saved' to avoid eternal condemnation, or the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity, only came later, not from Jesus.
So if I haven’t ever been a Jew, and if ‘Jesus’ is only available to me through later writers who changed his original purpose and I don't believe in the Creeds as we have inherited them, how can I follow in his ‘Way’? In one sense I can’t. That was then and this is now. I wasn’t there either. I didn’t hear what he actually said and the gospels cannot be treated as if they are transcribed tape-recordings.
All I can do is to treat the life of this human person Jesus as a story which contains truths about what it means for me to be human too. I may try to peel back the layers that others have put around him, but I can never get back to the ‘real’ historical Jesus. But I can ask myself, ’Why did the gospel writers (writing after Paul) tell his story in the way that they did’? ‘What kind of person emerges’? Even if these are not his actual words, what example of humanity were they seeking to share? And can I ever hope to be a person like that?
So my ‘Way’ of following Jesus is not to be a ’Christian’. That carries far too many additional requirements that, for me, take me away from the person Jesus was. Like his first followers, I do try to ‘remember’ him, so even I still sometimes receive the Eucharist which keeps the story alive. But as for his teaching, all we have is generalities, not specifics. What do the gospel writers agree on? His compassion. His care for the outcast. His radical challenge to existing ‘religious’ ways of doing things. That the ‘kingdom’, the signs of his God were to be found in the everyday lives of ordinary people, not in the grand palaces of the powerful or the holy places of the priests.
And in the end they killed him for it. Like they have killed countless others before and since. So my feeble attempt to follow in his Way is to try to be on the side of those still most likely to be neglected or treated equally shamefully. The refugee. The poor. The powerless. I know it’s all tokenism but I can’t start my life from somewhere else or become a person I am not. But I can care. Not, of course as he did, but as I can. That, not my own alleged ‘salvation’, I genuinely believe, would have mattered far more to him.
Comment and feedback always welcome.
Can Christianity and its central human figure still mean anything to those who are not convinced by the usual ideas of a 'God'? This website offers a range of ways to explore this question.
On this page you'll find details of how to purchase my book 'The Apostate's Creed'. PLUS a link to a page that explains why I am not 'a Christian' and another which sums up my approach to the Way of Jesus. Is there another way to engage with the Jesus story that doesn't require you to take it all literally or sign up to the religion that bears his name?
In Study Resources you'll find a PowerPoint (with audio) on 'Who wrote the Bible'? PLUS discussion notes on the classic book from the 1960s, ''Honest to God' which still raises so many key questions that have never been answered. And my own first book: humanist reflections on the Psalms from 2011: 'Walking without God'. These are all free.
Book Reviews suggests some reading which I've found helpful.
Friendly Feedback is always very welcome. Please let me know if you have found my ideas interesting.
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