r m p




Expressions on the Face of the Saviour

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 20:4-6

New Testament Reading: Luke 22:54-62

I always have an eye open for the latest in bumper sticker theology. I never agree with any of it, no matter where it is coming from, but it is always interesting to see what one-phrase distillation people will reduce their faith to.

And besides proclaiming the faith of the driver, these bumper stickers have the interesting effect of a word association test on anyone that sees them. You must have ­some­ reaction, after all, to a preachment like, "In case of Rapture this car will be left driverless"! Director Michael Tolkin sure did! This bumper sticker led him to make the film The Rapture.

The sticker will immediately confront you with what you do or do not believe. The instant affirmation or indignation you feel serves as a gauge of your own faith.

Recently I have spotted more than once the catchy slogan "Jesus is my best friend." My reaction? Immediately I thought, "Have you seen a psychiatrist?"

The driver means to display his piety (despite the stern forbid ding of displays of piety in the Sermon on the Mount), presumably in order to encourage others to share it.

But what he or she actually displays to me is a pathetic delusion. I cannot help but conclude that here we have a sad creature who has no real, flesh-&-blood companions, so for comfort he or she turns to fanciful fellowship with an imaginary playmate named Jesus.

It will be my goal, first, this Sunday morning, to explain where this strange piety of delusion came from. Then we will see its dangers, and finally if there is any way to redeem its value.

We find a first anticipation of it in this morning's New Testament reading, in the poignant scene from Luke's gospel. There Jesus is on trial for his life, deserted by every friend. One friend, it seems, has lingered, but as developments quickly show, even he has stayed behind only to add insult to injury: when asked if he will stand by the discredited pseudo-messiah, Peter clucks like a chicken that, no, he does not know any one named Jesus, and has never even heard the name!

Suddenly it becomes a chorus of poultry, as a rooster crows. And this brings Peter to full awareness that he is helplessly acting the role that Fate had cast for him earlier when Jesus told him he would be denying him before the night was out. Sure enough, no sooner are the traitorous words out of his beak than the cock crows! Three denials and not a moment to spare!

And then, as if expecting it, as if not surprised in the least, because he isn't, Jesus turns and shoots Peter a reproving glance, as if to say, "I told you so!" Peter breaks down sobbing.

One can only wonder what the crowd around the campfire made of this.

I doubt they made much of it at all, because we are simply not meant to think things out that far. The scene is literary in character, not historical, and the gospel writer loses interest in the once-threatening crowd after they have served their dramatic purpose; after that both the author and the readers forget them.

The searching glance of Jesus is another stroke painted on the canvass. Of the four evangelists, only Luke has it, and it is plainly one of the many novelistic embellishments which make his gospel what fellow-sentimentalist Renan called "the most beautiful book in the world."

How do you suppose Peter could even see the face of Jesus from where he was? And Jesus was being interrogated; how did he manage to keep one ear open for the fireside whispers?

Well, the answer is that all this occurred to the pious imagination of Luke and nowhere else. He has imagined the searching glance of Jesus, heavy with hurt that is no lighter for being expected, pain that aches as much over Peter's weakness as for the fact of his betrayal.

The imaginative embellishment of Jesus in maudlin hues drawn from piety's introspective palette: it begins here, but it will even tually provide the masochistic displays of Medieval crucifixion scenes, stigmata, and passion plays, and the dolorous visions of anorexic saints.

It will also give us the singular spirituality of Pietism, the "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Let me now read you a passage from Count Zinzendorf, the great Pietist teacher of the 18th century.

When a person becomes a Christian..., for a moment the Savior becomes present to him in person. ... I do not pretend that we see a body with our corporeal eyes... It is the heart that must see at least once... [In] reality and truth one has the Creator of all things... standing in his suffering form, in his penitential form, in the form of one atoning for the whole human race - this individual object stands before the vision of one's heart, before the eyes of one's spirit, before one's inward man... Now this is the entrance to this state, that one receives him at this moment, looks at him longingly, and falls in love with him; that one says, "... Yes, God, Creator, Holy Spirit! My eyes have seen your [salvation], they have seen your little Jesus; my heart wept for joy when his nail prints, his wounds, his bloody side stood before my heart..."

But what kind... of effect on our heart does his perpetual look have afterward? ... every loving look from the Savior indicates our morality to us throughout our whole life: One dissatisfied, one  sorrowful, one painful look from the Savior embitters and makes loathsome to us everything that is immoral, unethical, and disorderly... For the only remedy against all... alluring demands, gross or subtle, is the doubtful glance of the Savior, when the form of Jesus does not seem so pleasing, so joyful to our hearts, when he seems to us to be no longer so sweetly before our hearts as usual.

... in the eyes of the tortured Lamb, there lies your blessed, happy knowledge of good and evil. (­Nine Public Lectures on Important Subjects in Religion­, 1746)

You may find a similar scene in the InterVarsity Press allegory of devotionalism, My Heart, Christ's Home by Robert Boyd Munger, pages 10-12.photocopy]

You may think it an exercise in esoterica for me so to explore these currents and eddies of Christian pietism this morning. But let me note that I am right in step with most of the Protestant ministers in the Western Hemisphere at this very moment. Don't you realize that the new Protestant majority is precisely the sort of subjectivism I have been describing?

Only whereas they are advocating it, I am questioning it, this sentimental orthodoxy of American Christianity. (I do not mean to flatter myself as a rebel, only to hang onto my sanity in a climate of spiritual hysteria.)

A very strange transformation has come over the religious lands cape, and this even from a conservative Christian viewpoint. I recall once hearing Tammy Bakker, before her empire imploded, ernestly informing viewers that the great goal and real essence of Christianity was to "have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Tammy said and did many idiosyncratic things, but this wasn't one of them. Here she spoke for her tradition.

I want you to notice: here the sine qua non of Christianity is not the eternal verities of cross and resurrection, the person and work of Christ, justification by grace through faith -- no, something rather more in the ball park of speaking in tongues. You must be able to claim a particular kind of spiritual visualization experience, a personal relationship with a figment of the overheated imagination of introspection -- or you are not saved! Not a Christian!

There is an almost irresistible temptation to seek Jesus and to discover one's own likeness imprinted on his Holy Shroud. The Roman Catholic Modernist George Tyrrell observed that all the 19th century "questers after the historical Jesus," for all their scholarly acumen, really were like men looking down a deep well and seeing their own face at the bottom, only failing to recognize what they were seeing. "Helloooo down there!"

It may be that the highest expression (surely the most revealing) of Christian spirituality is the picture one might paint of Jesus as one imagines him. This is what gives works like Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibran's Jesus the Son of Man their power.

We all create our own personal Jesus Christs from the meagre evidence of the texts and of our own experience. This, I think, is the unintended truth of the slogan of Jesus as one's "personal savior." He is a different savior in the eye of every beholder. Your personal savior is customized a bit differently from mine. He doesn't have all the same options. That is inevitable.

The danger is in making Jesus a ventriloquist dummy for either your self-indulgence or your neuroses.

In the former case, Jesus will go too easy on you. He will not so much have taken onto himself "the form of a servant" as Philip pians says, as he will have become your butler, your Jeeves, your Man Friday, your servile yes-man. He will meekly do something the real Jesus would ­never­ have done, namely to rubber-stamp the whims of your own conscience.

In the latter case, the imaginary Jesus of your self-hatred will speak with the voice of sacrifice and negation, calling you to the nihilistic pseudo-discipleship of withdrawing from everyone and everything you love.

Isn't it obvious that the gaze of Jesus as imagined by Luke, Zinzendorf, Munger, and the rest is really the conscience of the Christian dressed up in costume like Jesus, as Phil Hartman does so well on ­Saturday Night Live­? (Admit it, you've seen it!)

Jesus has become the alias of the superego. And there's nothing particularly wrong with that. At least there needn't be. All I see wrong with it is a peculiar style of self-deception which, I admit, repels me, despite my long acquaintance with it, because it seems childish and maudlin. It is to play with an imaginary playmate in the field of morbid introspection.

If that is what "having a personal relationship with Christ" means, and I ­do­ think that's what the lingo refers to, then I renounce it. If you think one must have a personal relationship with Jesus to be saved, then you may consign me to the flames.

But at the bottom of the sugary swamp of pietism I believe I can see something I can affirm. Isn't it all an elaborate way of say ing that one must internalize the voice of Jesus Christ? Isn't it a way of trying not to leave his sayings closed up in the pages of a book somewhere?

Isn't it a way of bringing to pass what Colossians calls "the hope of glory: Christ in you"? Now there is a staggering phrase!

When one looks at this explosive and enigmatic figure in the gospels, one must surely think twice about the prospect of enlisting in his service, of following him. But how many times must one consider before accepting the dare of "Christ in you"? What might the results be? And by what method could one bring it about? Communion is one such: it is a directed symbolic performance in which you say "If bringing Jesus Christ within me as a nourishing and powerful presence were as easy to do as eating and drinking these elements dedicated to him, then I would do it!" And, what do you know, you ­are­ doing it in that moment!

But it will not stick, nor will it have the slightest content if you don't take the time sometime to memorize and meditate upon some of the words attributed to Jesus.

Which sayings are the most striking and disturbing, the most provoking to you as you read them? Then they are the ones to begin with! Dare to face them, to mull them over, to let them get inside you.

When you least expect it, in the moment of moral confusion or helplessness, my bet is that these very sayings will come to mind like a wisdom from without, that is yet somehow within. You will hear no tortured lambs bleating; see no nagging messiahs giving you a dirty look; but in the most real sense, Christ will be in you.

Robert M. Price


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