Expressions on the Face of the Saviour
Old Testament Reading: Exodus
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
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.
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.
have spotted more than once the catchy slogan "Jesus is my best friend." My
reaction? Immediately I thought, "Have you seen a psychiatrist?"
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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?
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.)
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
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.
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.
is in making Jesus a ventriloquist dummy for either your self-indulgence or your
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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