Jesus’ Spirituality (part 1)

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Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay

We live in an age that’s increasingly disillusioned by institutions. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the recent government shutdown shows a historically low 12% approval rating for the US Congress. Those dramatic poll numbers come after ugly partisan gridlock but follow a consistent historical trajectory of growing disenchantment with major institutions, including organized religion. A common refrain today is, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Even so, our disillusionment doesn’t compare with the widespread frustration with political and religious institutions in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. Hostility toward the Roman occupation of Palestine fed a simmering insurrection that eventually erupted into open rebellion. The animosity spilled over onto Jewish religious leaders and organized Temple religion in Jerusalem, which exploited common people and collaborated with the hated Roman imperialists.

According to the gospel narratives, Jesus had running battles with the religious and political elites in Palestine. He challenged organized religious structures related to worship in the Temple, which exploited common people (Luke 19:46). Ordinary people recognized a spiritual authority in him that was different from the authority of institutional religious leaders (Mat. 7:29). What kind of spirituality was it and what can we learn from it?

Comparatively little has been written about the spirituality of Jesus. In contrast, major theological battles have been fought, opponents have been persecuted, churches have split, and interfaith quarrels have erupted over different claims about the humanity and the divinity of Jesus. It’s not my intention to enter into those arguments other than to say that they add little to the question at hand. Likewise, scholars studying the historical Jesus have long debated the extent to which Jesus was (1) a prophet inaugurating the rule of God, (2) a sage or religious teacher, (3) a healer and exorcist, or (4) a savior and liberator (Roger Haight, Jesus Symbol of God, 60-78). These debates have also largely side-stepped the question of Jesus’ spirituality.

Yet all the gospels record that Jesus’ public ministry began with an intense spiritual vision of the Spirit descending on him and a voice from heaven proclaiming that he is God’s beloved son. This was immediately followed by Spirit initiated trial in the wilderness that lasted for forty days (Mark 1:9-15). Biblical scholar Marcus Borg notes that this experience placed Jesus in the Spirit-filled heart of Judaism that included historical figures such as Moses and Elijah (Jesus: A New Vision, 40-46).

This Spirit-filled center of Judaism involves a contemplative and mystical spirituality that has been largely lost in Christianity. In my next post I will explore some aspects of this spirituality and what we can learn from it.

Capital City Pastor

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My morning routine involves dropping my wife Ruth off at her World Vision office near Union Station and then driving my Prius by Capitol Hill and out Constitution Avenue past the White House on the way to our church in Fairfax, Virginia where I serve as pastor. It gives me a view of pedestrians, people on bicycles, and people in cars beginning their work day in our nation’s capital. It also gives me time to reflect on lots of things including what it means to be a person of faith in this city.

I’m a scholar of religion and culture. I did my doctoral dissertation on “the politics of Jesus,” which eventually was published as Practicing the Politics of Jesus. I seek to articulate and practice spirituality, freedom, and community as lived and taught by Jesus. I envision many blog posts on these topics. I also love being a pastor. It keeps me grounded and in touch with the lives of many different people. Besides that, I enjoy restoring old houses and am an avid organic gardener. I suspect these avocations will also sneak their way into my blog posts.

I have been contemplating writing another blog for some time and have given lots of thought about its focus and content. Two recent experiences helped me to better formulate that. One was visiting my son Steve and his family in California. Steve is a lawyer who recently read Reza Aslan’s bestselling book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. The book generated several engaging late-night conversations. Aslan is a thoughtful scholar and an excellent writer who is to be commended for drawing in ordinary people and putting historical Jesus scholarship on bestseller lists. I, however, remain unconvinced by his portrayal of Jesus as a Zealot bent on forcefully overthrowing the Roman military occupation of Palestine.

Scholars have long debated the relationship between Jesus and the Zealot movement. It’s obvious that Jesus was a religious and political revolutionary but he also confounds attempts to clearly identify him with the various religious and political parties in first century Palestine. While he shared some of the social justice concerns and even the rhetoric of the Zealots, I’m more convinced by historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg’s argument that the Jesus movement was the peace party in Palestine.

So what kind of revolutionary was Jesus and what does it mean to follow him in our world? The other experience that helped me shape a response to that question was teaching the course “Faith and Urban Community” for students at the Washington Community Scholars’ Center this summer. My students were taking our course while doing internships with various nonprofit organizations and government offices. One of the books we studied was Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide by Brian McLaren. We had thought-provoking conversations as we refracted those topics through life in this city.

McLaren depicts the Jesus movement as a “divine peace insurgency” and explores what it means for us to join this peace insurgency as we respond to the spiritual and social challenges in our world. That’s what I want to write about and am indebted to McLaren for the title of my blog. This can be controversial. Jesus’ original peace revolution was no less a threat to the religious and political status quo in his world than an armed insurrection. That’s why they executed him on trumped up charges of sedition.  Are we willing to take this Jesus seriously today?