The image of Jesus you carry around defines how you perceive Him. I don't mean the figurative image, I mean the literal one. The image that you have seen the most, pondered the most, or even just the one that you filed away as, "THIS is how Jesus looks." Most people carry one of two images around with them. As a Protestant, I have seen this portrait or one very similar in most church vestibules and more than a few homes. He is stoic and composed. He is regal and reserved. Very "WASP"y. He has blue eyes. He looks like "us" so we can believe our assumption that Jesus thought like we do is true. He is the Jesus that we have watered down to represent a God that is all knowing and all powerful, but ultimately disinterested in our day to day lives.
Then there are the people that primarily think about Jesus on the cross. He sacrificed his life for our sake. We owe Him everything. I think this image has a lot to do with the phenomena that people call "Catholic guilt." He is tortured. It's hard to relate to this Jesus. I mean, really, what do you have in common with the guy who takes on the sin of all the world, is beaten within an inch of his life, and defeats Satan in Hell? He is smack dab in the middle of an experience that no one else can ever share.
My sister-in-law particularly likes this picture of Jesus. It's called "Jesus Laughing." She is a pastor, and she has a particularly intimate relationship with the Lord. Once you know Him as friend, you revel in seeing him in the same way that you experience Him; loving, free and joyful. This Jesus represents the person of Christ that hung out with his friends. He went fishing and made jokes. He loved his mother, and he spent hours in the workshop with his dad. He planned dinners for his followers. He wants to hear about the mysteries and joys of life. He lived a big life, and he loved every moment of it.
When Ricky Bobby's wife in Talladega Nights explains that it is off putting that he always prays to baby Jesus, Ricky tells her that she can pray to "grown up Jesus, teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus." He would continue to pray to baby Jesus because Christmas Jesus is his favorite Jesus. He goes on, "Dear eight pound, six ounce, new-born infant Jesus; don't even know a word yet. We just thank you for all the races I've won and the 21.2 million dollars. Woo."
This movie moment speaks more to the American perception of Jesus than most church goers would like to admit. We don't want to deal with a grown up Jesus. We want to keep him sweet, angelic, peaceful, and ultimately controllable. We want to be able to have the security of an afterlife and yet continue to live as we see fit in this one. This mindset is why Buddy Jesus became such a big deal when it came out. We collectively acknowledged that we have reduced Jesus down to a plastic figurine. We no longer want someone to whom we can relate. We want him sitting on a shelf like a trinket- a memory of something we once valued but for which we no longer have use.
When I was younger they didn't have Children's church or coloring pages on the back of the bulletin. So we just sat in the pews with our families. It's why I could say the Apostle's Creed in my sleep, and I know the lyrics to most hymns in the UMC hymnal. I vividly remember sitting in Sunday morning services at Conyers FUMC. I had a fantasy of what I would do if I was a master gymnast and the physics of it would work. I would jump from the balcony and catch the enormous chandelier. I would swing a few times and then drop perfectly to the space in front of the altar. The gymnastic fantasy would end with me doing back-handsprings all the way across the front. Later, in my adult life, I discovered that most of my friends were thinking about something similar at the same time. When I wasn't inside my imagination, I also spent a good amount of time staring at the stained glass window above the choir loft. The image is a modified version of this picture of Jesus in Garden of Gethsemane. He is hopeful, devoted, tortured, burdened, but peaceful. He is actively seeking the Father, but resigned to the steps ahead. He knows what must be done, and he hates it, but he is clearly prepared to go to the cross.
I realized this Sunday that when I sing "In the Garden," and when I pray... this is the Jesus that I see in my mind's eye most often. He's legit. He's the real deal Jesus. This dude gets it. He's got power, but he's also so human in this moment. I always feel assured that the Lord knows the depths of human suffering and can empathize with the burdens I bring to Him. I can expect that the faint smell of wine would be on his breath, and he has the residual peace one has after having been to a dinner party with the people that you love. This Jesus is fully God. He's preparing for something beyond what any of us can imagine, but he's also one of us.
Let's be honest. Jesus is a complex living person with many facets still unknown by us. There is some truth to each of these perceptions, and there are significant limitations to boxing him into just one of them. May you continue to encounter the living Jesus who is looking for a way to reveal Himself to you.
*Note - throughout this blog entry the word "we" is used often to reflect a general societal collective "we", not necessarily a specific "we" or even a church "we."
Soundtrack: Picture of Jesus, Ben Harper; In the Garden