I was driving up I-95 on the way to teach my New Testament class, ready to expound all manner of secular clap-trap, when I felt Jesus’ love in such a powerful way that I wept. Really wept. And I never, ever cry, so this was both a strange and a happy event.
In my academic life I am compelled to teach the Jesus of scholarship, one full of such doubt-inducers as the Messianic Secret, late Gospels, and conniving Christian scribes. This is not a cognitive dissonancer for me: I actually believe in the historical method and really have no interest in a fake Jesus. If I am to commit my life to something, I want to know who or what that something is. In this way, scholarship keeps me honest. Still, the “real Jesus” remains almost a phantasm, out of the reach of even our best theology and philology. Enter faith, that infuriating, elusive, but wonderful thing.
As I drove up the freeway, I was listening to the soundtrack from The Passion of the Christ. There’s a scene in the film (and I was listening to the corresponding music) that is really beautifully done. Jesus arrives on Calvary’s hill and is thrown to the floor. We are dreading what is about to happen as the nails and cross are readied, but the scene gently flash-backs to another, happier hill, where Jesus (clean and handsome, not scarred and bloody) is giving the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘˜hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”
Here is the sublimest distillation of Jesus’ ethic and it is sweet indeed. The movie then brings us back to Calvary and Jesus’ words face their final, awful test. Will he love his enemies and pray for those who gleefully torture him?
He is nailed to the cross.
“Forgive them father, forgive them.”
No scene in religious history has anything like the impact on me that this one does, and so somewhere between Baltimore and Bel Air I wept as I considered it, my heart racing with the love of this Jesus, that Great God who descended below all things and showed us how to love and forgive. What this says about the real Jesus of Nazereth I do not know and I cannot teach it, but I do know that there is a truth in that magnificent scene that exalts my spirit and makes me very happy.