Walking in His Ways- Knowing Jesus. Introduction to the study series.
Updated: Jun 18
"We need Jesus like we need oxygen. As we need water. Like the branch needs the vine. Jesus is not just a figure for devotion. He is the missing essence of our existence. Whether we know it or not, we are desperate for Jesus." (John Eldredge, The Untamed Messiah/ Beautiful Outlaw, original title)
Centuries of high-quality Arabic Christian literature remain largely unpublished and unknown. All of these sources-Syriac, Hebrew/Aramaic, and Arabic-share the broader culture of the ancient Middle East, and all are ethnically closer to the Semitic world of Jesus than are the Greek and Latin cultures of the West. (Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey, "Jesus Was Not a European".
"You do not know what you worship, but we know what we worship, for salvation comes from the Jews." (John 4:22)
"Him you have not seen, yet you love Him; and now you believe in Him, though you do not see Him; but you will rejoice with joy inexpressible and glorious, 9 When ye shall obtain the end of your faith, even the salvation of souls." (1 Peter 1:8-9)
My dear friends, dear wonderful women of God,
who is Jesus? How does he behave- and to whom does he speak? What is the culture in which he acts, what are the characteristics of the society to which he speaks?
A few years ago I began to wrestle inwardly.
We can already end up completely confused when it comes to Jesus. So much has been stored up about Jesus that it's like trying to dig up an archaeological relic if you really want to understand him, really know him. The real Jesus-whole communities bash each other's heads in about who he is. Sometimes we get a glimpse of him, in complete speechlessness, in complete agreement: it happens in testimonies, when people share their personal stories with Jesus. How he helped. How things fell into place at the right time. We instinctively notice where it is not he who has acted- in the way of condemnation, in contradictions to his personality. And yet...it is as if we perceive Jesus as through an aquarelle, with blurred outlines.
Add to that all the medieval, esoteric, soft-spoken Sunday service images of him, mildly smiling, pathetic, somehow- too sweet to follow.
Like an angel turkey with a big belly and small wings. No, we don't want to follow Cupid, we are Christians.
The uncertainty within the interpretation of his personality- it is huge, and it is reinforced by the personal relationship we ( hopefully should!) have with him. We have all experienced Jesus. We have experienced the grace and the correction, we have experienced how our expectations of him were fulfilled- and how we were wrong. We have an inner image of Jesus that is sacred to us and that, where it is questioned, causes us to fall- deeply and hopelessly. We guard it, it is the most precious thing we have.
It is our treasure, our inner wealth, interwoven with our very own path, which no one can deny us, nor ever should.
At one point, I asked Jesus handily for truth.
Inundated with memes, slogans, soft-pedaled praise, Western, white, elitist images of Jesus, harshness, condemnation, legalism, a deeply desperate cry escaped me: "Lord, I want to follow YOU. I want to know YOU. I want to understand YOU, and not follow any religion. You are my salvation, I want to be like you - but not a soft version of you, not a misinterpreted one, and I lack knowledge to see your personality between the lines. I want to see you more clearly!"
A book fell into my hands, rather immediately, by an author I had never heard of. "Jesus was not European" (Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, English title ed. author) " was emblazoned on the cover, and for a moment I was afraid that it was yet another of those fanatical, elitist, exclusionary books that justify marginalizing others. But...it was a pearl, an answer to prayer. Linguist, professor of New Testament, founder of the Institute of Middle Eastern Biblical Studies, according to the marginal data, was the author's expertise. It was expensive, it was not in the budget- and I bought it immediately.
What fell into my hand was so precious that to this day I have a certain reverence when it comes to opening it. To this day, I save the few of the professor's teaching videos that are available online-because he passed away in 2016 at an advanced age, and when I have seen them all-that source of Jesus research dries up. His name is Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey.
Ken E. Bailey lived in the Middle East (Lebanon), in Egypt, in Israel. He lived under Christian persecution and taught the New Testament.
He was surrounded by a Middle Eastern culture, teaching and learning from Arab Christians, from an entirely different cultural environment, but one so much closer to Jesus. He studied the way community is felt, how family structures function, how central community is in the Middle East-how strong family ties are, how strong public opinion matters. He studied the oral tradition culture, the honor and shame culture, so very unlike our right-wrong culture. He studied the social, the religious, the societal realities of the time in which Jesus lived, the natural reactions within the culture to what he said-opening up a whole new understanding of Jesus that made him more authentic, clearer, more congruent in himself than anything I had read before as approximations. Jesus became more and more three-dimensional, his parables embedded in a larger, social network. Jesus was gaining profile.
The picture came together, became sharper-and it coincided in an incredible way with a book I had read years before ( John Eldredge: "The Untamed Messiah/ "Beautiful outlaw"- English title, ed. the author), but expanded it to include explanations and the world of relationships. It confirmed how believers talk about Jesus in testimonies and made him even more radical, even more lovable, even smarter-and society even more confronting.
To walk with Jesus, we need to know who he is, how he acts, how he confronts us as a personality.
Desperately we try to fill in gaps - each one of us. What we don't understand, we fill with mysticism, with fighting, with our own interpretation and sometimes quite confused fantasy journeys. Not infrequently, we end up back in the arms of the putty-like image of the saint that we have concocted for ourselves: Aryan, blond, blue-eyed - and somehow butter-soft and somehow contourless. In which sources do we search? And are we still willing to learn more about him, rather than craving more?
What I found striking was that parables that "we prefer to leave out" because they don't seem to make sense, the meaning somehow eludes us and we prefer to quickly read over them ("The unjust steward"; Luke 16:1-8 "Does Jesus want us to cheat?"; "The Canaanite woman", Matt 15:21-28- "does he have to diss her like that? ") suddenly make sense when culture and lifeworld are taken into account, and the supposed harshness and interpretation give way to the realization that Jesus was always doing both- offering one-on-one conversation and attention to those seeking help- while at the same time teaching a lesson to his audience on Judaism that had it all.
We study all kinds of things.
Christianity has become all sorts of things- from a self-healing path to totalitarian war cries, a moral code, a mystical self-awareness, a better version of positive thinking, a justification for lack of self-development and a power tool of oppression, a justification of reactionary, right-wing views and one's own dislikes.
I consider it striking, frightening and very alarming how we cling to our images of Jesus, and how little interest the person of Jesus Christ, his character, his ways of contact, his values, his words are met with on the other hand.
In almost all sermons I hear about Paul. "Paul says. Paul does, Paul has commanded us". Yet Paul...he himself kept saying that he was flawed. That he only points to Christ. Jesus- he remains reduced. To his sacrifice, his resurrection, his ascension. To what he did for us. But who was and is he? What is important to him? How does he talk, what does he confront, and why is it so important to him to be appreciated? How does he confront family conflict, selfishness, our desires, community? What does he say about fatherly love, what behaviors does he praise, what behaviors does he criticize? We can only understand it if we include to whom and against which background he speaks.
We have lost a treasure, and I often hear that it is too exhausting, too intellectual to study the Gospels in depth.
The parables- they are given catchphrases and shoved into children's services as nice stories for little kids, where they usually stay as if they were the milk porridge and Paul the hard bread. But the words, according to the disciples of Jesus, that Jesus had - they were and are the words of life. The Son reveals the Father to us, and we follow Him.
I believe, deeply thoughtful, that as soon as the founder of religion becomes something washed-out, over-interpreted, icon deprived of its originality, we all run the risk of following a flag, an ideology, instead of Jesus. With all the consequences that it entails: Fanaticism, exclusion, feelings of domination, pride and arrogance, chosenness as a human natural law and no longer as an undeserved grace. We search in all kinds of sources without realizing that we are missing the clear picture. And because it is in the Middle East, there is the additional suspicious assumption that what comes from there cannot be anything good, just as "nothing good could come from Nazareth." (Why not, in fact? What's the deal with Nazareth?)
If we want to understand Jesus, we have to admit that many things do not open up to us, that we interpret them from a point of view that is not original-and we have to lose the fear that Jesus becomes less God if we include his life world and historical personality.
I think deep down there is often a fear that if we dig Jesus out, if we see him more clearly, we will lose him. I think deep inside us there is a doubt about his reality that torments us. It is natural that it should be so. It is that doubt that the centurion offered Jesus when he said, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief"- prove yourself real.
Is he real? Is Jesus real, or is he a hope that somehow sustains us?
A few days ago, I smiled painfully. I had long wished to see someone clearly, as the personality she really is. Inside me I had an assumption,an image, born from nothing but intercession. I do not know her personally, but I have written with her a few times. This request was fulfilled, in a different way than I would have expected, and the picture coincided 1:1 with everything I had seen in intercession for her. How I felt about her. She was immediately familiar to me and I thought, "There you are". It was unvarnished, off the record, private, what I saw. She used words in an interview taped long ago that I was stunned to hear because I only attributed those expressions to me: she spoke of us "being marinated in Jesus' love". I wrote to her recently that "Jesus might marinate her in his love like spareribs." Coincidence? A very exotic one, if so.
I met with a friend a while back.
She told me about the ways she experienced Jesus. The way he speaks to her and of the way he convicts and leads back to the truth. I laughed, and said, "It's so typical! Yes, that's 1:1 how I experience him."
Jesus is real and he reveals himself to us through the Holy Spirit. He gives us tools, puzzle pieces that we put together and believe in-or reject.
The fact that we do not see him does not change the fact that in his personality he is not one way today and another tomorrow. That he chooses his own ways with everyone does not mean that his fundamental nature ever changes. He in himself is the great I am. Unchangeable. And if we want to follow him, we have to recognize him. For in him we recognize ourselves-and in his reality lies our hope.
May we study Jesus, follow him, recognize him.
May we ask for him. For all religion, and all wisdom, and all knowledge, and all rule will give way when he stands before us. And the only question to answer then is, "Do you love me?" Love, dear brothers and sisters, we can only love whom we know, whom we believe in, and we can only love the one who meets us between the lines of our own history and the written word.
May we have the courage to meet him. It is worth it. It is so worth it. Jesus Christ is not an imaginary invisible friend for sad hours. Jesus Christ is real God and King. Grasping this truth again is the key to walking in Him. To speak and share this truth courageously makes him real. For if he were only illusion- then the experiences, his humor, his ways and goals, his closeness and his being, his personality would contradict each other- because we are all different.
Sibylle/ Daughter of Zion.
The Bible: Luther Translation 2017, quoted here from www.bibleserver.com
Eldredge, John (ed.), "The Untamed Messiah." Gerth Medien, 2018. (German version)
Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey (ed.), "Jesus Was Not a European. Middle Eastern Culture and the Lifeworld of the Gospels." SCM Publishing, 2018.
Worship: Gaither Vocal Band: You are my all in all/ Canon in D - major; Pachelbel.