I’m writing this in the air.
Actually, more precisely, I’m writing it in an Easyjet Airbus somewhere between Moscow and London, above the clouds, in glorious sunlight, in seat number 22C. It’s a quarter past four by Moscow time, and a quarter past twelve by London time. I’m not sure what time it is on this plane; maybe no time at all.
No, I’m not somehow breaking the rules against using devices connected to the Internet during the flight. I’m writing, not on a ноутбук, but in a notebook, an A5 spiral-bound red notebook, made in Germany, and containing squared paper because I can be really un-English now when I like. It’s still December 31st, 2013; I can also, if I like, revise and alter these sentences any number of times before you read them; or rather, since now you are reading them, such revisions and alterations may by now already have been made. And actually I planned them in my head last night in the kitchen while I was waiting for some vegetables to cook. Even these words, in other words, have had a somewhat complicated journey.
“Terrible service, wouldn’t happen on British Airways would it…”
—That’s one of the cabin crew speaking.
“There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen.” (Luke 8:17-18)
From the mouth of an Aramaic-speaking first century Palestinian Jew to the printed English text of a pocket edition (with pretty blue-green cloth covers and convenient page-marker) of a New International, Never Inflammatory, Not Inspired or otherwise NIV is an even longer journey. Funny how his words are so familiar and so strange. Familiar because over-read, or familiar like home, like the light-hearted, polite, slightly self-mocking-but-still-friendly, beautifully UK banter of this cabin crew. Strange, when I just don’t get what he says. Or when I just don’t do what he says. Because his demands are so high. Because he is so fascinating and so distant and yet not distant. Because I want to know what he really said. Because I want to know what he is saying now.
When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said. (Matthew 14:26-29a)
Who is Jesus?
I ought to be good at that question after nearly twenty-six years of churchgoing, and also because I was a Youth Alpha Small Group Leader once, and ‘Who Is Jesus?’ is the first session title on the Alpha list.
I don’t know where to start with it, though. This I’ll blame on the fact that as a Youth Alpha Small Group Leader my job was to encourage other people to answer. And all opinions given, we agreed, were to be respected and heard. If, for example, a Small Group Member said that Jesus was a frog, we were to reply, “That’s interesting, what does everyone else think?”
“Couldn’t we make it multiple choice? ‘Who is Jesus: a) a frog b) a toad or c) [wiggly eyebrows] your Saviour…’”
Whoever he is, his birth was celebrated, in the Teachers’ Room of my school in Moscow, on December 25th 2013, with much chopping and trimming of little pictures of stars and Santas for Very Young Learners to glue on coloured card, and with the removal of the air-conditioning unit by three or four morose, agile workmen.
A Christmas Day spent at school turns out to be a rather good opportunity to try (between lessons) to figure out Who Jesus Is, because instead of thinking about what on earth Christ has to do with Christmas, you’re thinking about what, if anything, he might have to do with the world in general. I believe, or I do my best to believe, in Jesus. I also believe, because I see them around me all the time, in students and school administrators and librarians and shop assistants and random people on the metro and people who stand in queues and people who can mend the washing-machine and security guards and parents who I really hope will enjoy the open lessons and eleven-year-olds who pretend to be zombies and seven-year-olds who sing ‘Gangnam Style’. And women and disabled people begging on the streets and in the metro carriages. And drunk men sitting on benches in the cold without their shoes on. And the ambulances with people hidden inside them. And the people who just look sad.
Can one do both, see them both, Jesus and everyone else, keep them all in view at the same time, in a realistic, rational and responsible way?
“A consolation you could believe in would be one that didn’t have to be kept apart from the awkward areas of reality…” – from this book.
Well, Jesus being Jesus means that, unless Christianity just isn’t true, the question is a silly one. (I asked it, so I’m allowed to say that.) Because he was and is one of the everyone else. Because he was a man. How does one put this into words when it’s been put into words so many times before and maybe they seem, the words, as tedious as the words ‘I’m writing this in the air’, which, now that I think about it, might have been a fairly trite way to begin this post?
One of us, and astoundingly different to us, and one of us. Just a stranger on a bus, heading home by a surprising and circuitous route. One of them, the crowds and crowds of ordinary, difficult people that I step into every day and have to learn to care about, have to learn to care for.
This means that he is mysterious, not only with a moving-in-mysterious-ways, transcendent otherliness and unknowability kind of divine mysteriousness, but in the sense in which any ordinary person is a mystery to us: new, unpredictable; someone of whom we might have a mistaken first impression, or many mistaken impressions; someone whose thoughts and feelings and character are unknown, but which we can get to know. It is as if the stranger on the bus got up, walked past your seat, said “Follow me, I am your long-lost brother” with a recognizable light in his strange face, but before you could answer was outside on the street and deep in conversation with the tired, defeated-looking woman there—or with the old man who liked poetry and hadn’t had a shower for weeks—or with the child whose dad had walked out that morning—with a teenager, or a businessman, or a skinhead, or a supermodel—with someone who’d just fallen in love, or someone who’d just fallen out of love, or someone who’d just fallen out of bed and really didn’t want to go to work; with whoever he’d happened to find. It means, in fact, that he’s busy.
He’s busy. I think there is a risk—at least, I think that for some of us there might be a risk—that having been encouraged so often to pursue a personal relationship with God, to have morning quiet times, to pray freely and frequently about the smallest concerns, having heard The Father’s Love Letter so often, there is a risk of the Father Heart Message, for all it is a good, true and important message, becoming a sort of trap: of being stifled by the constant reminders that God loves me, saved me, wants to spend time with me and know me and make me more like him, when what I actually, and entirely selfishly, want to be assured of, is that God cares about all the other mundane and tragic things that happen.
Then for the lads in my Youth Alpha Small Group, for instance, the idea of God as a good father who knew everything about them was equally horrifying, hilarious and ridiculous: “you mean God is even watching us when we go to the toilet?!” And Richard Dawkins & Co. seem to think that God is a (non-existent, of course) police state monitoring our every thought, word and deed and clamping down ruthlessly on all of them. My Small Group were really very Youthful at the time, and Dawkins & Co. are, I hope, wrong—but they do have a kind of point. If God came down to ground level, then we shouldn’t only think of him as the most just, most gentle father, the most patient listener, watching over our coming and our going, both now and for ever more, etc. He is also the man Jesus, marching on ahead, village to village, impatiently, with stuff to do, people to meet, tables to flip, healing, wholeness, bread and fish and offensive words to scatter in every direction, and absolutely no time to waste.
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’” Luke 15:4-6
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Luke 19:10
“Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” John 4:35
“My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” John 5:17
Jesus is, was, is out there busy doing stuff. And that’s where we find him. And he is who we serve.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40
Christmas means that the poor and weak and broken and hurting and exploited and trampled-on and dispossessed are Jesus, who shared their poverty and weakness and brokenness and hurt when he didn’t have to.
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Luke 9:58
Jesus actually is a sort of frog, then; one like the frog in the fairy tale, our Prince in ‘distressing disguise’. In Bath there is a wonderful shop called ‘Kiss the Frog Again’ which sells things made from recycled materials: clever, interesting, beautiful things, made out of old or broken things. Christianity is in a similar business. Christianity says that you jolly well kiss the frog until the Prince it really is becomes visible to all the world. Because every broken and hurting person is his treasure, his beloved; because the broken people are Jesus; because loving them is loving him. But this is old news. People have been doing this all over the place, all the time, from Peter and John, who brought healing to the crippled beggar at the temple gate called Beautiful, to the Christians in modern-day Philadelphia who, finding themselves banned from feeding the homeless, argued successfully that feeding the homeless was for them a sacrament, and that the ban was a violation of religious freedom. Some bits of the church do look like a princess; some bits of the church do look like Jesus.
But some bits, sometimes, look less Jesussy—less like Jesus than all the non-Christian people do who feed the homeless, make beauty out of brokenness and generally love their neighbour. Some bits of the church, sometimes, don’t look like Jesus at all. The Good Samaritan parable still applies: we shouldn’t be surprised exactly to find that in a given situation the non-Christians were Christlike and the Christians were a bit crap, but the Christian-crap half of any such story is still disappointing. If anyone ever does ask the question ‘Who is Jesus?’—well, in a sense they shouldn’t need to ask it—he should have been completely obvious in the lives and love of his followers, those of us who call ourselves his followers, and if he wasn’t, then we were doing something wrong.
“By this will all men know that you are my disciples … ”
So it turns out, as it so often does, and how very confusing and dispiriting it is, that Christianity as it really is—that is, Christianity as it ought to be, and sometimes is—is not what Christianity really is—that is, what we have made it look like, or what we have made it—at least sometimes. Or something like that.
For example, I’ve realised this Christmas, with much relief, that Christianity—following Jesus—may have some common ground with, but is not finally and essentially the same as, the ‘Christian theism’ propounded in debates like this, this and this—debates in which the Cosmological, Teleological, Ontological, Moralogical, Finetuningsological, Experientialogical and Illogical Arguments line up in order, with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus tacked on at the end, where a different debater might put the inimitability of the Qu’ran, and in which everything the opposing speaker says is simply, completely, ignored. Though the Christianity of some individual Christians may possibly have started, grown, and/or still be thriving in this general area, a well-made watch, so to speak, is not on the whole what we came out into the desert to see. We came to see a man. Ideas, arguments, hypotheses, theories, must be supposed to have something to do with Christianity, but the appropriate main verb is not ‘be’, especially not when the ideas, etc., are impoverished, and when they are presented without charity, generosity or imagination. Because it’s all, all, all about one man whose generosity is boundless, and about men and women, about building the worldwide family of the lost and found. Again, this is old news. We know it; we don’t do a particularly good job of living it. Where by ‘we’ I’m afraid I mean ‘I’, though anyone who feels the same can give me an ‘Amen’ if they like. This is where the toad seems relevant.
“By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” 1 John 2:6. This is hope, hope for all those of us who at any time feel like we don’t understand Christianity, don’t understand Jesus, don’t understand the world, like the church is just tiring, like we ourselves are just hopelessly hopeless, incompetent, boring, awkward, whatever else, unspiritual, Bad Christians. This is hope: that the demands are unattainably high, but extremely simple. That God is not the thought police, theological or otherwise, just determined all things be beautiful, including our thoughts, hearts and intentions. That although it is hard to love people, we can be sure that they are worth loving. That the King himself has the project in hand already. That we are only being asked to follow along and copy his moves. That it is worth surrendering our lives to his leadership. That he is worth it. That he is wonderful. That following him is life anyway. That the life is for living. Давай. Целуй ещё раз лягушку. Kiss the frog again.
~ Completed on the ground, in Apostrophe Café at Gatwick Airport, December 31st 2013, 16.55 London time. ~