Jesus’ name is not commonly spoken among unprogrammed, liberal Friends (at least not those I am familiar with), and it is sometimes outright unwelcome. Many among us speak easily of great spiritual teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha, Gandhi, and others. But Jesus? He often seems to be a relic with little relevance in the spiritual life of our meetings. Or worse. I have heard stories of people who are chastised and silenced when they speak of Jesus.
For a long time, this missing piece of our spiritual life was inconsequential to me. I may have heard other unprogrammed Friends lament Jesus’ absence in our spiritual community, but it left no noticeable mark on me. In fact, there were times when I was glad I didn’t have to deal with him and what I believed about him. Not only was Jesus’ absence okay with me, any language of God or Christianity made me uncomfortable for many of my years among Friends.
I am grateful that my discomfort, and the discomfort of so many among us, with Jesus and with Christian language did not quiet the voices grounded in our Christian tradition. Because gradually, often imperceptibly, God returned to me wrapped in a coat of Christianity.
And, before I could get used to the idea that Christianity and a Christian understanding of God could be part of my adopted Quaker faith (I am a convinced Friend who grew up in the Catholic Church), in walks Jesus. Unexpected. Uninvited. Unwelcome.
But it didn’t matter. In he came, and in rather dramatic fashion, with a strong sense of his actual presence. And it seems he is here to stay. He revealed himself to me in compassion from the start, and he continues to do so. He is tenderly opening my eyes to the ways I turn away from God’s grace. He also shows me how he so lovingly holds and cares for those around me. It seems his presence in my life is a balm allowing me to engage with the Bible and reconnect with my Christian heritage—both of which are integral in the ways that God is currently immersing me in the Holy Presence.
So what does it matter if Jesus is or isn’t part of our corporate spiritual life? What, if anything, do we lose if he is absent? What, if anything, do we gain when he becomes part of our faith and practice? There are others who have written eloquently and convincingly about this. There are others—perhaps increasingly—who grapple with queries such as these. I have become one of them.
Do I think Jesus was or is God? My answer: I don’t know. Were the miracles of the New Testament real? I don’t know. Was he anything like the person recounted in the Bible, or are those just stories that make him bigger than life? I don’t know. That’s my answer to most questions about Jesus. I don’t know. And I’ve come to a place where that’s okay. I don’t need to know those answers.
Here is what I think is important: The Gospel message that Jesus embodied is radical. It is saturated with grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It is revolutionary. Jesus engaged with the poor, the sick, the unclean, women, children, tax collectors—all outcasts at the fringes of legitimacy—and challenged to the core the dominant political and religious system of his time. He continues to do so in our time, even as we tolerate, and sometimes welcome, the teachings of the Pharisees of our time and honor and support corrupt public servants and corporate practices. We all have dirty hands; and Jesus still calls us home.
Jesus’ message is transformative. Early Quakers knew this experimentally (to use George Fox’s word).
Many Quakers today know this experimentally. They live in the power of the Gospel message and have a living relationship with the God of the Gospel that has changed their lives in unimaginable ways.
For early Friends, the testimonies flowed from that deep spiritual transformation as a witness to the power of the Holy Spirit at work among them. Early Friends’ relationship with the Holy One was grounded in the Gospel. That relationship empowered them to live boldly and radically in ways that have led to great and good change in the world and in the lives of individuals.
These Friends took Jesus at his word. They understood the subversive and radical nature of his message, a message he brings in his unique way. We all know that Jesus told stories, parables. What we may not realize is that he tells our story. He tells my story and he tells your story. Our lives are reflected in the pages of Scripture. We are the prodigal son—and probably not the “good son” who stayed home and did the right thing (Luke 15:11–32). We are the Samaritan woman at the well who was given the living water (John 4). We are the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dying. Jesus heals us.
Jesus comes into our lives and heals us with grace, compassion, and love beyond measure. And sometimes it doesn’t matter if we believe. He is compassionate and loving—and sometimes angry, and sometimes anguished. He has deep compassion for us in our humanity—our frail, flawed, and faltering humanity. He loves us with God’s own love for us. He touches our deepest wounds and we are healed. He invites us to his table, over and over again. It is time we accept the invitation and see what Jesus has to say to us.
So I, an unlikely and sometimes reluctant believer, ask again: what does it matter if Jesus is or isn’t part of our spiritual life? What do we lose if his life and lessons are lost to us? What gifts of the Spirit do we gain when Jesus becomes part of our faith and practice? Perhaps it is time for you to attend to these queries and turn your eyes toward Jesus.