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Seeing Jesus

Rev. Frederic H. Kent

Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip saith unto him, “Come and see” - John 1:46. 

If Jesus were to walk among men today and listen to the many voices lifted in dispute about him, would he not repeat that half-sad, half-reproachful question he asked of Philip, his disciple? “Have I been so long time with you, and dost thou not know me?” For, notwithstanding our familiarity with the story of his life, we do not know him; and the sign of our ignorance is this, that we are still trying to define him, still quarrelling because we cannot agree upon a form of words which shall adequately and exhaustively express his inmost nature. If we had begun to know him truly, we should have realized that it is no more necessary to define him in order to receive the utmost benefit he can impart, than it is necessary to define a man in order to be enriched by his friendship, or God, in order to enter into the communion of prayer and worship, and receive the blessing of his love. We should have realized, too, that there is no more possibility of defining Jesus in ultimate terms than there is possibility of defining God or man or “the meanest flower that blows.” Behind every name that we apply to him is veiled a mystery that baffles our thought.

Yet the mystery of Jesus’ nature is no new or strange one. It is the same which meets us on every side and baffles all our knowledge. It is the one ultimate mystery of all being whose unity is affirmed in Tennyson’s familiar lines:  

“Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies;

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower; but, if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all,

I should know what God and man is.”

 We study a lily or a violet, analyze it, peer at it through the lens, reduce it to the very cells of which it is composed, and at the end we know only that in it the mysterious something which sometimes we call life, and sometimes nature, and sometimes God, is organizing that equally mysterious something which we call matter into forms of use and beauty. Where that force or energy or spirit begins or ends we cannot guess. It is as truly in the tiniest grain of pollen dust which carries in its atom the potency of new plants, as in the rootlet which threads its way to hidden moisture, or the leaf which drinks in the sunlight. We study man, and find a body more elaborately organized, lifted to more varied functions, kindled into thought and will and affection; yet, when we have done, we have only the same uncomprehended matter that was in the lily, and the same mysterious life using it, informing it, making it to live. There is nothing in the universe which is not related somehow to the One Life that is eternal. There is nothing in the universe that is not, in some sense, identical with Deity. And shall we, who cannot define that relationship in the case of the violet, who cannot part the human from the divine in any newborn child, shall we flatter ourselves that we can parcel out the nature of Jesus into divine and human? Shall we go farther, and assume to determine the eternal woe or bliss of human souls in accordance with their ability or willingness to accept the result of our dissection? As always, fools will rush in where angels fear to tread, but they who have acquired a just estimation of their powers will attempt a more modest task.

  Our disputes about Jesus will never be settled, for the battle has to be fought on a field where human logic has no footing. We may hope that they will cease for want of disputers, as the beautiful face of that great Friend of men emerges from the mists of speculation which have so long concealed him. Beauty and truth are greater than anything that can be said about them, and the more we perceive them, the less patient are we with mere comment. The appreciative soul resents the garrulity which insists upon explaining a glorious sunset or a heroic deed, marring with words the silent communion by which its beneficent influence is imparted. Many volumes have been filled with what men have learnedly thought about Jesus, but from them all the loving disciple turns gladly to the peasants of Galilee, who saw him face to face and caught for the world the impress of his personality. What any one thinks about Jesus is unimportant, when there is Jesus himself before us. The important thing, as with every great spiritual helper, is to get into relation with him, to clear away the obstructions which choke the channels by which his influence flows to our souls. So the one adequate thing which can be said by one man to another about Jesus is what Philip said to Nathanael,—”Come and see.” Nathanael was bewildered in a maze of other men’s thought about the Messiah, for whom his race looked so busily that they were blinded by the dust of their own speculation. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” he asked when Philip ran to tell him the Messiah was found. “Come and see,” said Philip. “Can any divine thing come out of humanity?” ask men today, weary and disappointed with their long search for the soul’s helper amid the dust of creeds. “Come and see” is the only answer. For argument and theory fail utterly to accomplish that which is the effect only of spiritual contact. We can help each other best by trying to make clear the figure which appeared so long ago to the people of Galilee and Jerusalem, so that we shall see him as they did, and feel the same influence that they felt.

But can we so see him? We cannot look directly into his face and listen to his voice, and we are apt to count this a misfortune. We feel that we should gain so much in certainty if we could only receive his influence without the mediation of other lives. Yet it may not be so. When we consider how blind men are to the beauties of nature until some artist has transferred them to canvas; how little we notice the sanctity and worth of common life until some poet has extricated it from the dust and confusion and given a voice to the dumb divinity, when we remember how many people came within hearing of Jesus’ voice, and passed on unheeding, unreleased from the bonds of ambition, care, and pleasure. When we consider all this, we may not he too sure that we should have been among those whose hearts proved good ground for the seed he scattered. If we are not today quickly sensitive to the spiritual influence of pure and loving souls about us, we might easily have missed the significance of that unassuming figure then. For then as now we should have been preoccupied with business, politics, family cares, and social ambitions. Today, if we look upon him at all, we see him as one who has survived, while all that was contemporary has vanished or endured chiefly by virtue of connection with him. There may be cause for happiness in the fact that the character of Jesus is reflected to us by a mirror which, while it gathers to a focus all the light that streamed from him, refuses to reflect any other figure. For thus, though the image may suffer minor distortions from the imperfections of the mirror, it gains intensity from the suppression of obscuring objects.

Advantageous or not, the fact remains that we see Jesus only as in a mirror. To behold him, we must go back to the first three Gospels. Yet we are not limited to the ideas of him which the writers of the Gospels consciously sought to impart. The stories which they relate contain much that is only opinion, colored by the writer’s preconceptions and the prevailing ideas of the time. Many a man has become so confused by the inconsistency of the narrative with itself and with established principles of knowledge that he has given up in despair the attempt to form a just conception of Jesus out of the elements which the Gospels directly furnish. He has found himself at the end farther than ever from living contact with the life that was the gospel to those whom it touched. But beneath the surface of the narrative, shining through it here and there, are elements of an image of Jesus which combine into a perfect and consistent whole, an image of beauty, truth, and power. In every page of the Gospels there is revealed the impression made by Jesus upon human lives, not only the evangelists, but the friends who walked or sat at table with him, the audiences which gathered, attracted by a novelty, the enemies who opposed him, the casual onlookers who cared nothing for him, but dropped an occasional comment. We can trace lives altered in their current. We can discover acts, friendly and hostile, inspired by his presence. We catch glimpses of emotions quickened by his words or by the mere glance of his eye. Out of these impressions, made upon the most varying characters, often inarticulate, often unconsciously revealed, often at variance with the writer’s own opinion, there can be constructed an image of Jesus which is almost wholly free from the aberrations which always cling to individual opinion, and which is distinguished by a self-consistency rarely to be found in historical portraits or even in the conceptions we form of living persons. So long as we study only the acts and words of a man, we are puzzled by their seeming inconsistency, because we separate them in thought from the moving cause and the objects upon which they are directed. The same cause may produce many varying effects. The blow of a sledge will shatter a crystal, but weld into closer cohesion the particles of soft iron. The dawn that opens the morning glory in dewy freshness makes the primrose fade and wither. The cause is one. The difference is due to the nature of the things upon which it is exerted. So the same spirit in a man will produce opposite effects upon the pure and the sensual, the noble and the base, the loving and the selfish. Yet the different effects will point to the same cause, and together yield a more adequate conception of its character than any mere study of the methods and means through which it works. And he who has struggled in vain to reconcile the reported words and acts of Jesus to one another and to the known laws of nature, may find an unlooked-for simplicity and unity by studying his character as it is mirrored in the effects he produced upon different men, with the means and methods eliminated; while at the same time he avoids any question whether the reported means were credible or legitimate. Into this human mirror I invite you to look with me for the image of Jesus it reflects, remembering that we seek no ultimate definition, and that behind all our words the great mystery of all being remains. What was the impression produced by Jesus upon those who came in contact with him, and what must he have been to produce such an impression?

The observation is unavoidable that, so far as we can read the conduct of those men, it was a man they were aware of in their midst. They saw Jesus eat and drink, grow weary and sleep and wake refreshed, sorrow and rejoice, pray and give thanks, like themselves, and they never dreamed that they were dealing with a being of a different nature. Can you imagine men knowingly laying traps to catch God in error or inconsistency? Can you imagine Peter rebuking God, or Judas betraying God, or Pilate and the high priest putting God to death? Some, indeed, like Peter, took him for the Messiah; but no Jew ever thought of the Messiah as other than a man inspired by God. The populace of Jerusalem took up stones to stone him because they mistakenly supposed that he had declared himself to be God, so revolting was the blasphemous thought to their minds. There is not a word or act in all the record of Jesus’ lifetime which supports the supposition that any with whom he came in contact entertained so much as a surmise that he was other than a man.

So, too, in the traits of character which they marked, humanity was always present. True, even enmity failed to discover in him some things which are usually found in men. Hatred was baffled by the absence of common weaknesses on which it could lay hold. He could not be terrified or bribed or seduced. They felt that at once. But the absence of cruelty, selfishness, lust, fear, does not constitute a refutation of humanity. For these traits do not constitute the essence of humanity. These are the things which connect men with the beasts, —an inheritance not yet outgrown. The most truly human life is that in which these are reduced, conquered, rooted out. The distinctive traits of humanity are those which distinguish men from the brutes. They are thought, affection, self-control, intelligent purpose, sympathy, aspiration, faith, hope, and love. Whatever may be the speculations of theologians about the race, we are all agreed in this when we pass judgment upon persons. He who wins from his fellows the title “a true man” is one in whom integrity, self-control, sympathy, kindliness, humility, and aspiration for nobler life are predominant. Cruelty, selfishness, cowardice, and lust are qualities that earn for a man the name of brute.

The character of Jesus was ideally, if not characteristically, human. Its broken arcs may be traced in many a life, and not seldom a close approach to the perfect round. He surpassed, if you feel competent to the comparison, all other men who have ever lived. Yet his superiority was of degree, and not of kind; the perfection of the human, not a contrast to what that perfection would be if actually attained. It was the very humanness of him which awoke the ardent feelings of men. We neither hate nor love that with which we have nothing in common, whether it be higher or lower than ourselves. The hate of evil men as truly as the love of good men for Jesus, the ardent loyalty and the no less ardent opposition, are indications of the inevitable and legitimate comparison which each made between himself and Jesus. Some reverenced what called out the best in them to life and emulation. Others hated what shamed and condemned the worst in them which they would not relinquish. But all bore witness to the presence of a pure and lofty human soul.

Nevertheless, strong as was this impression of his humanity upon those who knew him personally, it was, perhaps, inevitable that later generations of his followers should swing to the opposite view. For the reports of him handed down by tradition soon lost the warmth of personality which was so large a factor in his living influence, while they came into minds already possessed by a theory of humanity which afforded no room for such a character as his. Their view of Jesus had to be adjusted to accepted standards of humanity: they could not adjust their standards to him. He does not, indeed, fit into a conception of man which contemplates only the past, which has not even begun to suspect that weakness and ignorance and sin do not constitute the final summing-up of human nature. If the manhood of that day or even the better manhood of our own were to be regarded as the ultimate standard, we might agree with the Christians of the third and fourth centuries that Jesus was more than man. But it is a different view of humanity which has won acceptance in our time. We are beginning to discover that “Man is not Man as yet.” For, as in the lower realm,

“Prognostics told Man’s near approach,

so in man’s self arise

August anticipations, symbols, types

Of a dim splendor ever on before

In that eternal circle life pursues.”

The history of life, traced through the long struggle of the past, is throwing a light upon the future which transforms many an accepted idea. The signs are multiplying that man is not a fallen creature, but incomplete; not confined to the narrow actuality of the present, but already treading a path which leads infinitely upward; most truly characterized by capacities and traits which are but germinal as yet in aspirations and hopes. As the centuries pass, we see the race making great strides forward. Unbridled passion gives place to self-control, cruelty to kindness, indifference to sympathy, superstitious awe to clear-eyed reverence and love for moral worth and beauty. The number of individuals grows ever larger in whom the higher traits gain strength while the lower diminish. We are beginning to understand that the typical man is of the future, and we see already the heralds of his coming. It is into this view of man that Jesus fits, which he illuminates, giving positive form to our dim prevision. The mere affirmation of his humanity is inadequate. He was a man. But what a man!

Looking again into the mirror of the Gospels, let us trace the positive image it reflects. The face we find there is very different from the sorrowful, downcast visage we have regarded as a portrait of the Christ. It is first of all marked with the lines of spiritual power. Never did men reveal more convincingly the influence upon them of a strong soul. The passion which a soldier of Napoleon’s Guard put into the words “My Emperor” bore witness to no more dominating a personality than that which made his Galilean fishermen leave all to follow him. Nor was it his friends alone who revealed it. Each bears witness after his own nature. The crowds who heard him speak muttered astonishment at the voice which reached heart and conscience as with authority. Many men and women saw their sin drawn to the surface through the scum of complacency and sensual pleasure which had concealed it from their own sight, and shed bitter tears. Men of wealth and learning were penetrated by doubts of the worth of things which they had regarded as the highest good, and sought instruction of one who evidently possessed a treasure they knew not of. Men who sat in the high places of civil and ecclesiastical dominion were dismayed by the silent menace of a force which threatened to destroy their very strongholds, and, like the weaker everywhere, plotted against that which they dared not meet in open conflict. So convincing was the impression of might that he made that there seemed no limit to his scope, and there were found observers ready to declare his visible control over the forces of nature, the demons of disease, even death itself. To unravel the accounts of what he did is impossible. The conception of the natural world which prevailed at the time is so different from ours that it is hardly profitable to discuss whether he did or did not perform any specific wonder which is reported. Before a court that does not admit the existence of demons in the persons of the insane or epileptic the question of the casting out of any particular demon has no standing. But beneath all the narratives is the unquestionable fact that he made men feel that they were in the presence of a spiritual force to which they could assign no bounds. They could only acknowledge by act as well as word its superiority to anything in their experience, and even in the humiliating shadow of the cross his friends affirmed that he lived triumphant and his enemies set a guard before his tomb. Such witness to the presence of a mighty soul is more convincing than any tale of miracle.

Next it is clear that they felt that this mighty power was absolutely enlisted in the service of love. The world has known strong men, and it has known loving men, but when has it known a man in whom such power was wielded by such love? The story of the temptation indicated the way men felt about him. Not his own bitter hunger, not the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, could move him to use his power for his private satisfaction, but did any suffer the pangs of sickness, the burden of oppression, the gloom of sorrow, there was no doubt or hesitation. They hastened to place themselves in his path, sure that, if his eye but glanced upon their need, he would relieve it. They felt no need of influence or special pleas. The stranger, the outcast, the man whom men scorned, might and did come with as much confidence as the most deserving. Like the divine love, the love of Jesus seemed universal, asking nothing about men’s merits, but only of their need.

Nor was it only the exertion of power which cost nothing that they learned to expect of him. He would share their sorrow and their pain. He would stand between them and their enemies, and receive the wounds meant for their hearts. As to his power, they could not assign limits, so his love transcended imagination. They came to think he would meet the ultimate test which Isaiah had suggested and be willing to take upon himself the guilt of the whole world, with all its heavy punishment. Upon this conviction of limitless love in Jesus rests, I believe, the whole doctrine of the atonement, which as an historical event no theologian has ever been able to explain, but which is at least comprehensible, if it is seen to be a human attempt to express the belief that infinite love had come into the world.

Finally (for I can do no more than sketch outlines which any who will can fill from the material at hand), this supreme love was rooted in faith, or rather trust, in God. Even if it could be shown, what no one believes, that not one of the sayings attributed to Jesus is correctly reported, we should still be sure that he and his followers were conscious that trust in the fatherly goodness of God was the root of his life. For through every attempt to record his utterances this thought shines out. The truth which he illustrated by the lily of the field appears in almost every one of his discourses. He must have said many noble words which have not been preserved; and it is significant that, whenever his followers tried to tell what he had said, this one thought predominated.   It was the only clue by which they could explain or understand his patience, his sweetness, his unswerving fidelity through the shock and turmoil of his life. Upon them was laid the duty of living a life like his, and by an unconscious selection they seized upon the truth which it most concerned them to fix in their hearts. It was the rock upon which their lives must be founded, as his had been founded; the assurance which, through every experience, had maintained his soul in the peace that passeth understanding.

Here, then, in its main outlines is an image of Jesus which is ours beyond dispute, forever undisturbed by the most destructive criticism. For it is wholly independent of the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Did Jesus work miracles? Did he use the exact language of the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount? The answer, interesting and valuable as it is in many respects, does not affect this vision of him. The means and methods by which he produced his lasting impression on men are not in question. Even though the historical accuracy of the Gospels should be rejected, their very existence proves that there lived a man who by some means exerted an unmatched and definable influence upon the minds of men, and from that effect our minds are led inevitably to the character of him who wrought it. Nor was it upon their minds alone. It reached their deepest motives, and transformed their lives. It made them trustful and loving and strong in their turn. It imparted to them a trust in God which bore them up through danger and sorrow and persecution. It filled them with a sense of life for which the grave had no terror. It touched them with its contagion and made them love men and do them mighty service. As we study these lives, new lines of grace and truth and beauty shine out in the life that was their inspiration. There comes to us across the ages the influence of a warm, living, loving spirit. His unshaken trust in God strengthens and confirms our struggling faith. His wide-embracing love fires us to new devotion, and sheds about us the cheering rays of the realized ideal. With growing faith and love the divine strength flows into us as into him, and we become able to serve men as he served them, relieving their misery, casting out the demons of pride and selfishness, inspiring them with hope and courage. It is this that makes him precious. We shall not care to define him when we become conscious of help and inspiration flowing from his life into ours. For we shall know him as we know the friends who walk spiritually with us, himself the greatest friend of all save God, his Father and our Father, the reality and the blessed influence of whose divine companionship with every soul is shown in the character of Jesus of Nazareth. 

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference