Pinning Down Jesus

I remember visiting a nature preserve when I was a kid. The preserve had a small museum that frankly didn’t hold a lot of interest for me. I wanted to be out IN nature, not stuck inside a place that was telling me how great nature was. But it was a school field trip, so I didn’t have much choice. As we roamed around the small museum, the exhibit that caught my eye was the collection of butterflies. Hundreds of different species were pinned to a large piece of wood, creating a natural kaleidoscope that was dazzling. Each butterfly was meticulously placed, wings outspread, looking as if they would fly away at any moment. But of course, they couldn’t; they were pinned down.

Some folks want their Jesus to be like those butterflies: life-like, wings outspread, but pinned down. I’m always struck by anyone who can say what they believe about Jesus with the kind of certainty that defies challenge. It seems to me that Jesus’ existence is not a static event, like a butterfly pinned to a board, but rather is fluid, like an ever-turning kaleidoscope, with each angle unveiling a new way of seeing and understanding.

My own Christology (a seminary word for “studyin’ Jesus”) has gone through multiple rotations in my life. Jesus has flowed from friend to prophet to savior to king to shepherd to healer. In each case, I felt like I had a good understanding of who Jesus was, only to have my thinking rotated again by a professor, or a friend, or a certain passage of scripture. And just when I thought I had Jesus pinned down…

In his excellent book The Evolution of Christianity, Phillip Gulley offers this warning: “The one thing Christians are most dogmatic about should be the one thing about which we are least dogmatic.” In other words, we sometimes act like we know for sure the one thing that no one really knows for sure. We act like we have Jesus pinned down, put on display in a glass case so we can show all those who don’t believe like us that we’ve got the real thing. But if you look closely enough, that Jesus on display, despite looking so life-like, is really still dead.

I prefer my Messiah to be resurrected, living and active, which means I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to have a good handle on him. I might grab hold of the hem of his garment or his outstretched hand, but just when I think I have him, the scene rotates, and my kaleidoscopic view changes, revealing new understandings of grace and forgiveness I had not yet considered.

Who is Jesus? He is the Messiah. The Savior. The one who died for our sins. The Son of God. The friend of sinners. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The crucified one. He is all these things. But he is so much more and we’ll never be able to understand it all. The Pharisees and the scribes kept trying to trap him with trick questions, but they couldn’t pin him down. Pilate tried to get him to give up his identity, but he couldn’t pin him down. And the Romans beat, mocked, and ultimately drove nails through his hands and feet, but even then, they couldn’t pin him down.

As a believer, I can live with that. I can live with a Jesus who refuses to conform to my imperfect understandings of who I think he should be. I can live with a Jesus who challenges my assumptions and calls me out into the deep water of faith. I can live with a Jesus who sends me on a mission, armed with nothing but a comb and a toothbrush to transform lives (Luke 10:4 in The Message).

My view of Jesus will continue to change. He won’t be the same for me next year as he is today, because my experience of life won’t be the same next year as it is today. And no matter how I see Jesus, I’ll only “in a mirror dimly” see him, not really see him. It’s hard to get a good look at someone who’s constantly on the move, refusing to be pinned down. You can only catch fleeting glances, and then they’re off again. But that’s enough.


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