From the end of his earthly life Jesus has captured and commanded hearts in every century and every land. (Christianity isn't a "Western religion"; Western ignorance of the ancient Eastern church doesn't mean it doesn't exist.)
Jesus has no parallel in human history.
How does he do it? Those who have experienced this authority or presence are largely unable to put it into words. They can't explain why others don't sense it at all, or why some glimpse only a tantalizing hint while others are knocked flat. In 2,000 years, no better words have been found: He rose from the dead. He's still risen from the dead. He's here right now.
In this context, the search for the historical Jesus seems almost laughably beside the point. You don't know Jesus by examining shards of 2,000-year-old pottery. You know him by meeting him today.
This inexplicable encounter continues to occur, and those who meet him fresh today can feel that same pull. But how is it possible to know him? To sophisticated eyes, his most vocal followers are embarrassing and ignorant, their politics suspect, their devotion larded with sentiment and narcissism. Raw contact with Jesus in the Gospels is not exactly reassuring; both compelling and perplexing, he challenges easy comprehension.
Thus an idea begins to form that the real Jesus is buried somewhere under all the enthusiasms of generations past. If only we can strip away the moss, we'll see the real Jesus. We sense instinctively that Jesus represents the best of humankind, and conclude, not quite logically, that he must subscribe to whatever ideals are currently in fashion. He embodies, we assume, whatever features we most admire in ourselves. We set out in search, carrying a pocket mirror for reference.
If our age thinks the biggest sin is political oppression, and the greatest heroism is revolution, then we assume that Jesus was chiefly a leader of rebellion against Rome. Popular romantic images can be easily laid over this ancient enigmatic figure. No more sappy, blue-eyed Jesus; now he's dramatic and courageous, offending religious authorities and battling the Establishment. (A British ad agency even brought out a poster of Jesus in the likeness of Che Guevara.)
Now the Gospels are easy to read: Whatever fits this template is authentic, and whatever doesn't was invented by misguided followers.
It's a touching tribute that people want to attribute to Jesus their own highest ideals. When they presume that he embodies their pre-existing opinions, they pay him their highest compliment. It is a childlike gift, "a uniquely great expression of sincerity."
The words are those of Albert Schweitzer. In 1906, he wrote a book titled "The Quest of the Historical Jesus," which surveyed the research to date. Attempts to locate the "historical Jesus," Schweitzer explained, had been going on since the middle 1700s. Writers were often unaware of this and astonished to find that the ideas they thought shocking and original had been proposed by someone else 100 years before.
But by Schweitzer's time, these constructions had shipwrecked on Jesus' own words, his predictions of the imminent end of the world and corollary charge that we should value eternal life more than any earthly good. Scholars fiddled in vain with these sayings, hoping "that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals, and [we] might tune His denial of the world to our acceptance of it. Many of the greatest sayings are found lying in a corner like explosive shells from which the charges have been removed."
The current fashion in Jesus faces a similar challenge. If he was primarily a political revolutionary, why did he tell his followers to accept physical abuse and to forgive and love their enemies? He insisted that his reign was not of this earth, and that his followers should rejoice to suffer for his name's sake. Real revolutionaries don't talk this way.
Further, why did he keep telling everyone to repent? It was his most consistent message, whether he was addressing rich or poor, prostitutes or the disabled. In one particularly challenging episode, Jesus was told that Pilate had murdered Galileans in the Temple and splashed their blood on their sacrifices. His response? "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Sayings like these don't get written up in curly script on refrigerator magnets.
Why do we keep coming back to this perplexing, daunting man? Why wasn't he forgotten long ago?
"Jesus means something to our world because a mighty spiritual force streams forth from Him and flows through our time also," Schweitzer says.
It turns out we've had it backward all along. We will not measure and consider him; he will seize us, and we will either follow or flee. "He was not a teacher, not a casuist; He was an imperious ruler," Schweitzer says.
We sense instinctively this authority and its claim upon us, the head crowned with eternal glory, the head crowned with thorns and blood. Somehow his suffering is for us, and our only possible response is to follow.
Some companions on the path may seem silly or stuffy, and others are fickle or faint of heart. Some are liars and leave behind them monuments of evil. But they do not represent him, and in the end they do not matter. Jesus does not ask our opinion of his false or fallible disciples. His question to each of us is more pointed and unequivocal: "But who do you say that I am?"
His command is equally clear: "Follow me." This is the only way we will ever know him.