By Daniel Martins

Jesus is once again popular in the Episcopal Church.

That may seem like an oddly cynical assertion, and I suppose it partly is. But I make it nonetheless, because I strongly suspect that if it were possible to construct one of those graphic memes that illustrate how frequently various words are used in a blog or website or other cyber-spatial venue, using all media in any way connected to the Episcopal Church as sources, and compare, say, the last four years with the four-year period before that, one would find that “Jesus” leaps out in the later sample and is rather more demure in the earlier one.

This is, on balance, nothing but a good thing, and I, for one, rejoice in it. Jesus is the Lord of the Church, and it is meet and right that his name be uttered comfortably and without embarrassment among his people.

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Alas, however, I return to cynicism, because the question arises: Which Jesus is now more popular? To borrow the language of theological discourse in a slightly earlier era, is it the “Jesus of history” or the “Christ of faith”? (Ultimately, of course, the two are one and the same. Yet, the way the one Jesus Christ is talked about makes the distinction a useful one for present purposes.)

Over the past couple of centuries, there have been various concerted attempts to ferret out as full a picture as may be possible of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, this entails a certain degree of skepticism — or, at least, detached scholarly objectivity — toward the accounts we have in the texts of the four canonical gospels. It’s not too long ago that members of the Jesus Seminar took votes on which deeds and sayings attributed to Jesus by the gospel evangelists are historical and which are not. It is more than a little interesting that no broad consensus seems to have emerged from all this activity. There are virtually as many opinions as there are people to hold them.

Those who pursue the “quest for the historical Jesus” are wont to distinguish the object of their quest from the “Christ of faith.” Historical research is rigorously dispassionate. Faith, by contrast, is personal, an integral commitment of one’s whole being. The two are not incompatible, but they are not the same thing. The very term “Christ” is an expression of faith. It comes from the Greek for “anointed one” and translates the Hebrew for “messiah.” One may speak of the historical personage “Jesus of Nazareth” either with or without a faith commitment to “Jesus the Christ.”

The “Jesus of history,” it is widely agreed, was put to death on a Roman cross. The “Christ of faith” offered his suffering and death as an atonement for the sins of the world. The “Jesus of history,” by the lights of those who are on that quest, in all likelihood lies underneath a few feet of Palestinian soil (though the truly objective ones among them will acknowledge other possibilities). The “Christ of faith” is risen from the dead and has ascended “far above all heavens that he might fill all things” (Collect for Ascension). “Jesus of Nazareth” offers a model of a well-lived life that is worthy of emulation, on multiple levels. We certainly do well to ask ourselves what this exemplary Jesus would do in any given situation, and act accordingly. “Jesus (the) Christ” is the one who walks with us in the concrete context of our lives and leads us through the challenges we meet. The “historical Jesus” would do this-or-that in such-and-such a situation. The “Christ of faith” acts now in those situations.

So it matters which Jesus is more popular now than before. The quest for the historical Jesus is a search for a dry well. That “red letter” Jesus is inaccessible to us. It is a road that leads either to immense frustration, or to an endless litany of “oughts” and “shoulds,” all in service of a vain attempt to “change the world.”

The only access we have to Jesus is through the Christ who is the object of our faith — the Christ who lived and died and rose for us, who intercedes for us as our Great High Priest, and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is alone through Jesus Christ that we have any knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, what Jesus taught is important. (Even the words and deeds attributed to him by the Gospel Evangelists that he may not have actually said or done are important.) His example and manner of life are important. But none of what the Jesus of history ever said or did is even available for our contemplation and imitation except through the “merits and mediation” (per Cranmer’s Eucharistic Prayer) of the Christ of faith. This is why Mark the Evangelist is at such pains for his readers to interpret all that Jesus said or did, from and only from the foot of the cross. It is the crucified Christ, not the wonder-worker Jesus, whom the Roman centurion rightly recognizes as the Son of God (Mark 15:39).

Those who would “build Jerusalem” must first and perpetually “crown him … with many crowns, for he is Lord of all.”

Bishop Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.

About The Author

Bishop Daniel Martins is the 11th Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in the Episcopal Church, which encompasses central and southern Illinois. He is also secretary of the Living Church Foundation’s board of directors. Among the members of the House of Bishops, he hangs out with the group known as the Communion Partners. He has previously served parishes in the dioceses of Louisiana, Northern Indiana, and San Joaquin.

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The use of the word “Christ” in “Christ of Faith” hides a deaply historical idea. If Christ means “Messiah,” then we must think through what messiah means. Jesus is the Messiah of Israel – this happens in a definite time and place. This draws out the strong equivalence of the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith.” They cannot be separated.