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“There Goes Jesus”

October 5, 2015

“‘There Goes Jesus’” Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-20 © 10.4.15 Ordinary 27B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In his song “If Dirt Were Dollars,” Don Henley has a character say: “I was flyin’ back from Lubbock; I saw Jesus on the plane…or maybe it was Elvis. You know they kinda look the same” (Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar, and J.D. Souther; ©1989).

How ludicrous, we say. And indeed, the man in Henley’s song is meant to sound ignorant and silly. But Jesus being mistaken for Elvis and vice-versa is no more far-fetched than some of the depictions of our Lord through the years.

There are of course no drawings or videos or photos of Jesus. No descriptions in the gospels or elsewhere. So artists from first-century catacomb painters to the great masters to curriculum illustrators have used their imaginations. The influence of their cultures, their desire to communicate something fresh, and their idea of the holy shows through sometimes prominently, other times more subtly.

Perhaps one of the most familiar depictions of Jesus is Warner Sallman’s 1941 painting “Head of Christ” (see note 1 for image). It’s been reproduced more than 500 million times. As many of you probably did, I grew up with one of those prints on the wall, in my case at the end of the hall. An admirer of the painting once observed: “From the image of the head of Christ I see righteousness, strength, power, reverence, respect, fairness, faithfulness, love, compassion. From the way the hair in the image is highlighted in the back and highlights around the front of the head and face there seems to be a holy radiance emitted from the image, depicting the qualities mentioned above” (see note 1).

I never wondered whether Jesus actually looked like Sallman’s image or even cared. I didn’t even know who had painted it or when. It wasn’t until I went to the University of Georgia and visited the United Methodist student center that I encountered anything different. There immediately inside the entrance was a picture of Jesus laughing. At the time, straight-laced fundamentalist that I was, I thought that image rather blasphemous. Jesus laugh? He couldn’t, could he? After all, didn’t the prophet call the Messiah a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief?” I was only showing my ignorance and narrowness, though. Anyone whom the Pharisees called a winebibber and a glutton must have liked to have a good time, enjoyed a good joke and told funny stories, and encouraged his followers to get the most out of life, to live without the burdens of worry and anxiety. No wonder the actual title of the picture is “Jesus Christ Liberator,” done in 1973. It was brand new when I was Georgia. (See note 2 for the image and its history and more on the artist.)

There have been many other portraits done over the years. Of course, there’s also the Shroud of Turin. And we have to consider all the actors who have played Jesus, from Jeffrey Hunter in “King of Kings” to Willem Dafoe in “The Last Temptation of Christ” to Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s bloody “The Passion of the Christ.”

The thing is, none of these depictions looked like Jesus probably looked anymore than Charlton Heston accurately portrayed Moses or Gregory Peck or Richard Gere favored King David or Russell Crowe looked like Noah. Fortunately, there’s National Geographic.

Early in this century, the famous and respected magazine had forensic artist Richard Neave work on what might have been the real face of Jesus. Using first-century male skulls from Palestine and respected techniques and current technology, Neave produced a 3D rendering of a typical 30-something Jewish male. Why typical? Because the Gospel of Matthew at least leads us to the conclusion that Jesus was so common looking that he would not have stood out in a group of men. Judas had to point him out. And if he were head and shoulders above everyone else or was otherwise extraordinary, the gospels probably would have said so. As it is, they’re silent on what he looked like and, when they do say something about his personal characteristics, the writers seem to want to let us know how ordinary he was. Think of this comment from a crowd: “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary? Where did he get all this?” (Mark 6:2,3). And the author of Hebrews reminds us in today’s text that Jesus was “like [us] in every respect” and “shared in flesh and blood” (2:14,17).

What Neave came up with is the man seen at the link given in note 3. There is no claim that this is the actual face of Jesus, only that it’s how a common Jewish guy would look. He would have been around 5’ 1” tall, weigh 110 pounds, and have olive skin and coarse hair and beard. People who worked and traveled outdoors, as Jesus did, would have been weathered and probably quite fit.

In such commonness is our Lord’s universality. He doesn’t stand out from us or tower above us. He’s just an ordinary guy in whom the reality of God shone through in a unique way. So he belongs to all of us. He answers in his person singer Joan Osborne’s musical question: “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?” (Eric Bazilian, “One of Us” © 1995).

That’s the way of God in the world. He doesn’t come in spectacular events and things and people so much as in the ordinary, the common, the small, and the routine. A man who looked pretty much like the average guy of his time and place. A cup of wine. A piece of bread. The water that gives life to our very cells. “The flesh and blood of ourselves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys,” as Frederick Buechner put it.

It was this Jesus, this man of his day, this one who shared every aspect of our humanity, this one, whom God exalted to the place of honor and authority, in the very life of God. But, having said that, the Jesus who now lives and reigns is no longer the Nazarene, bound to place and time, but the Messiah, the Christ, who belongs to every place and time and embodies all humanity. The exalted Jesus is not a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a pagan or an atheist. He is not a Republican or a Democrat or a Socialist or a Communist or a Libertarian. He doesn’t endorse any political candidate or public official, whatever they may claim. He is neither male nor female, black nor white nor Hispanic nor Asian nor Native American nor any other ethnicity. He is neither gay nor straight nor transgendered. He hails from no country on the globe. Yet at the same time as he is none of that, he is all of it. Jesus belongs to all humanity and encompasses everything human.

What does Jesus look like now? Back in the 1960s, the late Swiss artist Annie Vallotton was commissioned to provide illustrations for the Good News Bible translation. She was doing fine until it came time to show Jesus. What face would she put on him? She finally decided to leave his visage blank, inviting every reader to see Jesus in a way that was meaningful and comforting.

So Vallotton shifts our focus from the face of Jesus as a project for speculation and artistic, scientific re-creation to the nitty-gritty, day-to-day business of encounter and conversation and presence. To know what Jesus looks like now we have to ask what true humanity looks like in our sometimes joyful, sometimes routine, sometimes difficult relationships with our families, friends, and neighbors down the street or a world away. The respected archbishop Desmond Tutu has an answer: “In its simplest form humanness is unconditional love” (Desmond Tutu, “God is Not a Christian”; see note 4).

So wherever we find love, wherever we show love, there we find Jesus. Jesus looks like sacrificial, suffering, patient, self-giving love.

Let us so act, then, that when people see you and me today, they will say “There goes Jesus.”





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