Imagining Jesus

The apocryphal Acts of John contains the following passages (from 1924 translation available here). From the context, the words are supposed to be from John himself (emphasis added):

Men and brethren, ye have suffered nothing strange or incredible as concerning your perception of the [Lord], inasmuch as we also, whom he chose for himself to be apostles, were tried in many ways: I, indeed, am neither able to set forth unto you nor to write the things which I both saw and heard: and now is it needful that I should fit them for your hearing; and according as each of you is able to contain it I will impart unto you those things whereof ye are able to become hearers, that ye may see the glory that is about him, which was and is, both now and for ever.

The author (who claims to be a follower of the apostle John) goes on to relate a singular incident which, we are to suppose, was related to him by John.

[H]e [Jesus] cometh unto me and James my brother, saying: I have need of you, come unto me. And my brother hearing that, said: John, what would this child have that is upon the sea-shore and called us? And I said: What child? And he said to me again: That which beckoneth to us. And I answered: Because of our long watch we have kept at sea, thou seest not aright, my brother James; but seest thou not the man that standeth there, comely and fair and of a cheerful countenance? But he said to me: Him I see not, brother; but let us go forth and we shall see what he would have.

So, if you are having trouble following the translation, James and John were on their boat fishing when they hear a voice calling them from the shore. To James, the voice belongs to a child. John can’t see the child and instead sees a man (“comely and fair and of a cheerful countenance”). Perhaps only to settle the disagreement, they go to “see what he would have.”

And so when we had brought the ship to land, we saw him also helping along with us to settle the ship: and when we departed from that place, being minded to follow him, again he was seen of me as having rather bald, but the beard thick and flowing, but of James as a youth whose beard was newly come. We were therefore perplexed, both of us, as to what that which we had seen should mean. And after that, as we followed him, both of us were by little and little [yet more] perplexed as we considered the matter.

Once they reach the shore, John sees a bald man with a “thick and flowing” beard and James still sees “a youth whose beard was newly come.” This difficulty in truly seeing Jesus seems to persist (indeed it seems to be the inspiration for this little sermon which begins: “Men and brethren, ye have suffered nothing strange or incredible as concerning your perception of the [Lord]”). John goes on to describe the changing forms of Jesus he encountered at different times.

. . . And oft-times he would appear to me as a small man and uncomely, and then again as one reaching unto heaven. Also there was in him another marvel: when I sat at meat he would take me upon his own breast; and sometimes his breast was felt of me to be smooth and tender, and sometimes hard like unto stones . . . 

Beyond appearing a variety of different forms, John describes how even the tactile experience of touch would change from “smooth and tender” to “hard like unto stones.”

It is fitting, I think, that the passage ends like this:

. . . I was perplexed in myself and said: Wherefore is this so unto me? And as I considered this, he . . .

Just as Jesus seems ready to answer John’s question, the translation stops. I haven’t been able to find a more complete version of this passage, but this ending seems appropriate. We are left to fill in Jesus’ explanation on our own.

I think it is wonderful that John’s stated reason for telling this strange story of an elusive and ever-changing Jesus was that we “may see the glory that is about him.” Christians are inclined to talk about God’s immutableness and constancy as glorified traits, but here we have just the opposite; Jesus’ glory “both now and for ever” are demonstrated by his malleability.

So what does any of this have to do with anything? As I have pondered the things that keep me in the church, somewhere near the top of the list is the idea that I am sorely limited in my own capacity to understand the divine. I need to be immersed in a community of people who are similarly seeking (and similarly limited but in beautifully diverse ways). Through the process of interacting with others (who often understand and experience God in very different ways from my own), we can all come closer to the truth.

In Karen Armstrong’s History of God (which I highly recommend), she relates a Sufi creation myth:

Ibn al-Arabi imagined the solitary God sighing with longing, but this sigh (nafas rahmani) was not an expression of maudlin self-pity. It had an active, creative force which brought the whole of our cosmos into existence; it also exhaled human beings, who became logoi, words that express God to himself. It follows that each human being is a unique epiphany of the Hidden God, manifesting him in a particular and unrepeatable manner.

Each one of these divine logoi are the names that God has called himself, making himself totally present in each one of his epiphanies. God cannot be summed up in one human expression since the divine reality is inexhaustible. It also follows that the revelation that God has made in each one of us is unique, different from the God known by the other innumerable men and women who are also his logoi. … It is a two-way process: God sighs to become known and is delivered from his solitude by the people in whom he reveals himself. The sorrow of the Unknown God is assuaged by the Revealed God in each human being who makes him known to himself.

None of this is to say that the Church is the only (or even the best) place for this ongoing process of discovering God. With the tremendous diversity that exists in the world, it would be very surprising indeed if one institution were able to stretch itself to contain the variety of ways humans encounter divinity.

In the Church I can find glimpses of the divine reflected in my brothers and sisters, and I can do my best to share my own unique perspective. There are probably plenty of other places to do this, but the Mormon Church is the one that I call “home.”

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

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