Loving Jesus

John 14:15-21

A new student asked her yoga instructor, “Can you teach me to do the splits?” “Hmmm,” said her instructor.  “How flexible are you?”  “Well,” said the student, “I can’t come on Tuesdays.”

A man called the obstetrician in a panic and yelled into the phone, “My wife is pregnant, and her contractions are only two minutes apart!”  “Is this her first child,” asked the doctor.  “No, you idiot!” yelled the man.  “This is her husband!”

The way we hear things is important.  The way we hear things can make a huge difference in how we understand and how we respond. 

In his wonderful book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“WHEN A MINISTER reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.”

“We don’t see things as they are,” said Anais Nin, “we see things as we are.”  

The same goes for hearing.  We don’t always hear what someone is actually saying.  Sometimes that’s because we don’t really want to hear it.  Sometimes it’s because we think we’ve heard it before.  And sometimes it’s because we’re already thinking about our own reinterpreted version of what we think they’re saying.

“If you love me,” said Jesus, “you will keep my commandments.

How do you hear that?  What does it mean to love Jesus?  What does it look like for you—to love Jesus?  

Mark Allen Powell wrote a profound little book called Loving Jesus which takes seriously the idea of what it means to love Jesus.  The title is kind of a giveaway.  In the forward to Loving Jesus, he wrote this:  

“Becoming people who love God is the only reliable path to being more spiritual.  Loving God transforms people from within and connects them to something eternal and ultimate.

“The Christian faith is not just a religion (a system of rituals and beliefs), but a relationship—a relationship of love with Jesus Christ who is risen from the dead.  When this basic point is missed, the Christian religion becomes hollow and staid.

“When Christianity is not, first and foremost, a relationship of love, it becomes a matter of works and toil and patient endurance—all worthwhile, perhaps, but a far cry from the spiritual experience of joy and peace that it is supposed to be.”

What does it mean to love Jesus?  What does that look like?

How much is your love for Jesus affected by the picture of Jesus you carry in your head and in your heart?  And how does that picture affect the way you hear Jesus?

In May of 2017, the cover of Living Lutheran magazine featured 16 different pictures of Jesus, sixteen depictions of how people from different eras, cultures and ethnic groups imagine or imagined Jesus.  https://www.qgdigitalpublishing.com/publication/?i=617964

Do any of these look like the Jesus you’re talking to when you pray?

Can you hear the words “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” from any of these faces?  Is it easier to hear it from some than from others?

Here’s what Jesus looked like to me as a kid—the classic Warner Sallman painting of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. https://www.warnersallman.com/collection/images/christ-at-hearts-door/

That’s what Jesus looked like in my childhood mind.  That’s who I talked to when I prayed.  And in my mind he sounded like Victor Mature.  A serious baritone voice with ponderous music in the background.  And, of course, he spoke in King James Bible English because that’s what we heard in Sunday School, even though we didn’t understand half of it…  “Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.”  How’s that again?

Later we switched to the RSV in Sunday School and I saw other pictures of Jesus, so I began to hear him differently, too.

As time went on, more new translations were published—The New English Bible, The Good News Bible, The NIV, the NLT, the NRSV, The Message—and with each translation the words changed, usually just a little, but sometimes a little change in wording meant more than a little difference in meaning and understanding.

When I was a teenager, other pictures of Jesus began to emerge.  Sometimes we saw him depicted as younger and hipper looking.  Sometimes he looked a little more rugged, like someone who really might be walking everywhere he went and living out in the elements.  

Sometimes he was even laughing.

It didn’t occur to me until years later, though, that in all of these pictures he was pretty much Anglo.  White.  Like me.  And my dad and my mom and almost everybody I knew and went to church with.  He might have a good tan from being outdoors so much. 

But give him a haircut and dress him for church and he’d fit in just about any pew in any predominantly white church in America.  In fact, starting in the late ‘70s you wouldn’t even have to give him a haircut.

How does “Blessed are the poor” sound coming from Jesus in a suit?  

There’s been an increasing trend over the past few decades for different cultures and groups to portray Jesus as one of their own.  Black Jesus, Asian Jesus, Latino Jesus… 

On the one hand, this can be a useful way for people to hear Jesus speaking to them more clearly and directly within the context of their own life and culture, especially since so many of the images of Jesus have, for so long been kind of white, Northern European looking.  It’s easier for people to relate to and embrace a Jesus who looks like them.  That’s why a northern European church made so many images of a northern European-looking Jesus to begin with, and the wide dispersion and normalization of those images had everything to do with colonialism and nothing at all to do with how Jesus actually looked.

So yes, culturally diverse images are a good and necessary thing.

On the other hand, it’s easy for any culture to commit the same kind of small idolatry that white America has committed and white Europe before us.  It’s easy to fashion Jesus in our own image.  When we do that, when we appropriate him to our race and our culture, some of the things he says, especially the things that critique us most directly, may lose some of their power.  Many of the things he said resonate all the more powerfully because he spoke as a member of a marginalized class in a nation of oppressed people.

And that brings me to this image.  https://www.christianpost.com/news/forensic-science-reveals-most-real-face-of-jesus-ever.html

In 2001 a team of Israeli and British forensic anthropologists and computer programmers used skeletal remains from first century Galilean peasant men to construct a composite portrait of Jesus. Let’s be clear NOBODY is saying that this iswhat Jesus looked like.  What they are saying, though, is that he probably looked a lot more like this than like any of the other painting or depiction we’ve ever seen.

Look at that face.  Dark olive skin.  Curly, somewhat kinky hair.  Dark brown eyes.  If he was typical for the region, he probably stood somewhere between 5’1” tall to maybe as tall as 5”7”, and weighed about 110 pounds.  He would have been short, wiry, spare and strong—and most likely nothing special to look at.  

Now… can you hear him saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments?”

Are you willing to let him give you a commandment—even a gentle, grace-filled commandment?  

Can you love him?  

Can you see him as Emmanuel—God with us?

I ask you this because this portrait has been haunting me since the first time I saw it. When I first saw it, I confess that I recoiled from it a little bit.  More than a little bit.  This face is so different from the Jesus I had always imagined.

But then I remembered Isaiah 53:2-3 —“He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others…and we held him of no account.”

This face haunts me.  This is the face that I see more and more in my mind’s eye when I read the words of Jesus in the gospels.  This face challenges me.

Can I love him?  Can I see him as Emmanuel? 

When I see this face speaking the familiar words of the gospel, the words themselves are no longer familiar.  They are new.  They have sharp edges.  They penetrate my expectations in extraordinary ways and surprising places.  This Jesus also comforts me more than any of the Jesus pictures I knew as a child.  There’s an earnest sincerity in that face, the kind of sincerity that we tend to experience a little more readily from those who have “nothing in their appearance” to otherwise distract us.  His words feel more personal.

If you love me you will keep my commandments.

And what are those commandments?

Well there’s just one, really, but he repeats it twice:

John 13.34 – I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 

John 15.12 – “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 

The way we show that we love Jesus is to love one another.  He gives us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to give us the courage and will to love each other.  He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us get over ourselves so we can see Christ in each other.

It’s a true thing in life that some faces are harder to love than others.  

Some of the faces we face stir up unpleasant memories for us.  Some of them express unpleasant attitudes.  Some just seem unapproachable.

But in every face we face, Jesus wants us to find their true face, the face he knows and loves—and beneath that, even in some way, to see in them the image of God. Which is why Jesus gives us the Spirit of truth to help us love him and find the face we love in each other.

Sometimes you have to look hard and deep into a face to find the face you can love, the face that remembers it was created in the image and likeness of God.  And sometimes you have to adjust the way you’re seeing.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Hook (1991) where Peter Pan, played by Robin Williams, returns to Neverland after having lived for years as a grownup in the grownup world.  At first the Lost Boys don’t recognize him and are downright suspicious of him.  But then Pockets, one of the smallest boys, gets up close to him, looks at him through Peter’s own upside down glasses, squinches up Peter’s face and suddenly recognizes the face of his old friend.  He sees the face of the boy who left Neverland hidden in the grownup face of the man who has returned.  And in that moment all the love comes flooding back.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wt-O1ReOPOQ

Within every face we face, Jesus wants us to find that person’s true face, the face he knows and loves—and beneath that, even in some way, to see in them the image of God.  In every face we face, Jesus wants us to search for his face.

“Those who love me show it by loving others,” says Jesus. “And God loves those who love me. And I love them.  And I will reveal myself to them.”

Who could ask for more than that?

2 thoughts on “Loving Jesus

  1. Thanks, Steve. The composite is okay and I like it a lot, but the facial expression is off kilter to me… Jesus has appeared to me twice in my life, once during an Easter sunrise service where a small crowd of us all saw him at the same time, standing beneath a few trees in the church yard. He was smiling, affectionate, pleased, and knowing. Intimately knowing us, is the only description I could give that look. He was only visible for a few short moments, then faded and was gone. But we will never forget those moments! The second time was when he appeared in my home late one night (April 15, 1974). Again he was smiling, affectionate, loving, and oh, so knowing, so compassionately, lovingly knowing in his expression. That one little change of expression in this composite would be really nice, I think. (https://estherspetition.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/testimony-adventures-with-the-holy-spirit-part-i/) Thank you again for sharing these thoughts.


    1. Thank you for sharing your interesting experiences, Bette. FWIW, I do see compassion in that composite, and I have often imagined that face smiling and even laughing. I see in it a great openness. Grace and peace, Pastor Steve


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