One of the challenges for anyone reading the gospels is making sense of what seems to be more than one story unfolding. The gospels are instruction books for the disciple. The story tellers use Jesus’ story to illustrate what the disciple has to do in order to achieve the goal of discipleship but there is a tension because the gospels, two of them, begin with the birth narrative and the claim that Jesus was divine. We then have Jesus who is divine and yet human going through baptism, the experience in the wilderness, the transfiguration, in which it would appear that the divine and the human are somehow coming together. People have asked about this. Is it contradiction, confusion, different Jesus traditions coming together, or is there a way to reconcile and make sense of what appears to be two stories being told simultaneously?
One way to read this is as two stories unfolding together. The birth stories tell us that Jesus is God. The Christmas narratives may well be reflection after the event but lose nothing if that is the case because all four of the gospels are reflection after the event. The gospels know this and the story tellers (gospel writers) know this but they are also telling us another story. This is the account of Jesus of Nazareth awakening to who he is. This may well be what we are seeing in the wilderness experience which has all the appearances of an initiation event and functions as a recognition event for Jesus, so too with the baptism and the transfiguration both of which include the voice from heaven who informs Jesus and the reader who he is.
This two stories unfolding within one makes sense of the gospels in another way. What we are seeing is Jesus doing the work which he prescribes for his disciples. The encounters he has with others are revealing for them and part of an awakening process for him. We can read the stories as simple narrative but the encounters with others have a didactic function too. The awakener is being awakened. The work has a double impact. What affects the world affects the person doing the work. What has an impact on one’s neighbour awakens the self. In a sentence, Jesus is fully divine but has to realise it and awaken to it by doing the work he later prescribes for his followers.
It is my belief and assertion that what we have in the gospels is effectively instruction on discipleship. In these gospels is a message from the very early church which says, this is what you have to do, this is how you do it and this is where it will take you. It is this which gives the gospels their purpose and meaning and it is their raison d’être. Everything we see Jesus do, we are to do. Everything he teaches, we are to practise. In his life we see universal truth.
It is this universal truth which begins to come through when we look at Luke-Acts and Pentecost. Pentecost functions in Acts in a similar way to Christmas in Luke. Christmas announces the divinity of Jesus. Pentecost which is a recognition event with huge similarities not only to Christmas but to the baptism and transfiguration of Christ may have no voice from heaven but it has the voice of Peter and the announcement and commentary from Joel that this is not the Spirit descending upon the Church but upon all flesh. The divine flows not only into Jesus but into the world. Pentecost has us revisit Christmas and ask nervously perhaps whether Christmas is speaking about all humanity and not simply one man.
Pentecost is preceded with a period of silence and absence in which the disciples spend time in prayer and wait. This is remarkably similar to the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism. Here is encounter with the risen Christ, absence from the risen Christ after the Ascension and then the coming of the Spirit. Luke-Acts is providing pointers and clues.
You practise Jesus’ teaching and your recognise who you are. You awaken. You are enlightened. It is confusing and alarming when people speak of human beings (other than Jesus of Nazareth) as divine. Where this comes from and what it is is what is there in Jesus’ statement in John’s Gospel that he is one with the Father and that the desire is that we should be part of that essential unity also. That is the goal of discipleship.
If you listened to the Pentecost sermon which I preached at Dumfries Northwest Church in June 2017, it is very clear that Luke-Acts is saying that what was true of Jesus is also true of us. The Christmas story is a specific statement about Jesus, namely that Jesus was God from the moment of his conception. In Luke 17 Jesus gives a big hint (or Luke gives a big hint, or the early church gives a big hint) when he says that the kingdom of God is among us (in our community) or within us (inside ourselves). But Pentecost universalises what we are told about Jesus at Christmas and this then changes how we might be tempted to read the Christmas story and its implied statement about the divinity of Jesus.
After we read Acts 2, we go back and we re-read the Christmas story and we realise that it is not simply Jesus but all of humanity which is both human and divine. Pentecost is not about the coming of the Holy Spirit but it describes a moment or event of recognition about who we really are. What was true of Jesus is true of all flesh. We now have to awaken to it.
This helps explain and puts into context what people sometimes find difficult and this is the idea of the ‘false self’. Everything which has been said about the ‘false self’ is not about anything which exists. A false idea of God is an idea about a view of God which is not real. There is no false self. We imagine it. We imagine that we are separate from God and separate from our neighbour. It is deeply ingrained therefore it seems real to us. In fact it seems like the only reality. It is the work Jesus prescribes and teaches and does himself in the gospels which breaks through that.