by Layton Friesen
For the first centuries of the Church’s life, there was much debate about exactly who this Jesus was the Church found itself worshipping and following. One of the simplest and most profound truths it discovered was this: you will never predict who Jesus is by thinking profound and lofty philosophical thoughts, hoping that your rational concepts somehow coincide with Christ.
The mistake that was so hard to overcome for these early Christians was the belief that by thinking philosophical Greek thoughts about natures and essences, eventually they would figure out who this God-man was. That never worked.
So if not by thinking, how else? By looking. By watching to see what he does, how he lives, and the manner of his speech. What kind of choice does he make here? What does he refuse there? How does he act in this situation here? The mystery of Jesus appears in the manner in which he takes the days his Father gave him, and weaves an utterly unique, never-anticipated tapestry from them.
Jesus arrives and lives so freely, with such dashing improv, that no human could ever guess what he would do next. When the Church finally came to this basic discovery in the 7th century (thank you, Maximus the Confessor) they arrived at a beautiful vision of who Jesus was that has never been surpassed. When you watch Jesus acting, the humanity and divinity appear in matchless unity.
Thus, the basic act of the disciple is looking. Staying alert. Watching intently. Noticing the subtle change in his bearing. Disciples do not predict where Jesus will go by trying to be super-smart—they can only follow.
Once we see Jesus, we can think about it. We can try to appreciate with our intellect something of the love we see unfolding. First we look and then we treasure up all these things, pondering them in our heart. For example, after Jesus lived, the disciples saw the Old Testament as full of references to Christ. Before Christ came and lived however, no one could have guessed his life would happen as it did.
But this order of first looking and then thinking is sure hard for us modern people. We have a hard time believing that after all these centuries we still need to keep tracking Christ’s every move. We constantly seek the “key” to Jesus’ life. We try to detect a pattern or principle that we can detach from Jesus and put to use in our lives.
I see this mistake happening often. We say for instance, Jesus showed hospitality; we then go and detach hospitality from Jesus and make it a kind of free-standing principle or idea in our lives and tell ourselves that we are still following Jesus.
It’s a lot easier just being generally hospitable than it is following Jesus. I can get hospitality. But you cannot be a disciple by following general principles like hospitality (or leadership, or counter-cultural resistance, or honesty, or nonviolence, or whatever other detachable principle). Jesus is simply unpredictable and he will always bust open my lousy principles and concepts. In order to be Christ-like I have to track his footsteps through the gospels in daily looking and attentive curious waiting.
What this means is that we must keep going back to the words, the phrases, the sentences in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus. Nothing can ever substitute for contemplation, for sitting with Mary at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he says next.