Consider the following verses, attributed to Jesus:
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ – Mark 10:18
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” – John 14:12
I find them interesting. In the first one, from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus seems to suggest that it would be a mistake to equate him with God. He says these words in response to someone who addresses him as “good teacher.” In the second verse, from John’s Gospel, Jesus is shown suggesting that those who trust in him will not only do the kinds of works that he has done, but “will do greater works than these” because, presumably, through our trust in Jesus we are able to experience an empowering relationship with God.
Taken together, these verses perhaps hint at something which probably sounds almost heretical to say to most people: that in his historical life, Jesus was not all that radically different from the rest of us. Now, before you take up your pitch forks and torches, hear me out.
Marcus Borg, in his book Speaking Christian, suggests that there is a distinction between what he calls the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The pre-Easter Jesus refers to what we might call the historical Jesus. He lived in a particular time and place, did and said particular things, ate, slept, drank, had a certain height and weight, and ultimately died on a cross. At that moment, the historical, pre-Easter Jesus ceased to exist. He was gone. Three days later, his followers began to have experiences of the post-Easter Jesus: the Jesus who was not limited by the constraints of corporeal reality – he could appear and disappear, he could be with people and remain unrecognized, he could walk through walls. The post-Easter Jesus was not simply a flesh and blood person who had been reanimated; this was something different.
And so Borg goes on to point out that the pre-Easter Jesus was seen by the early Christian community as a revelation of God in the shape of a human life. In other words, the pre-Easter Jesus shows us what we can see of God in a human life. And Jesus was extraordinary, remarkable, unique. Meeting him was a transformational experience. But, Borg argues, the pre-Easter Jesus was not divine; he was a revelation of the divine, of God, but that is saying something different. The pre-Easter Jesus was fully human, as we are. The post-Easter Jesus, the Risen Christ, he was experienced as divine by the early Christian community. This post-Easter, divine Jesus was able to promise his disciples that he would always be with them, wherever they were – and that sort of omnipresence is a divine quality. You might remember that Paul writes in the New Testament that Jesus was “declared to be Son of God with power . . . by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). In other words, Paul does not attribute divine titles to Jesus until after the resurrection.
Yet, as Borg points out, most people tend to conflate the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus into one, projecting onto the historical Jesus a divine status which the early Christians did not actually attribute to him until after the Easter event. The result of this conflation is that people tend to believe that the pre-Easter Jesus was able to accomplish extraordinary things, to be a transformational presence in people’s lives, because he had some “boost” of divine superpower. And that notion diminishes Jesus’ humanity.
It also allows us to distance ourselves from the historical Jesus. We can easily tell ourselves that it was all right for Jesus to be about all the things he was about during his public ministry because, after all, he was divine! We, on the other hand, cannot possibly be expected to do those sorts of things because we lack that essential element of divinity that he possessed. And so we make ourselves safe from Jesus and free ourselves from the challenge of becoming like him.
Yet in the face of that sort of thinking are the two verses with which I began, in which Jesus’ seems to make clear that he is not the same as God and in which he also makes it clear that those of us who trust in him will do greater works than he did. While we tend to lower our expectations with respect to what human beings can accomplish, Jesus seems to raise them quite high. The message seems clear enough: Jesus was able to show the world God’s passion and character so clearly that when people saw what Jesus was doing, they were also seeing what God was seeking to do in the world. We are challenged by Jesus to do the same thing: to show the world God’s passion and character as clearly and decisively as we possibly can. It does not mean that we are divine – it does mean that we are living as fully, dynamically and as wonderfully as possible into our own humanity.