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The Big Question

Are Jesus and Christ one and the same?

By Peter Wyatt

It is one of those spectacular days of summer. Seated on a dock, looking out over Ontario’s Lake Cecebe, I see clouds scudding through the brilliant, arching blue of the sky. I feel a gentle zephyr blowing over the face of the water, and the sun casts flashing little diamonds on the tips of the waves. It is then, in an imaginative moment, that I sometimes experience Christ coming to me on the waves, moving with the unswerving love with which he once approached another Peter. I open myself to communion with him.

Who is this Christ who comes to those who share the Christian faith?

Not too long ago on this page, a decisive distinction was made between the earthly Jesus and the risen Christ, such that one could not properly say, “Jesus loves me.” Certainly there are distinctions that can be made between the Jesus who walked the roads of Palestine and the risen Lord, between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, between the pre-Easter and the post-Easter Jesus.

But such distinctions do not contest the personal identity of one whom the New Testament repeatedly calls “Jesus Christ.” Rather, they relate to the nature and place of his ministry and to the powers exercised.

In Philippians 2:5-11, the Apostle Paul quotes an early hymn that may explain how one can distinguish between “Jesus” and “Christ” without rupturing the identity of the two. He sings of one who, though he was “in the form of God,” emptied himself (of divine powers) to take “the form of a slave,” adopting our human nature and humbling himself — even to death on a cross.

It is this Christ incarnate — Jesus Christ — whom God raises from death and exalts. There is nothing in the hymn to suggest that the risen Christ then sheds his humanity as if it were now a needless cloak that could be cast aside. The one raised on Easter Day is still Jesus Christ, the scarred and faithful friend of sinners.

Better known perhaps than the Philippian hymn is the prologue of the Gospel of John, often read at Christmas. The stage John sets for the birth of Jesus is not a stable but the Creation itself. The unfolding drama focuses on the “Word” through whom all things come to be — the Word who is not only with God, but also of God. The climax comes when John tells us that “the Word became flesh,” became incarnate, took our human nature and lived among us, “full of grace and truth.”

Having freely adopted our human condition, the incarnate Word, or Christ, now exercises shaping influence on a far different scale and in a far different way than before. He “who built the starry skies” now preaches and teaches to move human hearts, and where there is no faith, he is not able to bring healing and hope.

It remains baffling to me why anyone would want to separate the identity of Christ from that of Jesus. Without the knowledge we have of the teaching and actions of Jesus, how would one know the character of “Christ”? Do we believe that Christ brings compassionate care to human suffering? Is the defender of the vulnerable? Is the opponent of hypocrisy and injustice? Is the seeker of the lost and the excluded? Is the healer of wounds? Is present when we break bread and pour the cup?

Truth to tell, we could not ascribe any personal qualities to the risen Christ without knowing Jesus and believing that the “two” share a personal identity. The eternal Christ can only be the one who, as incarnate, lived our life and was faithful to the end. Certainly the first witnesses to the resurrection believed that it was their beloved Jesus whom God had raised and made manifest as Lord and Christ.

The Christ who still comes has an identity and a name, “the name that is above every name,” the name of Jesus.

Rev. Peter Wyatt is the editor of the United Church theological journal, Touchstone. He lives in Magnetawan, Ont.

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