Today I want to share Scot McKnight’s words from the forward of my book Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain. Not only was it an honor to have Scot write a foreword for me, but it reads like a good newsletter/blog post. So, here it is: “I Grew Up Without Jesus the Person.”
I grew up in a kind of Christian faith that almost completely ignored Jesus.
We learned Jesus stories, to be sure, mostly in Sunday School classes, where we drew figures, colored inside the lines, and put images on flannel boards. But the “big people’s” gatherings were all about the apostle Paul, the Bible and theology, and fundamentalist commitments to certain behaviors, such as not smoking, chewing, or “going with girls that do.” These teachings focused on either abstract propositions or legalistic instructions. I would later understand that the Christian faith I was exposed to as a boy was not focused on Jesus as we find him in the Gospels—Jesus the person.
Later I began to discover that Jesus. That journey began in my first class in seminary, when my professor, Walter Liefeld, taught Synoptic Gospels in a way that put Jesus on center stage and God’s grace for us on full display. I was beginning to see Jesus the person. Sure, we talked kingdom theology and Matthew’s theology and all that academic stuff. But Jesus lurked in that classroom as a real presence. As someone who lived and died. As someone who was (and is) real.
He was like us in so many ways. But better yet, we are like him in so many ways. That’s why we need Jesus—a real human person who shows us how to live in a real, painful world.
Violence and pain are two of the oldest stories, and many people connect them to redemption in far too casual of a manner. Redemption doesn’t permit us to pretend violence and pain aren’t real. Neither does it excuse those who want to diminish or deaden the reality of the violence and pain by appealing to too-easy sentiments, such as “But I got saved! I got through it!” Worse yet, we can begin to believe the idea that “God did the violence and caused my suffering for my redemption.”
In Echoing Hope, Kurt takes us into moments of pain and violence from his own life, but he does so with Jesus ever-present. Jesus’s presence did not remove the pain, and it didn’t provide a new method for living happily. Instead, Kurt shows us how it was about Jesus’s presence in our pain, about God with us, and about our suffering with Jesus in his pain.
Reading Kurt’s book means encountering pain—not good pain—but real, bad, awful, inner pain. When pain is caused by violence and injustice, the word good doesn’t belong with the word pain. This book is not about how violence redeems, but about the redemption on the other side of violence.
We need Jesus to redeem Christian theology from abstraction. We need Jesus not only for what he accomplished—on the cross and through his resurrection and ascension—but also for all of who he was and is.
The real Jesus was rejected, accused, made fun of, yelled at in public places, exhausted, beaten, bruised, scratched, and humiliated on a cross, and then he died. No doubt, this bloody man likely suffocated to death in full view of his haters, friends, and followers. His mother was accused, his father seemed to be absent, his brothers didn’t like him, and all the “righteous people” seemed to think he was nothing but trouble. They must have said aloud, “If he’s not careful, he’ll get us all in trouble and he’ll get himself killed.” Jesus knew pain and rejection throughout his life, which eventually culminated in the crucifixion.
We need that real Jesus because we, too, suffer. We need a God who knows our suffering, not one who knows about our suffering but one who knows what it’s like to feel it—a God who knows our suffering. Without that God, our pain is remote from our Creator. We become an abstraction from a God who only knows us in the way a drone peers into something out of our range. But because of the real, human Jesus—the one who suffered—God knows our pain firsthand.
Jesus stands with us in our suffering. Sometimes he’s clearly present, and at other times he’s not. But he’s there because our suffering is his and his suffering is ours. When we hurt, we draw closer to Jesus—perhaps more than we realize, but we do. God loves us and knows our anguish because the Son, Jesus, suffered and God knew him in that suffering. Our grief is personal to God.
In Jesus’s suffering there is hope. Why? Because we know what happened beyond the hideous cross: Easter happened and Easter still happens. Yes, in my life and Kurt’s and yours.
Easter happens in this book.
—Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary (Author of Jesus Creed, The Blue Parakeet, and The King Jesus Gospel)
[This newsletter/blog contains excerpts from Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain. It is copywritten material. All rights reserved by the author, Kurt Willems, and the publisher WaterBrook, an Imprint of Random House. © 2021.]
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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