Flesh and Blood Jesus

Mark Johnston, Connections Pastor

My dad took a lot of pictures when i was little, mostly black and white, but a few color ones as well—the bright Kodachrome oversaturated reds and yellows that i love about the photography of my childhood. But mostly, at our house, things were black and white.

When my kids were little, we watched some old TV shows that i’d enjoyed when i was their age—Dick Van Dyke, Andy Griffith, that sort of thing. Classic shows that are still great today, that had an innocence about them that disappeared from TV in the 70s and 80s. 

The Head of ChristOne day, when she was around three or so, our second daughter, Shelby, asked me, ‘when did the world start being in color?’

In her mind, old photos and movies simply captured the world as it was, and then one day, suddenly, like Dorothy opening the door from Kansas to Oz, everything changed and vibrant color was everywhere.

I explained that everything had always been the way we see it, and that black and white was just the result of the film and camera equipment we used. I loved that idea, though. That to a child, the world could be nothing but shades of grey, until one day…boom!

Sometimes, however, kid’s misperceptions carry over into adulthood.

When i was young, one of my Sunday School Classrooms had a reproduction of an oil painting of Jesus thumb-tacked to the wall. It’s called The Head of Christ, and was painted by a man named Warner Sallman.

According to Wikipedia, after publication in 1941 ‘it had been reproduced over half a billion times worldwide by the end of the 20th century. Enlarged copies of the work have been made for churches, and small pocket or wallet-sized prayer cards bearing the image have been mass-produced for private devotional use. The painting is said to have “become the basis for [the] visualization of Jesus” for “hundreds of millions” of people.’ 

You’ve seen it—i mean, it is one of the most reproduced artworks in history. Probably not regarded as ‘great art’ by the critics, but still one of the most famous paintings in the world. (I’m guessing right around #3, right behind the Mona Lisa and Dogs Playing Poker.)

Mr. Sallman did other paintings of Jesus, including one of him knocking on a door, that seemingly everyone’s grandma had on her wall when i was a kid, but this one, also unfortunately known as The Sallman Head, was his big hit.

Now i know, that’s not really what Jesus looked like—he was, after all, Jewish, and most Jews have…let’s say ‘more striking facial characteristics’ than the man in the painting. Archaeologists have also determined that men of the first century probably didn’t have 1960s hippie hair, contrary to public opinion, and the way we, and Mr. Sallman, envision things. In one approximation i saw, Jesus looked a lot more like a young Bob Dylan than the flowy haired guy i grew up seeing on the wall. But despite knowing this, that image of Christ is the one that pops into my head when i visualize him teaching the Sermon on the Mount, or sitting with his disciples having supper.

Be honest, a lot of you who grew up in church like i did, get that same image, or something similar.

But sometimes, seeing Oil Painting Jesus as Flesh and Blood Jesus is hard. Like little Shelby, thinking the world had simply been black and white at one point, there is a real temptation to see Bible characters, not as three dimensional, actual walking around the world people. People who dealt with some of the same kinds of problems we have (an ingrown toenail) or much worse problems (living in the Middle East without air conditioning)—but as somehow more like an oil painting than real. Two dimensional characters from a novel instead of living, breathing flesh and blood.

Maybe we do that because it’s easier that way.

Oil Painting Jesus never looks at me with disappointment at the bad choices i make. Flesh and Blood Jesus does.

Oil Painting Jesus doesn’t confront me with my sin issues. Flesh and Blood Jesus does, and tells me to ‘go and sin no more.’

So if i, as a committed Christ-follower, have a hard time seeing the Savior in the real world, imagine how a non-believer views things. A fairy tale that somehow people believe, like Jack and the Beanstalk. Stories someone made up to scare kids into behaving themselves, ‘cause they don’t want to burn in hell.

That’s why you and i have to see the importance of living out the gospel. People won’t see Jesus as real, until they see his followers that way—living out the things that he instructed us to do—loving, serving, being the hands and feet that he told us to be. Not by handing out tracts and yelling through a megaphone on a street corner, but by reaching out to the tax collectors meth-heads and prostitutes women who see sex as a commodity. By being kind to everyone we come in contact with, even those we disagree with politically, in our religious beliefs, social status or sexuality.

Not condoning, but also not condemning.

Treating people with love makes them want to get to know Flesh and Blood Jesus, and that church, is the goal. Imagine Heaven—seeing someone there that God, the creator of all that surrounds you—used you to help guide into an eternal relationship with him. Now imagine staying silent, and that person never knowing the Savior because you were too busy, too judgmental, too caught up in your own self-righteousness, or just because you didn’t care.

Oil Painting Jesus may look alright on a wall, but he won’t change your life the way Flesh and Blood Jesus can. And, a lot of the time, it takes Flesh and Blood Believers to show people that he’s real.

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