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Monday, February 23, 2009

Speech by Prof. Neil Ormerod, celebrating the life and achievement of Christ

“Celebrating the Life and Achievements of Christ and Muhammad”

3 December 2005

St. Patrick’s Cathedral Hall, Parramatta

The Life and Achievements of Jesus Christ
Professor Neil Ormerod

Personal testimony

Let me begin by saying what an honour and privilege it is to have an opportunity to speak about the life and achievements of Jesus of Nazareth, the one the early Church called the Christ or messiah, and whom Christian tradition proclaimed as Son of God. No other relationship is as important to me as my relationship to Jesus; because to me as a believing Christian my relationship to Jesus IS my relationship to God. I seek to make my life one of Christian discipleship, following in Jesus’ footsteps, setting his teachings as my greatest wisdom, his life as my surest guide and greatest inspiration. His life and the significance it holds are endlessly fascinating to me. My fervent hope is that when I die, Jesus will count me among his friends, frail and imperfect though I am.

I say this because I want to be clear that I speak tonight as a believer, not as a disinterested observer of the history of Christianity. I mean no offense to our Moslem brothers and sisters this evening and I hope and expect that they too will be speaking as committed believers of Islam.

Historical information about Jesus

When we ask about the life of Jesus Christians immediately turn to the Gospels in the New Testament. Though these remain our most reliable source of historical information about Jesus, the age has long since passed where we could read them as a straight diary account of his life. The Gospels are proclamation; they bear witness to the faith of the first generation of believers; they shape their story to the needs of their audience. Consequently as a theologian I find it increasingly difficult to use the Gospels as a strict historical source. Nonetheless scholars have laboured, using various methods, to extract whatever may be historically reliable from these sources.

Some examples suffice. We do not know exactly when Jesus was born – estimates vary; we do not know how long his public ministry lasted – the classical “three years” is taken from John’s Gospel while the events in Mark’s could easily have occurred in just one year; we do not know exactly the year of Jesus’ death – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke present a different time frame to that of John. It seems strange in this day and age where precise records are kept on every little detail, how little we know about such basic matters in relation to Jesus.

We know much about the message and teaching of Jesus, however. We know the central theme of his teaching was the Kingdom of God, a symbol of complete human flourishing which Jesus’ ministry expressed and embodied. We know of his miracles, the healings he performed, restoring people to physical and spiritual wholeness. We know he scandalized his religious contemporaries by his table fellowship with public sinners, and that his actions provoked hatred from various religious authorities in his own day. We know he selected an inner circle of followers, twelve men to symbolize the restoration of Israel to its original founding vision. We know that as his conflict with the religious authorities came to a crisis point, he gathered these twelve to have a final meal with him, a meal where he spoke words they would only understand in light of the events about to unfold. And we know that one of these twelve would betray him to the religious authorities, who would then hand him over to the foreign occupying forces of the Roman Empire.

One thing we do know about with some certainly is the manner of Jesus’ death. Though the exact date is uncertain we do know that Jesus was crucified by Roman authorities. This is attested not just in the Gospels, but also in the non-Christian source of the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. It was such a horrendous form of death that it took Christians centuries before they could portray it in visual forms. There is also no reason to doubt the indictment placed on the top of the cross, spoken of in the Gospels, that read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, hence the inscription INRI found on most crucifixes. The charge against Jesus had political overtones, claims to political power which were judged contrary to the interests and power of the Roman authorities. In the language of our contemporary world, we could say that Jesus was executed for sedition, an attempt to undermine or overthrow the political order of the day, or at least that’s what they thought at the time.

We also know that despite his ignominious death as a political agitator, that this death did not bring an end to his story. As Luke tells us:

Two whole days have gone by [since his death] and some women from our group have astounded us: they went to the tomb in the early morning, and when they could not find the body they came back to tell us they had seen a vision of angels who declared he was alive. Some of our friends went to the tomb and found everything exactly as the women had reported, but of him they saw nothing. (Luke 24:21-24)

Something indeed had happened to Jesus, something mysterious and unprecedented. According to his followers he was alive again, the same but different, with them but likely to “vanish from their sight”. They proclaimed a risen Jesus, a message they carried to the ends of the earth.

Achievements of Jesus

What then can we say about the achievements of Jesus in the light of his life? If we take the standards of the world at the time, then we would have to say that Jesus achieved very little. His brief ministry came to a tragic end. He left a body of teaching which was handed down by his followers; he cured a few people; he gathered a few people around him. Outside his own circle he barely rates a mention in the historical records of the day. Apart from Christian sources there are only three or four reliable mentions of him, his life and death. But this would be to miss the point.

As Scripture scholar James Dunn states:

As inescapable starting point for any quest for Jesus should be the historical fact that Jesus made a lasting impact on his disciples. It can be regarded as one of the most secure of historical [facts] that Jesus made a deep impression during his ministry … His mission changed their lives. They became disciples. They gave up their jobs. They left their families. They committed themselves to him, to follow him … The impact of his mission turned their lives in a completely new direction; [and] it lasted.

This impact was not lessened by his death; indeed it seems to have been intensified by it. The New Testament itself bears witness to the intensity of the impact of his life, death and resurrection. It is a veritable explosion of adoration, of love, of personal commitment. No language is strong enough to express their devotion to him – he is Son of God, son of David, the Lord, the messiah, the power and wisdom of God, the lamb of God, the son of man coming to judge human history. Their relationship to him is intense and personal. Paul, who never met Jesus during his ministry can say, “He loved me and died for me”.

There is a very real sense then in which the major achievement of Jesus is what he leaves behind to carry on his mission. From its historically insignificant origins it emerged out of its Jewish roots to become a major religious movement in the Greco-Roman world and beyond; for better or worse it became the official religion of the very empire that executed Jesus. It has spread his message throughout the world, in such a way that every believer can say, “I am an achievement of Jesus. His life and power is at work in me”.

Of course that history has not all been sweetness and light. It has had its darker moments and episodes. As believers we need look no further than to teachings of Jesus to judge our own failure to live out the message he proclaimed. Jesus’ first message in the Gospels is one of repentance and the history of his movement is no little evidence for the continual need for repentance, conversion and calling on the mercy and forgiveness of God.

What Christians believe about Jesus

I have spoken about the personal sense of devotion that Christians direct towards Jesus. It is evident in the books of the New Testament; in the lives of Christians throughout the ages; and in the lives of Christians today. It is this very devotion which is the cause of so many problems for others of Abrahamic faith. Such devotion is only due to God, the one creator of heaven and earth. To the monotheism of both Judaism and Islam the devotion of Christians to the person of Jesus can only appear as blasphemy. To Christians it is the basis of their faith. It leads us in the long run to rewrite our understanding of God, as Father, Son and Spirit. But this would take us to far a field for this evening.


Let me conclude by thanking Bishop Manning for the invitation to speak to you tonight, and to you for your patience and attention in listening to me.

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