Jesus the Christ: Top Down or Bottom Up

There’s little doubt that culture plays a significant role in determining how we understand words, ideas, concepts, and beliefs. Inculturation, or the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, or another culture, played a role in how the teachings of Jesus were communicated by Paul, the most influential disciple, and even John, the author of a gospel and three letters. This inculturation contributed to the predominant Christian belief that Jesus was God who became man instead of a man who became divine.

Scholars hold that John and Paul were influenced by the Hellenization of their communities and therefore evangelized their communities or Churches in the vocabulary and ideas with which their members were most familiar. Logos is certainly one word that most Jews would not know unless they lived in the Greek cities where Paul and others like John would have preached about Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, (logos) and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. Did John decide to use Logos to relate this saying of Jesus, “The Father and I are one.” because Jesus wasn’t just the “image and likeness” of the Creator as the Genesis author writes, but the principle of divine reason and creative order coming from the Creator,      or as E.F. Scott writes in his  article, “the Hellenistic Mysticism of the Fourth Gospel” Jesus was “the utterance of divine manifestation of the supreme God”, the Word made flesh.

Those of us who have heard these introductory remarks in John’s gospel, have come to believe that Jesus was God before he became man. But Paul preached that Jesus “being in very nature, God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This seems to stress a bit more humanity than divinity. This could mean that, as a human, Jesus grew into divinity just as all of us are called to do.

One has to wonder, as I do, why Jesus acted so much in concert with God’s Will.  Had he a memory of being in union with the Divine Creator, and therefore felt empowered to act in the name of God (top down) or did he come to grow closer to God by opening up to the power of the Holy Spirit (bottom up) so that God would eventually declare: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Isn’t this what Catholics call grace and isn’t that what happened to his mother, Mary. “And having come to her, he said, “Greetings, you favored with grace! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was open to the Divine. The Magnificat testifies to this and grace was such a gift that she was assumed into the Divine presence upon her death. Isn’t that what we hope for?

Didn’t Jesus confirm this notion of grace as a gift  when he said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” Isn’t that what the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are all about- empowering us to grow closer to God? The old catechism definition that we know by heart: “Sacraments are outward signs instituted by God to give grace” And what is this grace for but to grow in faith, hope, and love thus uniting with God!

Most Christians would not accept the notion that Jesus became God by the grace of the Holy Spirit! Why not, I ask? If he was truly human, how else would he realize his divinity? How or why would he come to say, ”the Father and I are one”? Did he believe he was God?  He wasn’t pretending to be human, was he? Well, NO! So what happened after his baptism when he heard those words, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Aren’t we all sons and daughters  or children of God after our baptism? The term “son of God” is used in the Hebrew Bible as another way of referring to humans with special relationships with God. It gets more intriguing.

“Filled with the Holy Spirit, or grace, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.” So, here we have Jesus now aware that he is in a special relationship with YAHWEH as a result of the grace of the Holy Spirit. Did this grace which filled him make him feel “full of himself” or make him realize that he was God? I doubt that. A good Jew would be horrified to even consider such a thought. So why did he consent to being led into the desert to be tempted? Perhaps, his parents had shown him that humility is required if we are to do the Will of God and that he needed to spend time trying to understand or discern his special relationship or vocation as we might call it. Are we not taught by the Catholic Church to do just that after Confirmation? Are we not taught that we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. Are not those who live these gifts deemed “saints” or “martyrs” which is Greek for witnesses? It gets better, yet.

While praying in the desert for 40 days “he ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry.” This could make one ask the question, was Jesus delirious when the temptation occurred? Did he imagine Satan speaking to him or did he simply come to the realization that Power, Fame, and Fortune, could corrupt a son of God and therefore lead him to be just like the Pharisees he had come to despise? (He did call them a brood of vipers.) I believe it was the latter. Read about the temptation in Luke and see if you understand what is the significance of the three challenges Satan proposed to him. 

First: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 

Second: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written:

‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you.’                                                                                                      

Third: “Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and their glory.”

Wasn’t he tempted to accept power, fame, and fortune? 

How could one who would be doing the Will of God identify with the worldly characteristics that God commanded his people to avoid? The story proceeds

“Jesus returned to Galilee filled with the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region.” Jesus had to remember not to let “fame” overwhelm him. He often went off alone after experiencing the power of God on the occasions when healing, feeding, and teaching were so well received.

Nonetheless, we must consider how Christians over the centuries have succumbed to “fame”, even “power’ and certainly even “fortune”. But didn’t Jesus send his disciples out with this directive: “Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way…..Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you.” Surely the hundreds of disciples heard these words or read them. So, what happened?

Well, once the Christians accepted the protection from persecution that Rome offered them under Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, they must have forgotten those words, that directive. They adopted the ways of Rome and abandoned the ways of Jesus!

Power, fame, and fortune have increased for most Christians ever since. Consider the palatial palaces of the Popes, the wealth given by the Royalty of European nations, the monies collected from Indulgences and stipends for celebrating the Eucharist. Certainly the wardrobe, pomp and circumstance of clergy over the centuries cost a pretty penny! What about all the famous evangelists, especially those in the media? Are they not accepting power, fame, and fortune?

In his unusual book, Jesus, Symbol of God, Roger Haight presents the possibility of a Spirit Christology(bottom up) in contrast to a Logos or Word Christology (top down). “What is characteristic here is a thoroughgoing Spirit Christology, one that “explains” the divinity of Jesus Christ on the basis of God as Spirit and not on the basis of the symbol Logos”…. “Carl Rahner made the case that the whole point of Jesus Christ, his God, and the salvation he mediates is the completion of the human.” In other words, that’s what we who follow Jesus are expected to become: One with God! The Incarnation of God in Jesus was not a magic act but “the utterance of divine manifestation of the supreme God.” which became Jesus Christ who then said, when asked by Thomas, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way? Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This is the same Jesus who rebuked power, fame, and fortune, the same Jesus who said, “carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you.” This is a far cry from palaces, castles, indeed the Vatican! How many bishop’s residences are palatial estates, how many rectories are just as spacious and well furnished. I could go on but the lesson to learn from the bottom up or Spirit Christology is that we must imitate Jesus not ignore him and his lifestyle and hard teachings. Top down or Logos Christology empowers us to want to be like God, to assume the power of God. How many preachers and clergy accept the fame and notoriety of their role? How many accept the hard demand of Jesus? How do we react to the hard teachings of Jesus?

Are we like the rich young man? “Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” When the young man heard this, he went away in sorrow, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.…”

If Jesus can do it with the grace of God, with the Holy Spirit, so can we!

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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