Don’t Misunderstand the Apostle Paul or Richard Rohr!
We Need Both the Living Jesus and the Universal Christ
Richard Rohr, in his wonderful new book, The Universal Christ, beautifully unites the realities named Jesus and Christ. I devour all of Richard Rohr’s writings. They expand my mind and bless my soul. Richard graciously wrote the Forward to my most recent book and endorsed the one before that. He included both books in his Bibliography of The Universal Christ.
The Apostle Paul also brings together both the resurrected Jesus and Christ, though sometimes it’s not quite apparent in his letters. One might get the impression that he always refers to the resurrected Jesus as Christ and never as just “Jesus” —and therefore we should also. One may get the same mistaken impression from Richard Rohr’s writing in The Universal Christ.
I want to offer a missing piece of this seeming puzzle. Everything falls into place when we realize that in addition to the historical Jesus and the Universal Christ, there is also the personal, Living Jesus after the resurrection.
Big Three Christology
Historical Jesus — Living Jesus — Universal Christ
In the New Testament we find these three manifestations of Jesus: (1) the historical Jesus, (2) the risen, Living Jesus—who is actually still with us today, and (3) the transpersonal Universal Christ. These three are one, but not the same, each bringing a unique and transforming picture and presence of Jesus Christ. It helps greatly to recognize, not two, but three dimensions of Jesus the Christ.
1. The Historical Jesus is the earthly, physical Jesus who walked and talked in first century Palestine and that we read about in history and the Gospels.
2. The Living Jesus arrives on the scene after the resurrection when the historical Jesus becomes the risen, Living Jesus (but not specifically the Cosmic Christ). We see the Living Jesus appearing and/or in conversation with the disciples at least fourteen times in the New Testament after the ascension: First, to Stephen (Acts 7:55), to Ananias (Acts 9:10), to Paul in the following: on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:4-6), in a vision (Acts 18:9-10), conversation with Jesus while in a trance (Acts 22:17-21), visions and revelations from Jesus (Acts 23:11, 1 Cor. 15:8, 11:23, 2 Cor. 12:1, Eph 3:3-4), and three conversations with Jesus about his “thorn” (2 Cor. 12:8-9), and finally to John on Patmos (Rev. 1:9-17).
It is significant that Luke, the writer of Acts, does not hesitate to identify Jesus in glory as “Jesus” and not “Christ” when he writes, “But Stephen saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
And the risen Living Jesus still identifies himself as “Jesus” and not Christ, or even Lord, when he appears to Paul who asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply comes, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9 :5)
Paul’s use of the name of “Jesus,” not Christ, is particularly significant when he declares in cosmic language his anticipated universal salvation for all, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10).[i]
The Living Jesus is still personally present when we talk to him in prayer — not usually seen but felt and sensed. His spiritual body is no longer limited by time and space to one place at a time. He can be everywhere all at the same time!
3. The Universal Christ, or Cosmic Christ, is revealed in Paul’s magnificent vision of the whole of reality. Paul’s use of the title “Christ” reflects a sweeping expansion of the understanding of Jesus that is vastly bigger than history (Col 1: 15-20). When you look beyond both the historical Jesus and the living Jesus, you find the Universal Christ.
I define the Universal Cosmic Christ as:
The Christian transpersonal symbol for everything — all that has ever existed and is happening everywhere, held in seamless Oneness. Christ is all of reality seen without any separation.
These three are each unique without ceasing to be one another. And even more pointedly, the Living Jesus is also the Universal Christ—without ceasing to be the Living Jesus.
Christ as a Title
Christ is not Jesus’ last name because it is not a name but a title. It comes from the Greek word christos, equivalent to the Hebrew expression meshiah, messiah, or “anointed one.” The word “Christ” can be a challenge to understand because it has a changing meaning in the New Testament. However, Jesus subverted and redefined Messiah quite differently from all popular expectations.
After the resurrection the meaning of “Christ” continued to leave the understanding as Messiah of the Jewish nation. It evolved through the revelations Paul received in his mystical experiences, finding its fullest meaning in a new and radically cosmic dimension, as Rohr beautifully shows in The Universal Christ.
Why does Paul write about Christ much more than Jesus?
Paul writes about Christ much more than the stand-alone name “Jesus,” and usually adds the word Christ to Jesus’ name when he does speak of Jesus. Why?
Because Paul does not want us to forget that the name Jesus and the title Christ are absolutely intertwined with one another. He uses the word “Jesus” without adding “Christ” or “Lord” to it only five times in all his authentic letters. Other writers in the New Testament use the name of Jesus standing alone relatively many more times. Paul so associates Jesus with the Cosmic Christ that he often refers to both simply as “Christ.”.
Paul’s calling was to expand the continuing experience of the presence of the Living Jesus in the lives of Christians to the experience and understanding of the Universal Christ. Today, for postmoderns, the task is often the opposite— to connect the idea of the Universal Christ with the reality of the presence of the living Jesus!
Difficulty with the name “Jesus” for cultural and emotional reasons
There may also be thoughtful postmoderns who seem hesitant to use the name Jesus today — not for theological reasons but for cultural ones. Their hesitancy to address the presence of the Living Jesus with us today comes from the damaging baggage from those coopting the name Jesus to “justify” horrible action. Think religious wars and persecution, slavery, male domination, racism, the divorced, gays, and rigid sexual rules for the unmarried.
Most postmoderns and the “spiritual but not religious” continue to think highly of the historical Jesus. But definitely not of Christians who claim to have a personal relationship with that Jesus or a group of Christians such as Southern Baptists or traditional Catholics. These groups are always talking about Jesus, while persecuting and excluding various others from their midst.
I have a compelling urge to unhook Jesus from these previous forms of Christianity and let him emerge as the incredible living, loving presence and change agent I know him to be.
As one man, with tears in his eyes, told me after I led several hundred postmodern Christian-leaning folks in a guided mediation of friendship with Jesus, “Nobody every introduced me to this Jesus before.”
Titles and names
In the late 1970’s I became acquainted with then President Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, a popular speaker on the “healing of memories.” We were sometimes both speakers at the same conferences. When I asked her about her brother, my fellow Southern Baptist President, she proceeded to tell me about “Jimmy.” The first time she referred to the President of the United States as Jimmy, I flinched a little. If she hadn’t been his sister, it would have sounded presumptuous, audacious, too “chummy,’ and “what kind of airs is she putting on.” But the reality was she really did know him. After all they were family!
I have noticed something similar going on with Jesus’ name and his title, Christ. I’m aware that when I talk about Jesus, I am claiming to be a personal friend of the one I consider to be the world’s most transforming person.
“Jesus” is a personal name as distinct from a title or formal address such as Lord or Christ. If I had an older brother and I called him Mr. Smith all the time, what would that say to you? And more importantly, what would that say to him as well as me. It would signal the nature of our relationship. Either a formal one or a strained personal one. Names are important signals of the kind of relationships that exist.
Both Paul and Richard recognize the Universal Christ and a warm, personal relationship with the Living Jesus. This can most clearly be seen as the Apostle Paul models talking with the Living Jesus often, as referenced above. And Richard Rohr says that he personally talks to Jesus “from the heart, in a very I-Thou personal give and take way of talking.”
How about you? Call Jesus by any name you wish. But let it reflect the reality of his loving, close, personal connection with you — dearest friend (John 15:15), elder brother and family member (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11), and beloved guide in all things. Why should we be too intimidated or embarrassed to call our friend Jesus by his name? After all, we are family!
Perhaps Jesus doesn’t feel like family to you because no one has introduced you to him in this way before. You can experience his presence right now, or any time you like. We have written about some practices to help you do this. Or you can connect with others in the mystical presence of the Living Jesus in our WeSpace groups. You can sign up here.
[i] “and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11). The word “confess” here means exuberant, thunderous, freely given joyful praise —not coerced from unwilling sinners. This passage, although affirming the salvation of all, is put, at this stage of Christianity, in limiting Christian terminology as they had yet to recognize the eventual stage of higher universal consciousness that sees there are different paths to the Ultimate Mystery using different names. See my booklet Hell? No! on my website for a New Testament case for God’s reconciling love, embracing and including everyone.