Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, by Luke Timothy Johnson. Harper Collins, NY, 1998. 203 pp. with Index.
Within the life of our parish community at the moment, two circumstances converge which make the book I am about to describe well worth the choice. In the first place, our GIFT program this year (the intergenerational faith-formation program recommended for all parishioners,) is presenting a six-part study called “Following Jesus.” The central question being addressed is “Who is Jesus and how do we learn about him in order to follow him?” This is the focus of Living Jesus.
The second circumstance has to do with the Gospel which we will be hearing proclaimed in this Year “C” - the Gospel of Luke. While each of the Gospels is considered in Part Two of this book, Luke Timothy Johnson is well known for his studies of both the Gospel of Luke and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. In our parish Little Rock Scripture Study Program this year, both of these New Testament Studies are offered. A richness of opportunity is available to us.
In the first GIFT session this year, we began the exploration of who Jesus is by considering the many titles or ways in which he has been spoken about through the ages. No one title encompasses the whole of the person of Jesus, but it is a valuable point of departure for examining how we regard the person of Jesus. Johnson insists that we must respond in faith to the question, “Is Jesus alive for us, or do we think of him simply as a person of the past, -special, but no more than a figure of religious history”? If we can answer in the affirmative, then we can also affirm our baptismal commitment to follow him. Part One of Living Jesus lays out what is involved in this “learning” the living Jesus, the endeavor of any real disciple both now and in the past. No one travels this road alone; it is a communal effort, supported by our participation in the Eucharist, the lives of the saints, those “Clouds of Witnesses” who have been the inspiration of centuries of believing Christians, the faith-lives of those who rub shoulders with us today. –all this vibrant tradition. Finally, we come to know Jesus very vividly as resurrected Lord and Messiah from the witness of those New Testament writers, particularly the writers of the Gospels.
The consideration of each of the Gospels makes up Part Two of Living Jesus. Through these varied and colorful accounts, each one testifying to faith in the resurrected and glorified Jesus, we can come to know the living person who continues to accompany and support us just as he did those people in the early Church who radiated the certainty of his existence. Learning Jesus from the description of the way in which he lived his life, guides us to follow this very human person and the ways in which he demonstrated his loving care for others. Not only will our actions then carry his message and his gift, and make them real today, but despite our inadequacies, we are assured that his mercy will be with us when our journey is completed.
The final chapter which sums up all that has gone before, reminds us that this process of learning and living Jesus is at once continuous and complex. It is, after all, a mystery, and only with the light of the Holy Spirit can we touch any of it. It is our openness to receiving this gift which can provide the adequate groundwork for any forward movement.
Luke Timothy Johnson is Professor of New Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. That being said however, Living Jesus is in no way a classroom text. It is, rather, both engaging and accessible, a testament to the author’s clarity of expression as well as his own living faith. The book will reward the reader’s time and effort.
Maureen F. McDermott