The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

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“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.

The Third Way, 50: Saviours and Salvation, 6 – The Jesus Story, 2

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Our last chat in this series disposed of the two most egregious attacks on the Christian story of humanity’s need for salvation and its nominee for the role of universal saviour.  Any reasonable and serious consideration of this story and its leading figure must first accept that Jesus called Christ actually lived and died as an historic person in First-Century Palestine, then a minor sub-province (within the greater province of Syria) in the Roman Empire.  Next, any serious consideration of the story and of Jesus the person must accredit its main sources (the New Testament documents) with a considerable degree of integrity and validity.  To treat them with the sort of cavalier arrogance and blatant hubris that has so often been the case since the Enlightenment (e.g. the so-called “Jesus Seminar” referred to in our last post) can no longer wash if the scholars involved wish to retain any measure of honour in their profession.

As with “climate change”, a great many intellectuals of all stripes in our present cultural climate need to undergo a paradigm shift regarding the meta-story of Christianity.  They have latched and continue to latch onto a now obsolete and superseded “liberal orthodoxy” created by a concerted effort over two centuries to “demythologize” both Jesus and the Gospels and go hunting for the “historical Jesus”.  The underlying assumption in this “quest” has always been that the Jesus seen in the New Testament could be only superficially related to the “real Jesus” who lived and died in time and space.  Supposedly, the New Testament Jesus is a later divinized “Jesus of faith” created by manipulative theologians to keep the ignorant, superstitious masses in line so they could be manipulated, controlled, and used.

The continuance of this modern-postmodern myth about Jesus, the Gospels, and the early believers is a shameful blot on true scholarship.  Admittedly, the course of New Testament scholarship in the last sixty years has been far from smooth.  Old notions and preconceptions die hard for those who have invested most of their professional and intellectual capital in a preconceived framework which painstaking new archaeological and documentary research have shredded. 

I will not bore the reader with details about this bumpy journey.  Within its sphere, it is quite public for those wishing to explore it.  There are even some flirting references to it in revisionist historical fiction such as Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code, and the much ballyhooed finding of the so-called Feminist Gospel fragments about Mary Magdalen’s “secret marriage” to Jesus.  The popular and Internet media are quick to pick up such threads and trumpet them for their sensationalism, but usually neglect to mention their subsequent complete debunking by responsible scholars. 

The thrust of the new understanding of both the New Testament and the time and culture in which it emerged is that the documents are amazingly attuned historically and culturally to that era.  There is wonderfully detailed corroboration for this view through archaeology and documentary analysis of both the New Testament and an abundance of new and old sources (now better understood) from outside it.  It has become a question of openness towards what we actually find there rather than dogmatism determining interpretation.

While this does not “prove” that the account of the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles contained in the Bible and the early Christian writings is “true” in its conclusions about who he is, it certainly creates a good probability that the record is “authentic” in its recounting of events, and probably in the content of what the participants and early witnesses tell us of those events.  In a court-case based on circumstantial evidence, the verdict would have to favour the genuineness of the testimony.  It then becomes a question of assessing the best and most accurate accounting for the evidence and testimony.

Of course, for those determined to automatically dismiss and reject the elements of the story that “smack of” divine power and the miraculous, this will not change their mindset.  The issue then is their own operative worldview and that of our culture as much as that operative in First Century Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and of our witnesses. 

Our culture’s operative worldview discounts and disqualifies a priori the action of God in time and space, even when the person observing something “outside the box” may intellectually accept the existence of God/a Creator/spiritual things.  The observer therefore prejudges as in error the reports of such happenings from the culture of two thousand years ago.  In or superior wisdom, we now “know”  that that culture was open to the miraculous, which we also “know” stems from as simplistic ignorance, credulity, and superstition.  In the same way, the modern-postmodern observer automatically discredits current reports about miracles and amazing, mysterious occurrences as either impossible or erroneous in detail or interpretation, or both.

After all, we “know” that it is simply impossible for anyone to walk on water, calm a raging storm by commanding it to stop, raise a dead person by telling him/her simply to “get up”, heal the eyes of a person born blind by smearing saliva-mixed mud on them, commanding “demons” (who we are certain do not really exist) to “come out” of a person and finding the person immediately afterwards “in their right mind”, etc., etc., etc.  And, to top all this off, we have the totally incredible report of the person accredited with performing all these marvels having been crucified after terrible torture, being incontrovertibly dead (water flowing from the heart-cavity as per an eyewitness can mean nothing else), and, thirty-six hours later, being seen and reported very much alive and completely over it, except for some scars.

How are such things to be believed by any self-respecting, rational person?  Even in antiquity the rationalists rejected such reports, as did even the religious leaders of Judaism who, theoretically at least, believed in miracles.  And if, by some insane freak of the quantum, that person did come back to life, what could it possibly signify?

Here we have the crux of the matter.  Did this Jesus person not only actually live and die, as even the hostile extra-Biblical sources amply confirm, but actually resurrect!?  To accept that as an actual historical happening is simply beyond the pale.  If that really happened, it is an utterly unique event, as far as we know.  How can we avoid asking some truly enormous and significanct questions about that, if it’s true?  And the first question is, “Is it actually true?”

We humans are remarkably adept at ignoring what we don’t want to look at and hear about (Sergeant Schultz or a five-year-old child blocking his/her ears and eyes illustrate this nicely).  It’s so damn inconvenient to have to consider things that really disrupt our personal comfort and sense of proper order, or at least my/our sense of proper convenience for me/us and my/our particular sense of priorities.  We/I are/am also especially skilled at blocking out things which contradict the way we/I construct reality within our/my personal space.  A man self-resurrecting from stone-cold death should challenge my personal universe, but even two thousand years ago most refused to look upon it or hear of it!  So much for gullible, ignorant, superstition!

In our in-turned self-orientation, it is easy to forget  that our personal constructs are still very much formed by the larger culture and society in which we “live and move and have our being”.  In this age, our society and culture have been very much reshaped by the Enlightenment and its ensuing waves to drive the religious and supernatural elements of the human psyche out of serious and conscious consideration.

This governing paradigm characterizes humanity as a purely animal phenomenon, neither morally good or bad in itself, and certainly not “sinful” or “fallen” and therefore in need of “redemption” and “salvation”.  Therefore, there is no need of a “saviour” as per the old tales, which are simply mythological and legendary memories of the prehistoric emerging human consciousness and self-awareness.

The eruption of this Jesus-character into time-space is a most unwelcome distraction which must be contained within the operant “laws” of proven science and reason.  He is tremendously inconvenient.  It is actually impossible to overstate how inconvenient he is.  He was even then, two thousand years ago.  After all, that is why the powers-that-be of that day took so much trouble to remove him.  They were every bit as skeptical and scandalized by this guy as our powers-that-be are now. 

For us, he must be “put back in the box” of uniformity and conformity within the known, predictable parameters of the laws of standard-model science.  It was the same story two thousand years ago, although culturally nuanced.  But people back then knew every bit as well as we do that dead people stay dead.  Even in our age of supremely individualistic reality construction and quantum unpredictability where everything becomes at least theoretically possible, this remains an absolute.  After all, even within a quantum universe, the universe itself is a freak exception against all “laws of probability”.  How much more is God-as-man-in-time-and-space, even if the “God-hypothesis” is allowed?

Nevertheless, that is the outlandish, extraterrestrial claim made for Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth in Galilee of the First Century CE.  Even more outlandish is that this claimant seemed utterly sincere in what he said and did and believed.  His followers were shockingly sincere about it too.  How could such a claim be made for anyone, even by first-century simpletons and bumpkins? 

The Third Way, 49: Saviours and Salvation, 5 – The Jesus Story, 1

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“And there is salvation in no one else.  For there is no other name [than that of Yeshua/Jesus] given among men [humans in general intended] under heaven by which we must be saved.”

Peter the Apostle of Jesus speaking to the Jewish Sanhedrin ca 33-4 CE, according to The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 4, Verse 12.

The present series of articles on this blog is considering the whole panorama of the innate human orientation towards the absolute and the transcendent, and the sense of our need to both save and be saved in some great sense.  December 23, 2019, the date of this post, two days before Christmas, is an appropriate occasion to contemplate the greatest of all salvation-saviour stories, that of Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth.  This Jesus, called “Christ”, is the Christian candidate for saviour of the whole human race, and indeed of the whole creation itself, and December 25th is the date in the Christian calendar when his birth is celebrated. 

Let us therefore have a look at Jesus’ candidacy.  We will certainly not exhaust this subject today.  Eventually, we will also pay appropriate attention to other major candidates, and indeed to the whole conception of needing salvation and in what sense it is needed, if indeed it is, in future.

Let us at the outset of this discussion dispose of the most absurd disparagement of Jesus and his “mission” to save the human race and the world.  It is that Jesus/Yeshua was never actually a real historical person, but an invention, a concoction of various elements of legend and myth and fancies cobbled together two thousand years ago by a group of unscrupulous ancient Jewish hucksters from Galilee seeking to dupe their gullible countrymen and take financial and social advantage of them. 

It is embarrassing to even give recognition to such absurdities by mentioning them, but the state of affairs in Western culture has become such that it has to be addressed.  This idea is alive and very well in chat-rooms and forums on the Web.  The author of these blogs has also personally run into enough people in the real world who believe or half-believe this outlandish statement that it must be addressed as an actual idea in a growing percentage of the general population.  My children have all had discussions of this nature with numbers of their peers when they attended college and since.  We meet them at work, at school, and socially.  Unfortunately, it is all too often presented as true by educational authorities in High Schools, Colleges, and Universities who should and, at least in some cases, do know better.  Why they think this is a justified manipulation of their students one may only hazard to guess.  Perhaps the root of this sort of outrageous distortion is their own hostility to Christians and Christianity, plus their own ignorance, as in failure to make any attempt to educate themselves as to the historical facts.

Without creating a tiresome list, let it be said that the historical facts are ample to verify that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, really lived and died in the early first century CE in the Roman province of Palestine.  Contrary to the egregious and facile declarations of too many even quite well-educated people (I’ve even encountered a Ph.D. or two who have said this kind of thing), there are sufficient sources outside the New Testament, the primary Christian documents about Jesus, to verify his life and death in historical time and place.  And it must be pointed out that these “extra-Biblical” sources are, almost without exception, hostile to both Jesus and Christians.  Such sources include both Roman and Jewish historians and writers, as well as references (quite hostile) in the Talmud.  That Jesus called Christ was a real historical person is an incontestable historic fact, unless one simply wants to display one’s spleen and stupidity, or perhaps the extent of one’s ignorance.

In the light of this extraordinary attempt to erase the very existence of Jesus/Yeshua from history, one is left with the question, “Why?”  Why such vehemence, such anger, such stubborn and, it appears at times, unassailable determination to block out that life, that comet in time and place, from any serious consideration as to his identity and the meaning of a life and career that appears to have been astoundingly brief as such things go, but even more astoundingly profound and shatteringly impactful?  Surely there is something there deserving of the most careful examination?  In the ordinary course of things, the execution of a troublesome radical in an obscure part of a great empire should have had ended at most as a footnote about an obscure local folk-hero in a backwater part of the greatest world-state in history.  That it catalyzed the greatest religious revolution and social movement in history instead surely deserves some examination and explanation!

That we are now even compelled to have this kind of discussion in the West is almost as astonishing as the original story itself.  All of this begs a whole host of questions and cries out for the deepest kind of inquiry.  What does it say of us that we deliberately propagate this collective historical amnesia?  After all, once upon a time not very long ago and not far away at all, on this very planet, in that part dubbed “the West”— not some other fantasized galaxy we know nothing at all about – this figure, whose birth used to be “the reason for the season” but whose name our public media and leaders now scarcely dare pronounce, was considered the greatest and best human being who ever lived. 

Not so long ago, he was publicly acclaimed as such by the vast majority of the nations of the West, who used to willingly refer to themselves collectively as “Christendom”.  In fact, we have reached the point in Canada where a certain Prime Minister now in office even called some of the followers of this man “the worst of all Canadians”, or words to that effect.  And most of the major political parties of this same nation have made it quite clear that serious disciples of this man who hold certain unwelcome opinions about certain moral and social issues need not apply to be candidates or party officials.

But today’s blog is not the time and place to rehash such local minutiae.  Our subject is the Jesus Story as a salvation-saviour tale.  All we can do here today is discuss some preliminaries in order to “clear the ground” for the real discussion in the next few episodes.

As already mentioned, the major sources of this story are found in the “New Testament”, a collection of 27 “books” written by disciples of Jesus or disciples of the disciples of Jesus.  The content of the New Testament is partly historical and biographical, as found in “The Four Gospels” of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles, a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author.

Part of being able to even discuss this subject is the question of the historical reliability of these sources, which purport to be eye-witness, first-hand accounts, or based on eye-witness, first-hand accounts, of the life, and particularly the public life, of Jesus/Yeshua, and the ensuing first thirty years or so of the history of the “Church”.  The “Church” is the community of disciples and believers which sprang from Jesus’ life and ministry.  This community of followers began to spread across the Roman Empire and even outside of its boundaries.

As with the absurd statement that Jesus never really lived, we are obliged to refer to the extraordinary and even strenuous efforts of many modern scholars seeking to establish the validity, or, in many cases, the invalidity, of the earliest sources and records about Jesus and the early Church.  Once more we must ask the question, “Why this marked animosity and hostility which is so exceptional towards this one particular person, life, community, and institution—moreso than any other except Judaism?”  We do not see the like when we observe the efforts to study the validity of sources for other religions, and far less outright scepticism regarding other ancient documents, such as the writings of the great Greek philosophers or Roman histories.

Let us once more begin with the most absurd of these endeavours to “uncover the real Jesus of history”, who is assumed to have been lost in hagiography and mythologization.  The so-called “Jesus Seminar” is our qualifier for this dubious distinction.  This is a group of self-appointed textual critics of the Gospels, university professors of very liberal bent, who deem themselves the world’s foremost judges of which parts of the Gospel accounts of Jesus are “authentic”.  They dissect each verse and story and vote on it, leaving a very thin husk of rather meager, insipid fare which eliminates all hints of the miraculous and “unnatural” and reduces Jesus to a shadowy social radical who upset the wrong people and got himself killed for his trouble. 

What is left can in no way qualify as an inspiring saviour-figure .  The result is perhaps an even greater mystery than the traditional Christian one of seeing a human being as the incarnation of God Himself.  How could this version of the “authentic Jesus of history” have ever inspired the creation of the greatest social-spiritual institution in the history of the human race?  How could that Jesus have ever instilled the willingness to die for him and his cause in many millions over the last two thousand years?  How could such a saccharin Jesus of so little substance have fueled the faith of thousands who knew him when he lived or shortly thereafter, when the truth of who he was or had been could not very well be hidden? 

The same questions can be put to some other recent, although somewhat less radical versions of the same sort of hyper-scepticism on steroids.  All are quite dubious applications of “higher literary critical” approaches to the New Testament.  Unfortunately, this sort of ethos in Biblical analysis and modern-postmodern interpretation seems to go mostly unchallenged in the Faculties of Religion of the vast majority of our higher institutions of learning. 

We will continue to look at the claim of Jesus to be the “Saviour of the World” in our next instalment.  In the meantime, may all who read this, and all your loved ones, be blessed and have a wonderful Christmas season and holiday.