Around the world this week, Christians of almost every persuasion are turning their focus to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
The humble carpenter's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the events culminating with the crucifixion on Good Friday and the resurrection celebrated on Easter Sunday are a dominant theme of countless messages at this time.
"In the narrative of Christ’s Passion and Death, who am I?," asked Pope Francis, marking his second Easter season as leader of the world's 1.7 billion Roman Catholics, according to a Vatican Radio report.
The pontiff asked his hearers at a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter's Square in Rome to place themselves into the gospel account: "We would do well to ask just one question: who am I? Who am I, before my Lord? Who am I, who enters into Jerusalem in celebration? Am I able to express my joy, to praise Him? Or do I keep distant? Who am I, before Jesus Who suffers?"
On Tuesday, Francis' daily Twitter message stressed the importance of connecting with Jesus: "Each encounter with Jesus changes our life," he said.
In Britain, concern for the poor was part of the pre-Holy Week expression of Anglican and Roman Catholic leaders, the Independent Catholic News service reported, visiting poverty-fighting projects in their dioceses.
"This joint initiative between Archbishop Justin Welby and Cardinal Vincent Nichols aims to highlight the efforts of Christians who work with those in need," the ICN reported.
Often, Easter is a time when leaders launch new congregations. Orange County, Calif., congregation Saddleback Church, a megachurch headed by Rick Warren, hopes to boost its new Los Angeles satellite campus by having Warren preach two Easter Sunday messages at Hollywood High, whose 1,800-seat auditorium the church rents for worship meetings, according to The Christian Post.
"We have been planning this for years and praying for it and I'm so excited to have a Saddleback campus in the heart of the great city of Los Angeles," the online site quotes Warren from a promotional radio spot.
And what would Easter be without some sort of theological debate?
Onetime-evangelical and biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, a popular teacher whose conclusions often irk more traditional Protestants and Roman Catholics, recently released "How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee" (HarperOne) in which he raises, but doesn't settle, questions of Jesus' resurrection and his divinity.
It's an old debate, as Publishers Weekly magazine noted, revived just in time for this spiritual season.
Ehrman told National Public Radio's Terry Gross that Jesus didn't consider himself God and his disciples didn't consider him to be God. "I think it's completely implausible that Matthew, Mark and Luke would not mention that Jesus called himself God if that's what he was declaring about himself. This is not an unusual view amongst scholars; it's simply the view that the Gospel of John is providing a theological understanding of Jesus that is not what was historically accurate."
But there are five Evangelical scholars — Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill and Chris Tilling — who disagree with Ehrman in their response "How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus' Divine Nature."
"They insist that Jesus’ divinity was no mere afterthought but the essence of his message," Religion News Service reported. "His divine nature was signaled through miracles, forgiveness of sins and biblical allusions that point to Jesus exercising the prerogatives of Israel’s God and meriting worship, they say."
Craig Evans told RNS that it's unusual for opposing books to hit stores at the same time, but he stressed the importance of a counterargument to Ehrman. "Bart clearly fudged the evidence, omitting several relevant pieces of evidence and then misinterpreting other pieces,” Evans said. “In short, (we) had the opportunity to set the record straight — at the same time that Bart’s book makes its appearance."
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