‘The first will be last, and the last first’

Sophia encourage us to act for justice, to advocate for change and to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves.

One of the hallmarks of true wisdom is that it often subverts the taken-for-granted, dominant culture norms of the day.  Something Jesus was well known for. Last Sunday the service at Sophia’s Spring focused on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and the Mark 10: 17 – 31 reading, which ends with the well known apophthegm used as the title of this post.  In this reading we have Jesus, the radical, subverting cultural norms of his day. We catch sight of, as Issey Fujishima calls him, ‘the maverick hungry for justice, the poet caring for the most neglected people on earth.’  Issey Fujishima, or Fuji, as he likes to be called, has delved deep into the stories of Jesus and the historical context in which they are set. His research led him to spend a number of years writing/drawing  a graphic novel published last year. Writing on his blog about the man he found, Fuji says,

The Jesus I once knew has disappeared into a mirage: that one-dimensional Christ figure of children’s Bibles and dusty church decors. The Jesus who is roaming my heart now is very different. This Yeshua from Galilee is witty, wild and unpredictable. His feet are dirty and his skin is burnt brown from the scourging sun of Palestine. He is full of emotions and warmth, and his eyes pierce you with a divine light. Gosh, darn it—I’m in love with him, and this is my way of telling his story! 

Given this, it was very fitting to have Fuji reflect last Sunday on visiting the lands of Jesus, his historical research and on the book he wrote in response to his honest questioning of the faith he grew up with.  This is what Fuji shared:

The Paths that Jesus walked

“The shepherds eat it so they won’t get thirsty.” Nadal handed me a dry bean pod he had picked up from the ground. Inside the brittle hull were black pellets. We stood under an enormous carob tree growing on a slope. My group had walked through a barren canyon the whole morning and the tree had drawn my attention. When I tried the carob pellets they tasted like chocolate. Nadal picked up another fruit. “It’s poisonous. But people in Bethlehem know how to make it edible.”

That was in 2012. I was part of a hiking tour through the Palestinian countryside, during which we walked from village to village for four days. Sometimes there was a road. Oftentimes there wasn’t. Blue-eyed and soft-spoken Nadal was our guide. Every night, we would stay with Arab locals who granted us their hospitality. During the day, the wind howled between the hills. A landscape dotted with olive trees, goat herds, and memories of lost sons.

Palestine, Galilee, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea… I often thought back of the places I had seen in Israel when I was making my book. Going there had been part of my personal search to learn more deeply about Jesus and his world. I wanted to let the scenery with its biblical past, its conflicted peoples, and its azure firmament speak to me. To walk the paths that Jesus had walked.

Although they’re ancient, the gospel stories we base our Christian faith on did not spring from some mythical, symbolic past. Jesus and his first disciples lived in a specific time and place in history. The unique constellation of politics, society and religion influenced their personalities. Language shaped their thought as did rural Mediterranean culture. But the world they knew, that impoverished countryside of first century Roman Galilee that could so often erupt in bloodshed, would be as alien to us today as the ancients Mayans. I realized that if I truly wanted to understand what Jesus’ message—my faith!—meant I would have to learn about that world… even if the Jesus I had known all my life would then disappear. It was the start of my journey to honestly test if my faith would still hold water today.

By the time I visited Israel, I had already studied many books and papers on Christian origins. I was excited to find that the nuanced “Jesus of history” was far more relevant and revolutionary than the simple “church Jesus” from my childhood. Slowly, an image formed of a man of incredible courage, who reached out his hand to touch the untouchables and resisted petrified hierarchies of his day. I could see an energetic Jesus who was witty, moody, carefree yet caring, a maverick who invited outcasts to become part of something exciting: a kingdom of justice, peace and good. In this kingdom, I believe, he offered a new community that would share and heal, and embody the fatherly love of God. An alternative to a world governed by division and violence. And this kingdom would be within reach if God and humans came together…

“This,” I thought, “is a story I wanna tell.”

This is the story The Reign of God, the graphic novel I published last December, is about. Not another theology book, but a drama driven by biblical heroes with all their conflicting desires. It tells about passionate men and women who shine a light in the darkness of oppression. A story of our eternal temptation to “take the Kingdom of God by force” and rule over others… and how we may follow God’s will. I try to depict Jesus as a human rich in emotions and mystery. It is the expression of my own journey of faith.

Since I released my book last December, I got many warm messages as well as questions about it. I know it is a challenging read in many regards. But I hope it can open up new paths in readers’ minds: something like a clearing in the wilderness that can lead you to an unexpected place.You might find your own questions to guide your journey on what God can turn into a Holy Land—and slowly discover what Jesus could have meant when he spoke of this way of life he called the Reign of God. This book invites you to walk like Jesus walked.

You can find out more about Fuji’s book ‘The Reign of God’  from his website . It was reviewed in the September 18 Crosslight.  and details about purchasing a copy of the book are here.

This is from the flyer at the back of his book:

“From the burning streets of Jerusalem to the wilderness of the Jordan valley …..The Reign of God  takes the reader to a dangerous ancient world where priests, prophets and kings struggle for divine authority.  Loaded with a dense atmospheres, passionate characters and careful research this story stands out from all ‘Bible comics’ of the past.  Impressive black and white drawings create a vibrant image of the Gospels that challenges the reader to the very last page”.

Photo taken by Di Gilbert, who led the service.
All other images were drawn by Fuji and are from his website.
With thanks to Fuji for allowing his thoughts to be shared here and to Di for facilitating this.



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