I grew up deeply entrenched in Evangelicalism. So much so, that I made it my career. I went to Bible College to become a pastor. And I worked in the church full-time for about ten years. I was good at drawing a crowd -- I'm a performer, so "preaching" was my strong suit. (I eventually left full-time vocational ministry to become an actor and movie producer.)
My big problem with faith was that I was and continue to be a profound skeptic. I was much better at saying things in ways to help others along than I was sorting through the questions in my own head. I found myself on the verge of giving up altogether on Christianity. Then I met Jesus. It may seem a strange thing to say that a kid who grew up in the church, graduated with a degree in Biblical Studies and worked as a pastor for a decade didn't know Jesus, but that's the way my story unfolded.
I should clarify. I knew a version of Jesus. The Jesus who lived a perfect life, died on a cross for my sins and gave me a ticket to Heaven. I knew that one well, but the more I told that story to others, the less true it seemed to me. It rang hollow.
Then I decided to take the risk of taking seriously the early Christian accounts of Jesus and his message. (Sure they are one-sided and have an agenda, but it's the best source material we have.) What I discovered embedded in the ancient texts commonly called The Gospels shocked me. The Jesus portrayed in Matthew seemed convinced that Heaven had already come to earth. The Jesus in Luke demanded counter-cultural active alignment with the poor. The Jesus of John promised eternal (ultimate) life -- but demanded that it begin now, not in the afterlife.
In all the early accounts, Jesus was a threat to the establishment. A rebel. A revolutionary. He was extreme and dangerous. He partied with mobsters and whores. He interrupted sacred assemblies and holy days routinely. He told the clergy that they were con artists headed to hell. He claimed that he himself was the unique way to God. (All these things combined resulted in his swift public execution on a Roman cross.)
Any church I have ever been a part of wouldn't have let that Jesus within 100 yards of a pulpit. No matter what I want to tell myself, I would have rejected him had I been given the chance. He was (and still is) a lot to try to take in. If we could step away from what we think we know about Jesus and see what the record seems to show... I think we'd agree that he probably came off, at best, as a well-intentioned delusional cult leader. At worst he's a crazed maniacal egomaniac. Or, I suppose, he could have been sent to us from God with good news. That's the third option.
I decided to gamble the rest of my life on the latter. I could be wrong, but so far submitting to this radical, unpredictable, iconoclastic Jesus has been worth it. I might have even felt a few passing moments of Heaven and eternal life through the process... and at least on those days, it all rings true to me.