Note from Paul Miller: The first time I led an interactive Person of Jesus study was in 1995 for a youth group. Four years earlier, I’d been overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of Jesus as a person during my studies while on sabbatical. My son John was a senior in high school, and I wanted to imprint him with what I’d discovered. So I asked his youth pastor if I could teach the youth group on Sunday mornings for four months that fall. Every Sunday, 30-35 kids gathered and listened spellbound as they discovered the person of Jesus. I’d been teaching in the inner city for ten years at that point, so I could tell they enjoyed it.
I sensed it impacted John at a DNA level, but we never talked about it. John went on to be a youth pastor and taught the Person of Jesus study from my handwritten teaching notes. Twenty-three years later, I mentioned to John that I’d suspected those four months affected him, even stabilized his life. He agreed. But when I gave my simple written summary, he said: “No, Dad. It was much more than that.” What he wrote below was a complete surprise to me, one of the best gifts I’ve received in my lifetime. In fact, it was the best gift a son could give his father. Thank you, John.
When Dad taught about Jesus in my high school youth group, it was a turning point in my faith. I became a follower of Jesus at the age of 14. But when I was 18, in my senior year in high school, something new and very unexpected happened. I remember it all like it was yesterday.
Each week, Dad walked us next to Jesus with interactive dialogue and lots of questions. My dad is dynamic and brought so much energy to each lesson. It was fun having Dad in class, and I had fun making light of the situation. I’ve always been a goof, and I had no problems drawing attention to myself. During the course of Dad’s teaching, none of the details of the lessons stood out to me, but below the surface of my joking, something was changing.
My memory of the last two lessons is as clear as if they happened yesterday. The lesson on the final week of Jesus’ life was, at the time, called “Via Dolorosa.” I still have my notes. Dad was more somber than usual as we walked through Jesus’ final day, final hours, and then His final moments. I found myself quiet. I had listened to all of the lessons; but, this time, I was hearing and feeling something different. Instead of a lesson about Jesus, the Son of God, it was a lesson about my new friend, Jesus, who was dying. I didn’t realize that over the course of those months, Jesus had been transformed from a distant deity to God in the flesh, who walked next to me, knew me, and loved me like he loved so many people in his last moments. I left youth group after that lesson radically different: quiet and sad. My friend, Jesus, had died.
There was a week between youth group meetings. The week following this lesson felt darker. Somber. Going to school, class, doing sports… in the back of my mind, something sad was going on. My friend was dead. It was my first experience of “Holy Saturday” where we feel lost and confused, not knowing what to do with our faith in the midst of questions and hurt. At the time, I didn’t know how to name what I was feeling.
I didn’t tell any of my friends, or my father for that matter, what I was feeling. It was all so unexpected. I approached the next youth group quietly.
Dad began his lesson, one of the last, with the resurrection of Jesus. When the lesson started, I felt a deep sense of joy and hope for the story of my friend Jesus. As the lesson continued, we focused on the first thing Jesus does after conquering death and sin for every human being. If it was me, I would have told everyone I could find what I just did. I would have told all my friends. But Jesus goes looking for Mary, sees she is upset, and enters her sorrow. His first act after rising is to love someone with the question, “Why are you crying?” and give her time and space to talk. With one word, “Mary,” he answers every question her heart ever had.
The question broke me. He was talking to me. He was seeking me, breathing hope into my sadness. The joy of the resurrection was more beautiful than I had known. In that moment, I heard Jesus love me in the same way. The God-Man Jesus, my friend, came next to me and loved me in my need to be seen, to get attention, to be heard. I didn’t need to make myself seen; I AM SEEN. I cried. I felt so much joy.
My faith changed that day. My perception of Jesus changed forever. I changed. Instead of following a distant God in heaven who I needed to perform for, I was following Jesus, my new God-Man-Friend who loves me. The impossible happened: he is God, he is a person. This God-Man not only loves me, but likes me.
Ever since that semester in youth group, serving Him and helping other people see Him has become a lifelong passion.