By the age of 30, Albert Schweitzer was already a world-renowned organist and expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I don’t know much about music history, but it is said that his work changed the course of world-wide organ studies and performance. Also by the age of 30, that same Albert Schweitzer was also a world-renowned New Testament scholar and theologian. I do know something about Biblical studies and I know that yet today, every seminary student hears about Schweitzer’s 1905 book The Quest for the Historical Jesus. It changed the course of New Testament studies for a generation. It is still considered an important work, and continues to be referenced as scholars debate the meaning of the life of Jesus Christ. Two very different areas of study, and Schweitzer had accomplishments in both areas that would have been worthy of a lifetime of study, assuring him of a place in history in both fields– and all done by the time he was thirty years old. It was an incredible achievement… And then, Albert Schweitzer quit his work in both fields, resigned his comfortable position as a university professor, and went on to do that for which he would become most famous!
At the age of 30, Schweitzer left everything that had brought him international fame, and went back to school, entering medical school as a first year student. He had done no previous study or work in medicine, and had no previous interest in it. But he felt God was calling him to be a medical missionary, serving the poorest of the poor in Africa. So he started over in an entirely new profession. Seven years later, at the age of 37, he graduated from medical school and headed to the jungles of Africa. There he started a clinic, used his previous fame to raise money all over the world, and built a huge hospital. In 1952 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Schweitzer lived the rest of his life in West Africa, working tirelessly until he died in 1965 at the age of 90.
Echoing the message of Jesus, he summed up his philosophy of life in these words: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have learned how to serve.”
Albert Schweitzer’s earlier passion in studying the life of Jesus was to get at Christ’s central message. The problem he found in all the books he read about Jesus was that each author would argue that he alone had penetrated behind the many man-made doctrines about Jesus, and finally, he could portray the real man and what he stood for. But Schweitzer noticed that the so-called ‘real Jesus’ presented in this book or that book always looked most of all like the writer of the book. Everyone would find in Jesus just what they wanted to find, and it was always someone just like themselves. If the author was a political radical, he would find in Jesus the prime example of a political radical, challenging the Romans. If the author was a wise old university professor, he would portray Jesus as a kindly teacher, going around giving wise advice. If the author was a fire and brimstone preacher, railing against the sins of the flesh, he would find in Jesus the same harsh and judgmental Lord. If the writer was a gloom and doom prophet predicting the imminent end of the world, that is what his book would say Jesus was like.
Schweitzer called this whole approach into question, showing clearly that all these so-called historical and scholarly studies were just picking and choosing from the New Testament whatever suited the writer’s purpose. Most scholars saw the point and agreed, and that whole approach to studying the life of Christ was abandoned, at least for a while. Schweitzer was correct in what he was against, but then he failed to be for much of anything. For Albert Schweitzer, the real Jesus was lost in the distant past, far beyond our knowing. There was still Christ’s call to service, and Schweitzer gave the rest of his life to follow Jesus in that much; but there was in Schweitzer’s theology no resurrected, living, Savior.
In Matthew 16, Mark 8, and Luke 9 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They, like Albert Schweitzer, had heard many different answers to that question, and replied “Some say John the Baptist (risen from the dead); others say Elijah (sent back from heaven); and still others say that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” And then Jesus asked, “But what about you, who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The Christ, Greek for the anointed one, the Messiah, the one promised, the Son of God. It would take a week to unpack all what that title means, but it means much more than a political radical, or a wise old philosopher, or a gloom and doom preacher, or even one who calls on us to serve others, as Schweitzer found. Jesus was all of those other things also, but most of all, like Peter said, he was the Son of God, Savior of the world.
And Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you.”
Matthew 16:16 — Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Luke 1:1-4 — Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
2 Corinthians 5:19 — For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
–The ancient Jesus prayer