Date: February 24, 2008
Scripture: John: 9: 1-41
Sermon: This I Believe: Jesus
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells
This past September, our daughter Angela and I spent several weeks visiting Italy. Rome was our first stop and of course, we wanted to see the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. As we walked through St. Peter’s, a vast space, with stunning art and architecture, Angela turned to me with a bewildered look and said,” Mom, what does all this have to do with Jesus? Wasn’t he concerned about the poor and downtrodden?” Standing in the midst of such opulence, you have to wonder, :what does this all have to do with Jesus?
The traditional orthodox view of Jesus that many of us grew up with was that Jesus is the Son of God. God in human form. The second person of the Trinity. Equal with God. A miracle worker who was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead on the third day, this most stunning miracle.
We were taught that Jesus is the founder of the Christian church as we know it. And that he is in heaven and if we are good, when we die, we’ll get to join him there.
That is the basic view that comes down to us in our tradition and culture. We’re not usually told much about Jesus being a poor peasant. Or that his last name is not Christ. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. It’s a title which we usually put before a name like Professor Stiles, Rev. Wells, like saying Dr. Spock. We’re not usually told much about Jesus being a devout practicing Jew. We’re not told much about Jesus not being declared divine until the third century in a Council fraught with political and power issues played out in theological discourse. We’re usually not told that the idea of the Trinity and Jesus being equal to God wasn’t accepted until years after Jesus’ death.
Through the centuries layer upon layer of meaning and interpretation has been added to our concept of Jesus. Religious tradition influences what we see as Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, mainline Protestants, Quakers, Mormons. Each have their slant on Jesus. Culture influences how we see Jesus – the African Jesus, the Asian Jesus, the American Jesus, the Latin American Jesus. All offer different views of Jesus. Economic context also influences how we see Jesus.
While scholars have excavated the historical Jesus, verified by non-religious first century sources, Jesus has evolved significantly from his first century Mediterranean Jewish peasant beginnings. We are faced with 20 centuries of the evolution of Jesus and how he comes to us across the centuries.
This evolving is necessary and good so that Jesus remains a vital, relevant figure for faith. Without this ever evolving image, Jesus may become archaic, anachronistic, and obsolete. His saving message lost. We need new views of Jesus to relate to the issues of our day: environmental destruction, escalating technology and capacity for killing, the consumerism and consumption epidemic, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the escalation of severe poverty. That’s before you get to smaller issues like health care, prejudice, education, addiction, etc. The Christian path has a saving word related to all of these issues, and it is spoken through Jesus, but there needs to be interpretation and evolution of the portrayal of his message to meet the contemporary need. So we need an evolving Jesus. But there is also a danger in an evolving Jesus. We run the risk of relativizing Jesus. Of making him more palatable, of molding him to fit our desires, our interests, our agendas. We are tempted to photoshop our image of Jesus – doctor him up to look the way we think he should look. Brush out the unpleasantness. Soften the harsh edges. Balance the extremities. So we need our image to grow and change but must always be careful about how we are seeing Jesus and checking for distortions.
There are some bedrock claims that we can use to test our views of Jesus. They come to us largely from the New Testament, which we know is not the whole story. We know the writers were concerned about specific issues and that influenced their presentation. We know there were specific power/political agendas in which books were and weren’t chosen for the New Testament. But for all that, there are certain things that seem clear when looking at the Jesus of Scripture.
First, a few things about the man Jesus. He was an observant Jew. Went to synagogue. Knew the Scriptures. Was a rabbi – teacher. Observed the holy days – Passover, Hannukah, etc.. He was a religious person. So, any subsequently evolved portrayal of Jesus that is anti-Semitic is problematic. The Church has perpetuated violence against the Jews that cannot be considered consistent with the Jesus of the New Testament. To use the name of Jesus to persecute the Jews is a severely destructive distortion of who Jesus is. A clear picture of Jesus cannot ignore his Jewishness. Also, to disassociate Jesus from religion, from organized religion, is a distortion. However imperfect the church may be, Jesus was a dedicated supporter of organized religion and religious tradition. So there’s a problem with saying “I’m a Christian and I follow Jesus, but I don’t have anything to do with the church.” That just doesn’t fit with the picture of Jesus we have in the New Testament.
Now, another view we see of the person Jesus in the New Testament. He was crucified He suffered a painful, humiliating death. He was a victim of capital punishment. He was killed as a criminal. He was betrayed and deserted by his friends. Any evolving image of Jesus must incorporate this reality. Jesus suffered. And so did his followers. So any pictures of Jesus that promises he will make you rich, happy, healthy – two cars in the three car garage, vacations in the Bahamas, just doesn’t fit with Jesus who is about giving things up, giving things away, even your life.
Which leads to another characteristic of the person Jesus in the New Testament. He was poor. Owned no home. Maybe had two changes of clothes. Gleaned the leftovers from the fields. Lived by the generosity and hospitality of others. Any portrayal of Jesus that denies his poverty is misleading. In the painting “The Conformist”, Clifford Davis portrays Jesus in the iconic pose of the Sallman’s blonde Jesus gazing up, but wearing a shirt and tie, a suit jacket, and carefully coiffed hair. There’s just no way for the Jesus of the New Testament to evolve into corporate America Jesus,. despite our valiant efforts.
When we look at the life of Jesus there is also no avoiding that he gathered an extremely diverse community of followers. He went beyond the bounds of ethnicity, race, and religion. He invited sinners and the outcast as well as religious devotees. He welcomed liberals and conservatives. Workers and intellectuals. There were no borders or boundaries on Jesus invitation to come to God. There was no one excluded from his community of mutual care and compassion. Jesus offered an extravagant welcome to ALL. So any portrayal of Jesus that insinuates favoritism or exclusion must be questioned.
Now we’ll turn from our view of the person Jesus to his teachings, again realizing there are a variety of takes on this. But there are certain salient features.
First, it’s clear that Jesus was presenting an alternative realm to the realm of the Roman Empire. Words such as Kingdom, King, realm, references to authority, all point to an alternative citizenship identity. And it was either/or, no dual alignment. Either you were part of the community of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of God – here on earth, or you weren’t. You stayed part of “the world”, the Roman Empire. It was a question of commitment and loyalty. You couldn’t be equally invested in both camps.
Our current view of Jesus must take this into consideration – ingrained hierarchy and patriarchy. Yes, our view has evolved, but there have been severe distortion, particularly regarding this aspect of Jesus’ teaching. The United States has long associated Jesus with American interests over the interests of others. This can be seen in the killing of the native inhabitants of this continent. This can be seen in the global crusading of the United States done in the name of Christianity.
There’s a contemporary graphic of Jesus looking over the eagle, the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the Gateway Arch, the Capitol; and Mt. Rushmore in blessing. Friends, it may surprise some people to discover that Jesus was not an American. He did not promote democracy or capitalism. He was not buried with a United States flag. We must be clear that our image of Jesus respects his universal outlook, and the counter culture alternative he initiated – to empire, and to oppression, regardless of who is perpetrating it.
Jesus was seeking recruits from this alternate realm, this community of God, where there was no oppression, not based on ethnicity, economics, race. gender. sexual identity – no oppression, no victimization, no good of one at the expense of another: the outlook was universal not tribal. The vision was a community of justice and generosity. All were fed and cared for. Resources were pooled and shared. Everyone had enough. There was no hierarchy, but complete power sharing. Everyone equally valued for their particular role and contribution. Friends, a look at the church of today and the wrangling over particular roles of women and gay people show we have distorted dimensions.
Now when we look back at the Jesus of the New Testament, we see that his movement was anti-violent. Not only non-violent, but anti-violent.
When in danger or threatened, when driven to the edge by the people of the synagogue, when confronted by Pilate, the authorities, and Herod, Jesus never turns to arms. He never encourages use of violence. In the Palm Sunday story we hear of Jesus’ procession coming in peace. He uses the tradition of a military procession, but transforms it by eliminating the weapons, the grandstanding, and the flaunting of military power. Instead, he glorifies humility and non-violent sacrifice. He will not run and hide. He will not be intimidated by earthly power, even military might.
So any image of Jesus that associates him with violence or supremacy through physical force or military might is distorted.
In the oil painting “Undefeated”, Stephen Sawyer portrays Jesus as a boxer, in the corner of the ring. His name is “Savior” and his gloves are branded “mercy” I can understand the impulse to image Jesus in more manly fashion, but not with an image that suggests physical violence. That just is not true to the portrait we have of Jesus in the New Testament.
What we do see in Jesus is a person who appears to completely fulfill God’s intentions for his life. He seems to have a consciousness of God that infuses his personality and character. He is a person of total integrity. His words and deeds are in complete synchronicity. Regardless of the cost, the threat, the risk, he does not compromise his principles. It’s not forgiveness only when the offense is small and doesn’t personally affect me. It’s forgiveness. Period. Even of his killers with Jesus. It’s not love and mercy when it’s convenient. It’s love and mercy always – regardless of how unlovable and unpalatable the circumstances may be. With Jesus, it’s compassion and healing. For everyone. Not just those from this tribe or that. Not just the legals, but the outcasts, and the foreigners, too.
With Jesus, it’s uncompromising love for absolutely every human being. No exceptions. This is a challenging ethic.
Perhaps to obscure these difficulties there is an impulse in Christianity to elevate Jesus to a lofty, heavenly figure. The exalted Christ. All powerful. Reigning in glory. Who will take care of everything.
This Jesus is sarcastically portrayed in an episode of the TV show “Lost”. One of the characters, Hurley, is very overweight. In a flashback to life before the plane crash on the tropical island, Hurley is watching TV and his mother is telling him to get up and exercise, lose weight, work, buy a car, make something of himself. Be proactive. She says, “ what are you waiting for, Jesus to come and fix everything for you.” While she’s lecturing him, the phone rings. She says, “maybe that’s Jesus calling to tell you what kind of car he’s gotten you.”
The danger of the high, exalted, fix all your problems Jesus, is that this leaves all the work and responsibility to him. And we’re off the hook. With a more human Jesus, we must take responsibility
for cultivating our relationship with God. We must nurture our God-consciousness. We must consider our integrity, our loving, our forgiving, our outreach to the poor, our efforts for justice. We must scrutinize our lives to bring God our faith, our words, our deeds into alignment. And this can get very messy involving sacrifice, risk, threat, and cost.
Today there are significant voices coming from within conservative currents of Christianity, encouraging that more attention be paid to the earthly Jesus and his compassion for the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the sick. Tony Campolo,from the Sojourners community, Brian McLaren and others are saying that rich, fancy, and clean-cut, comfortable. suburban Christianity is missing the mark.
For me, Jesus is significant specifically because he is a person. A human being. We are not called to follow a set of rules. A tidy philosophy, a theoretical principle or a simplistic system like 5 easy steps to Eternal Happiness. We are called to follow a person, who fully embodied love, mercy, and compassion as a result of his God-consciousness. He was a person with feelings. Who experienced joy, pain, exasperation, anger, sympathy, pity, frustration, grief, delight and all the rest of the range of human emotion. Jesus shows us forgiveness without blame. He shows us religion as a path to God, not a bludgeon. He shows us how to be a counter-culture community of caring. He shows us how to be our truest selves. As Bishop Spong puts it, our job is not to copy Jesus, be Jesus knock-offs, but our calling is to be our truest selves, living toward complete God-consciousness, fulfilling God’s hopes and dreams for each one of us. Loving and serving the world as God has need of us, in our time, in our circumstances, with our resources.
We are called to a faith grounded in the model of a specific human being. We are called to journey home to God shown to us by Jesus.
Our images and understandings of Jesus must be evolving and growing as new times, new circumstances, and new challenged appear. In the book Jesus in America: a History author Richard Wightman Fox reminds us that Jesus in our country has been imaged as “divine king, sacrificial redeemer, holy child, apocalyptic prophet, miracle worker, healer, wisdom teacher, social critic and reformer, luminous personality’. In the book American Jesus, How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero quotes Hebrews 13:8, that Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”, but then points out, “American depictions of him have varied widely from age to age and community to community”. …The American Jesus has been something of a chameleon. Christians have depicted him as black and white, male and female, straight and gay, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator. (p.8)
There has been quite a proliferation of images of Jesus in American culture. Jesus has been used to justify war, empire, and colonization. He has been used to foment rebellion, revolution and social transformation.
With all these different versions of visions of Jesus, we must each decide for ourselves what we see, who Jesus is for us.
In the story of the man born blind, the man, the parents, the religious authorities must come to terms with who Jesus is. The religious authorities will not allow themselves to see who Jesus is because he is a threat to their power and authority. We may have taken this approach to Jesus. The parents try to stay neutral. Maybe we’ve tried this. As the story progresses, the man born blind sees Jesus more and more clearly. First he merely refers to: the man called Jesus”. Then he refers to Jesus as a prophet. Then he claims to be a follower of Jesus. And finally he sees Jesus as a person of God. And he gives his complete loyalty to Jesus, regardless of the risk of being thrown out of his family and his religious community. Hopefully in our faith journey, we are seeing more and more clearly who Jesus is.
Hopefully we are cultivating and nurturing our consciousness and awareness of God. and living accordingly. Amen