Scriptures: John 1: 1-14 and Philippians 2:5-11
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
When I was growing up, one of my favorite hymns was “At the Name of Jesus.” I was captivated by the majestic, awe-inspiring words and tune. Maybe some of you know it:
At the name of Jesus
Every knee shall bow,
Every heart confess him
King of glory now;
‘Tis the Father’s pleasure
We should call him Lord,
Who from the beginning
Was the mighty Word.
Hymns are a way that we articulate and celebrate our faith. This hymn, not included in the current New Century Hymnal, echoes the ideas in the two hymns that were read for us this morning from the gospel of John and the letter to the Philippians. Scholars believe that these passages were both independent writings, poetry or hymns, that were used in worship in the early church before the gospels and epistles were written.
These hymns extol the exalted Jesus as Christ: Pre existent with God since before the beginning. A participant in the original process of creation. God in human form who lived and died and returned to heaven to rule over creation once again. A sacrifice made to redeem humankind from sin. These hymns show us Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ (the Greek term for Messiah). They tell of Jesus as the human face of God.
In the first part of this series on the many faces of Jesus, we talked about the historical Jesus. He was a Jew, from Palestine, lower class, and likely illiterate. Within 3 decades of his crucifixion, Jesus is known as God. How did this exalted face of Jesus emerge from his humble historical beginnings?
Let’s look back at the message and ministry of Jesus. The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by those who were not eyewitnesses. Scholars are clear that while Jesus probably did not say verbatim much of what is attributed to him in the New Testament, what he did say was radical and subversive to both the religious and political authorities of his day. Jesus was known as a prophet. The job of a prophet is to critique the power structure and to re-call the community to God’s vision of justice which includes special care for the most needy and vulnerable in the community. In broad strokes, it can be agreed that Jesus spoke with authority of the realm of God and the intentions of God for the human community.
So Jesus is painting pictures and telling stories and stirring things up and mobilizing people’s imaginations to embrace an alternate view of reality. A reality in which every person is beloved by God. Every person is worthy of respect. Everyone is treated with compassion and generosity. There are no victims and there is no violence. Jesus is re-visioning Eden and he is getting people to catch on to this vision and orient their lives to these values which, incidentally, do not come from the thin air, but from the Jewish scriptures. Jesus is choosing the justice themes from his heritage and recasting them for his audience which is what prophets do.
Evidently, he is good at this. His message is compelling. There appears to be no self interest in his ministry. And somehow that came through in ways that attracted people to Jesus especially those at the bottom of the socio/economic/religious ladder. We can imagine that Jesus was charismatic not in a flamboyant way for self promotion, but in an intense, sincere way. The communities that formed around his message and his witness experienced a different kind of reality, a new way of being in the world. And this spread.
So, how do you talk about this compelling experience? How do you talk about something life changing? How do you convey the intense experience of transcendence that Jesus embodies? How do you share the sense of awe, wonder, and authority that you feel about Jesus’ ideas and actions? How do you express his fearless love? What can be said about a person who transforms your entire view of reality? What are the words and images that will tell this story?
Well, in that time, in that setting, there were a number of ways to do that. Other religions in that context had gods born in a cave with a star and animals near by. Other religions had figures that came back from the dead. Other religions had leaders that healed people and did miracles. Judaism had its prophets, like Elijah who multiplied food and Moses who had power over the water. Many of the themes and images and stories that we have of Jesus are echoes of those from the Hebrew scriptures and from other near Eastern religions of his day because that is how people knew how to speak about important, significant
We also want to note that the language and legacy about Jesus reflects a context which was anchored in the system of sacrifice for patronage, power, and standing. At that time, people believed in gods that were often thought to be angry and hostile and required sacrifices for appeasement. In a religious context in which people are trying to stay in the good graces of the gods so that they will be saved, rescued, and blessed, it makes sense to talk about Jesus as a sacrifice that links people to God’s good graces.
In this scenario, Jesus creates a new path for humans to be in right relationship with God. In a context of sacrifice, what sacrifice can be given to appease God for human sin? Only a sinless, perfect sacrifice. Can humans come up with anything to meet this debt? No. But, it was thought, in Jesus, God provided the perfect sacrifice. God made it possible for humans to be reconciled to God’s good graces. In the exalted, cosmic view of Jesus as the Savior, he is presented as the new Adam, getting it right, and redressing the sin of the first Adam.
In a religious context expecting a Messiah who would be an heir of King David, it made sense to speak of Jesus as a King. In a context in which the wisdom tradition talked about the immortality of the soul, preexistent before birth, then inhabiting a body, and then going on after the body, the image of Jesus present with God at creation fits in. In a context that was dominated by polytheism with gods who were regularly involved with and interacting with humans, it made sense to see Jesus as a divine being, as a god.
The exceptional experience of Jesus is perhaps most strongly conveyed in the presentation of Jesus as a leader with a vision that rivaled the authority of Caesar. There are many titles used for Jesus in the New Testament including Son of God and Son of Man. These titles were not just personally designed for Jesus. These were titles that were used for other authority figures, like Caesar, the head of the Roman Empire who was believed to be the divine son of God. Using these familiar titles for Jesus set Jesus up as a figure of power and authority and vision akin to that of the most powerful leader of the day. In fact, Jesus was crucified in part because he was seen as one who was seeking to create a new kingdom to replace the realm of Caesar. His message was so compelling, so widespread, so strong, that it was perceived as a threat, treason, to the great, vast, Roman Empire. And so Roman authorities put Jesus to death.
And to people who had left home, family, jobs, social connections, and religious traditions to follow Jesus, what did you do with a leader who died a humiliating, excruciating death? That can’t be the last word. Their experience was so intense, so transformative, so hope filled. It surely could not have all been a sham. So what to do with a dead savior? Resurrect him, as was done with other gods and leaders. Have the final outcome, the end result, resolved in the next life. Those who killed Jesus, who persecuted his followers? They might not get it in this life, but just wait until the life to come. Eternal torment awaits.
I grew up thinking that all these things were special and unique to Jesus. Now through scholarship, we know that these special features that we associate with Jesus are associated with him because that’s how you talked about someone extraordinary in those times. These images, titles, and stories conveyed claims for Jesus in ways that his contemporaries would understand. They tell how Jesus was experienced by those around him. They had such a compelling, intense, transforming experience that they talked about him in the most superlative ways they knew how. And they passed those stories on until they were written down and have come to us in scripture.
This exalted way of talking about Jesus, as king of the universe, as lord of all, as the perfect sacrifice, as the one sent by god for this very purpose, as God incarnate, all of this was intended to express how compelling Jesus and his message was. It was a way of conveying the power of who he was and how he was experienced. People lived their lives differently because of Jesus. They committed to following him. To living as he did. Rich people gave away their money. Poor people accepted help and contributed to the community in new ways. People chose to forgive. They left home and family. They gave up social standing and prominence. They changed their lives to live as he did. They imagined and created a different reality because of their experience of Jesus and his message.
The exalted face of Jesus shows the power of his impact and his influence. It conveys the extraordinary transformation that was wrought by his ministry. But as Lord Acton, English historian, politician, and writer of the 19th century so eloquently said it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The power that was associated with the exalted Jesus as Messiah, God incarnate, was assumed by the church, a very human institution, movement, and organization, prone to all the pitfalls and temptations of power abuse. Just a few generations down the line, the church, which had been persecuted was persecuting. The church of the poor was rich. The church of no victims and no violence was going into battle and subjugating the masses. The image of Jesus as a divine King was used to authorize and endorse subsequent human kings who then abused their power. The exalted, elevated images of Jesus were used to justify the abuse of power and to serve self interest. All in the name of Jesus, the King, the Lord of Creation, God.
As the exalted imagery of Jesus was passed on, the expectation became not that you would follow him (how could you?) but that you would believe in him. And then, he, the exalted king of the universe, would do things for you. Give you power, wealth, and health. Or give you the strength to endure your God-ordained servitude. If you believed in him. There was the subtle shift from following Jesus, doing as he did, to believing in Jesus and he’ll do for you. When Jesus is imaged as an exalted God, then we can’t be like him, we can’t hope to emulate him. But we can believe and then trust what he will do for us.
So the exalted face of Jesus has been used by Christians as an excuse for not following Jesus, but expecting his great and almighty holiness to be mobilized on our behalf if we only believe. If we believe, he will do it for us. We can trust him, and this can mean that we don’t exert ourselves in living and forgiving and giving as Jesus did.
Yes, we need ways to talk about the unique, compelling tradition of Jesus. But the exalted images of power associated with Jesus have been abused and are still being used to promote personal agendas of power and privilege today.
In the book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, author Robert Kaplan describes how in 1921, Greece decided to invade Asia Minor, Turkey, to reclaim territory lost in previous conflicts and settlements. This is post World War 1 and there had been vast advances in warfare. But Greece was still living in the past. Kaplan tells us: “A reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway, writes that the Greek officers ‘did not know a god-damned thing,’ while the Greek troops came to battle in the ceremonial, nineteenth-century uniform of ‘white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompoms on them.’” [p. 247] In 10 days, the Greeks were driven back to the sea.
There are problems with carrying forward the images of Jesus as king, monarch, and God especially when the language used is ancient. In some ways, it undercuts the very message that it was intended to convey. The challenge to every age is to carry forth the message, the contents, but not necessarily the container. New times call for new containers.
The challenge for the church of every age, is to find ways to express the alternative universe that is presented and embodied by Jesus, this new creation, this transformation of the spirit as well as of society, in ways that are compelling and have power and authenticity while holding on to the self giving humility and poverty of Jesus. For the very way that Jesus lived as a person is what inspired the exalted expressions of his legacy.
How do we put Jesus at the center of our lives, our choices, our behavior, that poor peasant from Palestine, in a world caught up in consumerism, greed, self indulgence, entitlement, violence, and vengeance? How do we express the life giving power of forgiveness? How do we convey the transformative power of giving? How do we create a different reality?
New ways of communicating the eternal message of Jesus are needed. New language and messages of hope are called for in this and every age. What we have in the Bible and in ancient documents tells us their story. We must make it our own. And add our stories to those that have gone before us. We are the ones who need to be finding new ways to convey the power of the gospel of Jesus.
Jesus was a radical and a subversive rebel. He was undermining the structures of society that were thought to be keeping things stable. He alienated those in authority. He attracted those at the bottom of the social/economic/religious ladder. He wanted to upset the apple cart and he wanted to create a new reality, a new status quo. Here we are reminded of the sentiment attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words. May our tribute
to Jesus be not only in our words and hymns but in our actions. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.