Texts: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Matthew 5:17-20; 16:13-16; Luke 4:16-21; Philippians 1:1-11
You don’t see it as often as you once did, but you are more likely to find one of these signs traveling down a two-lane highway through the South than elsewhere. Up on some rocky boulder, somebody has climbed up with a bucket of white paint and an old brush and written out in crude letters: Jesus saves. We who like to think of ourselves as intellectuals may cringe at that statement, and such embarrassment as we may feel at the crudity of the message will need our attention one of these days, altho’ I hope it is a message encoded in every Sunday’s worship, one way or another. (opening paragraph adapted from Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark, “The Sign by the Side of the Road”)
But today I want to talk more about “saving Jesus” from the sort of statement about him that was made in that Christian Business Directory that started me on this series of sermons: They affirmed the belief in “the deity of Christ, in his virgin birth, in His sinless life, in his miracles, in his vicarious and atoning death through his shed blood, in his bodily resurrection, in his ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in his personal return in power and glory.”
Do you notice that the way this is written, nothing is required of Christians except passive acceptance of these ideas? And they are ideas, intellectual concepts, and while they may be related to specific biblical messages, they are not things that Jesus would ever have said about himself, at least so far as scholars today can discern. Differences between following and worshiping are significant: worship too often is a passive activity, involving adoration, which can be both sentimental and self-satisfying; where as following implies behavior, change, or using religious language, we might say a “second birth”, the conquest of ego, action.
I want to talk today about saving Jesus from being the object of worship and instead becoming the model for our transformation of our lives to that holiness of life that gives meaning, hope, character, persistence, and courage to our daily lives.
It was during the Enlightenment, when the science of history arose, and the historical accuracy of the way that Jesus was presented in church began to be called into question as a matter of principle. Thus, there arose the distinction between the historical Jesus—Jesus as he really was—and the Christ (the Greek word for Messiah, which actually doesn’t mean DIVINITY, but merely oily headed one who saves his people)—that the church claimed.
Our ancestors in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were direct heirs of this Enlightenment attitude, and were convinced that so much dogma and doctrine had attached itself to Jesus that his original message had gotten lost.
This first quest for the historical Jesus began in the mid 18th century and came to an end with Albert Schweitzer’s work in the late 19th century. Schweitzer argued that it was impossible to describe accurately the real Jesus, to separate Jesus from the accretions of the church’s interpretations of who and what he was, or even our own culturally acquired and psychologically grounded interpretations of whom we find Jesus to be for us. Interestingly, Schweitzer was roundly attacked by theologians who sat in the ivory towers of European and American universities, while he himself—a gifted organist, and theologian, studied medicine and left the world of comfort to set up a medical station in Africa where he lived out the remainder of his days, helping the poor and sick. Schweitzer’s famous book: The Quest for the Historical Jesus, concludes with the statement that we read earlier in the service. It is a statement which I find deeply and powerfully true for me as I have tried to live the way of Jesus over my own lifetime.
Still, there are important results from that search, and from the new search begun in the mid 1970s being done by contemporary biblical scholars (like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and even agnostics like Bart Ehrman who will be here in Lexington in a week or so) who are sorting through all of the various gospels, including those NOT in the Bible, to find sayings of Jesus that they believe contain the possibility of true authenticity.
I’ve always found it incredible how many people focus on Christ who died for their sins, but rarely mention the things that Jesus taught. For instance, notice the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5-7, notably containing the core of the preaching of this ancient sage and prophet: it contains not a single word about what to believe. You can take a quick look at the Beatitudes at No. 185 in your hymnbook. The Sermon on the Mount is, as Robin Meyers notes in his book Saving Jesus from the Church, “…a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one.” Myers goes on to note how three centuries after Jesus, when the Nicene Creed (which contains the statements about Jesus very much akin to those from the Christian Business Directory) became the official doctrine of Christianity, “…there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!” You’ll find the Nicene Creed in your hymn book at No. 358.
In those 3 ½ centuries, a Jewish peasant named Yeshua went from being a prophet, a religious reformer within his own tradition, a charismatic preacher, and a reform movement founder to the “Only Begotten Son of God”, post-Easter deity, a co-equal of Godself.
Much of that change in who Jesus was happened because of the Apostle Paul, and the movement of Christianity into the Hellenistic, Greco-Roman world, away from Palestinian Judaism. Paul, originally Saul of Tarsus, never knew the earthly Jesus, and after a mystical experience, he began to preach about the Christ who died and rose again, and he virtually never refers to the earthly teachings of Jesus. His letters, and letters written in his name, are amongst the earliest Christian literature available to us. The Gospels were written beween 40-90 years after Jesus’ death, and there were far more than the four that have been included in our modern biblical “canon”—a word that means “approved” scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls turned up the Gospel of Thomas, which appears to be a collection of sayings of Jesus, and there are some 20 known gospels from the early Christian era, some of which we have only in fragments. Others include a hypothetical book of sayings of Jesus, given the name Q, by scholars as possibly something that Matthew and Luke both used, in addition to Mark’s Gospel, in writing their versions. And there are the Greek Fragments of Thomas, the Secret Book of James, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gospel of Mary, the Egerton Gospel, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Ebionites, and Gospel of the Nazoreans. In other words, there was incredible diversity in the early church in its literature and ways of understanding Jesus, which gradually got suppressed to allow for an “approved” dogma.
interestingly, these other gospels show much evidence of the leadership roles that women played in the early church, only to have that progress squashed in later eras.
We know that Jesus was Jewish, and the church was originally formed as a movement within the life of the synagogue. It was at the time when the Gospel of John, the latest—or newest of the Gospels was written—that we begin to see the divorce occurring, rather bitterly, between Christians and their Jewish roots, and so began the church’s long and sad participation in anti-semitism.
Robin Myers notes that “in the progression from the earliest gospel, which records Jesus as saying, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18), to John, whose pre-existent Christ visits the earth but lives in a kind of parallel universe as a Gnostic contrarian, we see the evolution of Christianity itself—from …Jesus to Christ.” [Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church, pp. 25-26], or we might say, from “the Way” which meant a way to be in this world, to a set of doctrines to believed in order to win some eternal guarantee. In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we are speaking of the pre-easter human being. Christ is the post-Easter deity that had fully arrived by the time John’s Gospel was written.
One other point about this evolution of the man Jesus to the Christ-God. “After Constantine engineered the merger of Christ worshipers with sun worshipers in the [early] fourth century, the creeds solidified and finalized the view of [Jesus articulated in that statement from the Nicene Creed]. Not only was [Constantine’s action] politically expedient, but it gave the church many elements of Mithraism that survive to this day. Christ is depicted in early paintings as the Sun (with rays bursting from his head), Sun-Day is the day of [resurrection and rest], Christmas was moved…to December 25, the birthday of Mithra.” [Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church, p. 26]
I noted last week that one’s image, or concepts, or ideas about who God is will influence what sort of role Jesus will play in your theology. If you believe that God is the King, and Ruler of the Universe, the Everlasting JUDGE of all people who requires that sin be punished, and good rewarded, and who requires blood sacrifice in penance for wrong-doing, then you need an innocent, pure, free-from-sin, god-man who will pay that price for fallen people. If, on the other hand, God is the transcendent and immanent holiness infusing all being, in which to be in relationship means wholeness and meaning, joy, hope, and accepting love for the world and all its peoples, then Jesus, the savior, is the one who shows the way to the reconciliation of that relationship, of how to be in union with that holiness.
For me, saving Jesus from all these accretions of dogma means discovering anew who he is for me and for us in our time. Jesus is utterly central to Christianity, and one of our central claims has been that we have witnessed, seen, experienced in this first century peasant Jewish prophet the fullness of God. Incarnation is the theological word and means that God, holiness, is embodied in a human life. Marcus Borg says this: “Because Christians find the ultimate disclosure of God in a person and not in a book, Jesus is more central than the Bible. Jesus trumps the Bible; when they disagree, Jesus wins.” [Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 81]
In the book that we studied last year, The Heart of Christianity, Borg argued the following things about Jesus:
- He was a Jewish mystic, who had powerful experiences of the holy, of God.
- He was a healer, able to touch the wounds—both physical and emotional—in suffering people and make them well. Whether they were disease free forever, we cannot know.
- He was a wisdom teacher who used the metaphors of death and resurrection as a description for the internal spiritual process that leads struggling, broken, even comfortable people to a new identity, dying to an old way of being, behaving, thinking, acting, and emerging into a new sense of connection with others, with nature, with God and self.
- He was a social prophet and radical critic of the hypocrisy-prone religion and class status that he saw around him, and preached compassion and generosity, inclusiveness and acceptance, grace and forgiveness, and invites us to practice those same virtues by following his model.
- He was a movement initiator that was subversive to the status quo—then, and now.
[Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, pp. 89-91]
In him, in Jesus the man—his teachings, his way with others, his life and death, I and millions of others stretching across 2000 years have found access to God, to holiness and wholeness. His story becomes the meta-narrative for life lived transformationally. Although much of the language of theology, of creed and doctrine, of liturgy, worship, and piety focus on Christ who died to save us from our sins—the deity to be worshipped, I believe that prophet man Jesus who invites people not to worship him, but to follow him offers our disillusioned young and cynical old, our broken and warring world, the greatest hope for this life, and the life to come. Saving Jesus may be the most critical task of a vital and provocative church in our time. May he be for you, and for our church, for others, for the world– the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.