I want to play a song for you. Johnny Cash is covering a song written by the 1980’s electronic band Depeche Mode. Their songs often use religious images, but they usually have a fairly dark tone to them. Even when Johnny sings it, you can hear a bit of cynicism. Play the video:
None of us would be gathered here, if it wasn’t for Jesus. As Marcus Borg says in this week’s chapter of his book “The Heart of Christianity”, it is through Jesus that his followers learn of the character and the passion of God. Jesus is what makes Christianity distinct from other religions.
Borg is careful, and I am with him on this, to say the unique role of Jesus as the person who reveals God to us, makes Christianity different, but not necessarily superior to other ways of knowing God. Borg quotes a man named Krister Stendahl, a New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of Sweden who said we can sing our love songs to Jesus with wild abandon without needing to demean other religions.
The exclusivist view- that Jesus is the only way to know God is often combined with a way of seeing God built more on fear than love. The teaching that faith in Jesus is the only possible way to avoid God’s wrath is almost always built on a narrow literalist way of reading the Bible.
When the life’s work and teachings of Jesus were boiled down to a few phrases about believing in him, or going to hell- it made faith much easier to teach- and easier for some people to accept. It was essentially not about life here on earth at all- only about what happens when we die. This is important, and grows more important to us as we get older- but does not do justice to most of what Jesus actually said-which was more about living in the here and now, than in the hereafter.
A religion that focuses on the ultimate fate of souls, can co-exist within any culture, any political regime, any economic system, because it has been tamed- domesticated. More like a de-clawed, neutered tabby cat that can’t scratch up the furniture, and has no particular desire to go outside- than like a mighty lion whose roar can wake us up, shake us up.
Critics of the modern church sometimes point to Sunday Christians, and call them hypocrites because they go to worship God on Sunday, and then for the rest of week act like they themselves are the centre of the universe. Faith for Jesus was not just about whether the individual soul was right with God. It also had to do with how people lived each day, and how they regarded their neighbours, and whether justice, fairness, and compassion were evident in their daily affairs.
The glimpses we have of Jesus as a person come from the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These were all written between 30 to 70 years after Jesus’ earthly life. They were not written as objective biographies. They were written to convey the significance of Jesus- the effect he had on the people who knew him.
Jesus is a name we use to refer to the historical person. The word ”Jesus” is our version of an Aramaic name that would have been written down in an alphabet that did not use vowels. The actual name is more like “Yeshua” or Joshua.
Christ is not a last name. It’s a title, and one that Jesus would not have recognized. The English word “Christ” derives from the Latin version of another Greek word, “Christos”, which means something like “anointed one”, which was the closest the Greeks had to the Jewish word “Messiah”.
I think of it as what happens when you throw a rock in a pool of water. You see the ripples long after the rock disappears. The Gospels tell us something about the ripples. The “Jesus of History” is the rock, and the “Christ of Faith” is like the ripples, the effect of Jesus, and the efforts made to understand him. Everything we have about Jesus was written, not during his earthly life, but in the years that followed his death. None of it would likely have been written, or kept as long as it has been kept, except that after Jesus’ death, something mysterious happened.
This “mysterious something” is what we call the Resurrection. Jesus raised from the dead. These were the words gospel writers used to describe the ripples, the impact Jesus had. They needed to find a way to make sense of two confusing things. The first was that Jesus was falsely accused of crimes, and violently killed. The second thing is that this did not seem to stop him. In the decades and centuries that followed, the struggle to make sense of these two things led to the development of the idea of the “Christ”, that Jesus was actually not just an ordinary human, but actually God.
This has been the big question about Jesus- was he human, or divine? If Jesus is fully human, then he knew the same challenges and joys in life that we know. He knew about fearing death. He knew about being lonely. He knew about the body getting sick, and aging. On the other hand, when we feel that we need to be rescued from trouble, from being lost in the darkness, from facing mystery all by ourselves, then Jesus as fully divine is very appealing.
But if Jesus is an all powerful God, then why is there still so much loneliness, and fear, and suffering, in our world? Jesus has left a lot for us to do. A lot more than just repeating a simple prayer and saying that we believe. My own personal Jesus is probably more on the human side of things. If Jesus is human, then the way of living he was teaching is something that we can actually follow.
Another classic question is about where God lives. In formal terms theologians talk about God as transcendent, or God as immanent. In other words, is God above and beyond the world we live in, or is God in our midst, where we live? If God is mostly outside the world and away from us- then we need Jesus to be more like God, to be our go-between. If God is with each of us, then Jesus can be more like us, and we can strive to be more like Jesus.
These two classical questions, and the extreme answers, fit for me into a visual image. We can use the cross. The top of the cross is God way above us. The bottom of the cross is God completely in the world. One arm of the cross is Jesus as human- suffering and striving like us. The other arm is Jesus as divine, with powers beyond our imagination. For me the truth lies near the middle of the cross, where God is both out there and right here, and where Jesus is somehow human like me, but more than me. That’s as close as I can pin it all down. In the center of the cross, and in the heart of our faith, there will always be mystery.
But even with the mystery, there are some things to say about Jesus. In “The Heart of Christianity” Marcus Borg points to five important aspects of Jesus as an actual person.
Jesus was a Jewish peasant, who grew up in a rural village in Galilee. His family was not wealthy, and probably never owned land. Their country was dominated by a foreign power that did not understand their faith, but used it to control the people. Jewish religion in Jesus’ time was run by officials who were under the thumb of the Romans.
Like many of the prophets from earlier times, Jesus was offended by the abuse of power by religious teachers. He saw them use talk about holiness to shame people, and keep them afraid.
Jesus was a spiritual seeker- a mystic. He spent time in the wilderness seeking a connection to the God that the keepers of the Temple tried to franchise and market. He found God everywhere he looked. God deep inside himself, and God in the people he met. God in creation. God in the possibility of life being different. His purpose in life was to help others know the presence, the power, the love of God.
Jesus offered healing to sick and hurting people. He challenged the politics and economics of the time he lived in, because the system was designed to make a small few very wealthy, at the expense of the poor and powerless.
Jesus taught about prayer, and about faith, but mostly outside the doors of the temple. He spoke to the people who were not welcome at formal religious services. He spent time with diseased people, the homeless, with prostitutes and with collaborators, that class of Jewish people who made their living doing the dirty work of the Roman rulers.
Jesus brought the radical message that the God of the Universe loved every person with equal passion, and that human ideas about one person being better or more deserving than another were ridiculous. There were people who loved what Jesus had to say, and the window he opened for them to bask in the light of God’s love. People were willing to drop their old lives and leave everything behind to follow him.
There were also people who were profoundly disturbed by what Jesus represented. If Jesus was right, and all people were equal, and equally loved by God, then the whole religious and political order could fall apart. The powers that ran the show in first century Palestine had Jesus killed. Charges were trumped up, he was arrested. There was a mockery of a trial, and then Jesus was put to death, by crucifixion, the Roman method of capital punishment as a deterrent to going against their system.
But that was not the end of the story. If it were, we would not all be in the same room this morning, gathered in the spirit of Jesus, seeking the same connection and closeness to God that he taught about more than 2000 years ago. Amen