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Jesus Has a Question for You
By: Paul E. Ellis Jackson
University Congregational Church
March 13, 2016
We learn a bunch of big words in seminary; Big, important words about big important ideas: There’s Theology, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, Soteriology, and so on—Lots of -ologies. Not only do we learn these words and their meanings, but we learn how to use them in a sermon. Today’s word is Christology. Now on its surface this doesn’t seem like such a scary word. Christ-ology. You’d assume it’s just the study of Christ, right? But as with most things in seminary…oh…no…Christology means oh so much more.
At its most basic level, Christology has to do with one’s belief, on a continuum, of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. To really over-simplify let make a scale of one to ten; let’s say a one on our scale (low Christology) means that you believe that Jesus was just a man, maybe a really gifted teacher and rabbi and good with a parable or two. On the other end of the scale, a ten (high Christology), means that you believe that Jesus is fully divine, God on earth, performing miracles, healing the sick, and showing people the way to heaven. All Christians would fall somewhere on this scale. And during one’s life as a Christian we will probably move up and down on this scale as our beliefs change and as we’re exposed to new ideas about Jesus and faith. As we experience life our ideas and beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth change—and they should—the ability to change our opinions and beliefs as we gain new information about a subject is a sign of a healthy and mature mind. I don’t know an honest Christian who hasn’t had a “crisis of faith”. That’s part of our maturation as believers.
Now I don’t believe that our oversimplified scale should in any way be used as a litmus test for being a Christian. I don’t think we should walk around with a 9 or a 7 or a 1 on our name badges to show our level of belief. This is just a way for us to think about Jesus and to think about his life and work and ministry. And it’s a way for us to think about how we think about these things. Unfortunately, many people do use this scale, whether they know it or not, as a way of determining who a true believer is…or is not. And I just think that’s dangerous. But, that’s one of the core tenants of orthodoxy—that a Christian must hold a certain level of belief about Jesus. For some, how we answer the question of “Who was this Jesus?” determines our fitness to participate in the faith . And what a question to have to answer, right? Who was this Jesus?
In Mark Stenberg’s book 51% Christian—Finding Faith after Certainty, the book Robin has been using for this sermon series and the one I used for most of today’s sermon—Mark Stenberg proposes that the answer to this question really isn’t that important. I’m quoting Stenberg here: He says that Christology is really the question of HOW? How can this be? How can the man Jesus of Nazareth also be the Christ of God? A particular human being, in space and history and time, and God, in the same person? He goes on to remind us that this question has been one of the most divisive in human history with answers that often provoked stern rebukes, banishment, and often bloodshed.
The scriptures are tricky to turn to for help with this question of who this Jesus was, because the Hebrew Bible deals with the coming of a savior in one way; and the authors of the New Testament each deal with Jesus in a totally different manner. The “Emmanuel” spoken of by the Jewish Prophet Isaiah is a completely different person than the messiah described in the Gospels or written about by Paul. And this is because each author, and I’m talking of the New Testament authors now, each author looks at Jesus and his Christology with a different lens. And I will spend the rest of my life and work dealing with these contradictions and tensions and ambiguities that have fascinated us for centuries.
Peter gives us one of the first Christological definitions when Jesus asks his disciples the simple question: Whom do men say that I am? In Mark’s Gospel we have Jesus asking his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” And his disciples answered and said, Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elias, or other of the old prophets. And Jesus answered and said, But whom do you say that I am? Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being co-equal with every other member, and each acting inseparably with and interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.”
And Jesus, answering, said, “What?”
My quote about Peter is a compilation of the Christological arguments from Peter’s ministry and I use it as an example of the extreme mental dexterity required for some of our arguments about Jesus as God. It takes an agile mind to be able to do the gymnastics required by some of this stuff.
Let’s look at some famous folks from history and see who they said Jesus was: Napoleon Bonaparte said “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him. “Not really a statement of belief, but more one of admiration wouldn’t you say? Perhaps some jealousy?
Blaise Pascal, the famous mathematician and Christian philosopher said: “Jesus is the God whom we can approach without pride and before whom we can humble ourselves without despair.” I’d say that’s a pretty high Christological comment, isn’t it? Pascal actually says Jesus is THE God, so that would probably put that comment pretty high on our scale, right?
Author H. G. Wells said this about Jesus: “The doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought.” So, Wells is talking about teachings and doctrine—where do you think that statement falls on our scale? Sort of in the middle maybe? It’s certainly a lower level than stating that Jesus is God, right?
Albert Einstein tells us that: “As a child, I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. “ Enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. I think that speaks for itself.
And finally we hear from Gandhi: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Ouch. That hurts. Because there’s some truth there, I think.
Douglas John Hall is one of the main theologians I am studying this semester and by wonderful coincidence he is quoted extensively in Mark Stenberg’s Chapter in 51% Christian on Jesus has A question for You. This question: Who do you say I am? Douglas John Hall wants us to be contextual—always. He wants us to understand the context that the man Jesus lived and worked in and the context that his followers lived and worked in. Context is important because Christianity is not a static faith, but one that expands and contracts depending on the context in which it is existing. Jesus is a man in one context and a God in another context. And both in yet another context. And our context, here in this room, this morning, this moment, is another context. The choir sings about Jesus in one context and we sing hymns about him in another context. And then we all say a prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, that was taught in a totally different context and for different reasons. And we’re supposed to pull all of these different contexts together and make them fit into a coherent and consistent theology. Wrap it all up with a nice bow and call it Christianity and give it away…we’re expected to stop thinking about Jesus as man and/or God and just show up here every Sunday morning for a recap of the same stuff we’ve heard our entire lives. Be good. Don’t sin. What would Jesus do? Do that. Unless that means contradicting your other beliefs such as charity and hospitality and what we do with the stranger in our midst….right. In that case we are excellent at understanding context…and that context is usually Not In My Backyard. It seems to me that our Public Christianity has become a packaged product that has settled all of these complex and contradictory Christological questions and fixed the answer to Who Do You Say that I am in a simple, easily understood form. This, this and this. And that’s that! That’s who Jesus Christ is.
It dawned on me as I was writing this sermon that that last paragraph I just delivered is why they call this preaching.
Right now we are in the season of Lent and when we think about Jesus during this time we are reminded of his last week; that dramatic, passionate and world-changing week in First Century Palestine. And we even have another example of Jesus challenging people’s ideas about him when he stood before Pontius Pilate and after Pilate asked him “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus simply says: “That’s what you say I am.” Jesus defines his own Christology in many different ways throughout the New Testament, because many different authors are relating many different episodes in many different contexts. The author of the Gospel of Matthew is building on the author of the Gospel of Mark’s work and adding his own flair for his community of believers in their own First Century context. Why would any rational person expect us to apply two thousand year-old contextual situations to our modern lives? Don’t get me wrong—there is great wisdom here and much that is applicable, but not without using our tradition and reason and our context to guide us in these matters of faith.
Stenberg reminds us, and this quote is in your bulletins, that “The question of who Jesus is just might be the center of the New Testament record. Can the question of Jesus’ identity even be answered? Must not Jesus remain, in some basic way, the unknown one, the stranger, the outsider, the one whose story remains unfinished? What if this was a very conscious move? What if the first disciples and their communities were sophisticated enough to know that as soon as we think we know Jesus, we have begun to dispense with him?”
I believe we are to take these stories and this drama and these teachings and use our brains and our experience and our lives to every minute struggle with this question: Who Do You Say That I Am? It’s not a static question and I’m sorry to tell you it doesn’t have an easy answer. At least not for this community of humans, in this time, in this context. We struggle mightily with our questions of Christology and in our struggling is the space where we live our lives. We live this question. That is what’s important. Our answer to this question should be found in how we interact with one another. Who do you say I am should be answered by your love and your kindness and your giving and your forgiving. Because that is who Jesus was. That’s something that all of the New Testament authors agree on: Jesus was loving and kind and giving and forgiving.
In this anxious world we live in, where we daily receive messages of hate, of division and of blaming the “other”, it is more important than ever that we, the people of this church, live as kind, loving, giving and forgiving people. WE can make small changes in our world that reflect the lessons taught us 2000 years ago. WE can be a living example of the answer to this question. WE can kindle hope and reclaim words and remind people that on the scale of Christology there are believers all over the place—and we’re all Christians—and we’re all humans—and we all want and deserve the same things. We are more alike than some would have you believe.
I am so grateful for this community of believers in 21st Century North America who bravely and consistently struggle with this great question. Who Do You Say I Am? Amen
A change from what’s printed in your bulletin–Please stand as the choir offers us our benediction—An Irish Prayer
So go forth and live your answer to the question. Make your life your answer. So Who Do You Say I Am becomes Who Do You Show I Am. Go and live the question. Better yet—Be The Question.