Re-Imagining Jesus (Part III): Reading Between the Lines

September 29, 1996


Reading Between The Lines

If you were not here over the past two Sundays, it will be helpful to know that we have been talking about re-imagining Jesus, about trying to look past the adoring portraits of the early church to see the face of a real person. In the earliest Gospel we have, Jesus not only makes no claim to being equal with God, but emphatically points out that he isn’t: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mk. 9:18) But after his death, and after a religion had been founded in his name, he was elevated more and more in the stories of the church. There were great debates in those early years about the nature of Jesus. Some insisted that he was not a God, but that he was certainly filled with God’s spirit, and was a true revelation of the nature of God. Others went so far in elevating him that they argued that he was never flesh-and-blood at all, but only a kind of divine phantom.
I think that would have amazed the young Jewish rabbi from Galilee who rejected a compliment that made him equal with God. Hear it once more: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus encouraged his followers to pray to God, but never even came close to suggesting they pray to him. You have surely been, as I have, in churches where most of the prayers are addressed directly to Jesus — a practice I think would have astonished the first-century prophet who liked to refer to himself as the “Son of Man.” As a modern theologian puts it, “Jesus came preaching God, and the Church came preaching Jesus,” a remark which sums up in one line an enormous change in emphasis from the first century until now.
How this change came about is in part the subject of this series of sermons, which encourages us to look behind the Christ of faith to the Jesus of history. But in order to do that, we have to deal first with the matter of the authority of Scripture. To many Christians, inspiration means infallibility: that is, to say that the Bible is inspired is to say that it is without a single mistake or contradiction. Since any serious student of the Bible knows there are mistakes and contradictions, we cannot equate inspiration with infallibility. To say something is inspired is to speak of its motivation and its intent, not its perfect accuracy. We have all read inspired passages from poets and other writers without expecting perfect scientific and historical accuracy. My reverence for scripture is not diminished at all by the fact that I cannot regard it as infallible.
The first difficulty in the study of scripture is the realization that it did not drop from the sky but was the result of a very human and very complicated process. Jesus spoke in a Palestinian Jewish milieu, probably in a Hebrew dialect called Aramaic, but the gospels about him were written in Greek for communities that had begun to move beyond Palestine into the larger Mediterranean world. What’s more, these gospels were written by men who wrote as believers in Jesus, not as journalists or historians, and their beliefs about him obviously grew in the decades following his death. As I have said, by arranging the gospels from the earliest (Mark) to the latest (John), we can see how early Christians increasingly spoke of Jesus as divine and as having identical qualities with God, a development that within a few centuries would result in the doctrine of the Trinity. If your view of the authority of Scripture, and how it was composed, is different from mine, then it will be difficult to re-imagine Jesus in some of the ways proposed by this series. In that case, please know that I will appreciate your thinking about what is said and will not be offended in the slightest if you say at the door, “Sorry, but I think all ministers and scholars who believe that way are simply wrong.”
There was a time, after all, when I would have said the same thing, having been brought up in a church where curiosity and questioning were not high on the list of desirable qualities. What Jesus called the great and first commandment says, “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind.” We were strong on two out of three: heart and soul were great, mind scared us. One of the finest women in this church recalled for me the other day that when she said in the Sunday School of her childhood church that she had trouble believing in the virgin birth, the teacher — brace yourself! — told her to get up and leave the room. I hope we never have a teacher in this church who would not give such a remark the most respectful attention.
I once taught for five years in a denominational college to which parents sent their children to be sure they did not learn anything about religion that was different from what they had learned in their home church. The college had many, many good qualities, but it was committed to the interpretations of its sponsoring church, so that faculty members either hewed to the party line or were asked to leave. Young men who wanted to preach in that church were expected to attend one of their own colleges and take Bible classes, rather than go off to seminary at Harvard or Yale or Princeton where they might learn different ways of reading the Bible. When I was 15, I laughed with everybody else when our preachers said, “They call those places ‘seminaries’ but they are really ‘cemeteries’ where professors bury the Bible and your faith. You go there full of the truth we have taught you, and they disturb your simple, trusting faith with too many questions and make you read too many books.” When I got older and learned something about the scholars in great American seminaries I realized how silly it was to think, considering the money they make, that they had dedicated their lives to stealing the faith of future leaders of the church — a paranoid charge on a par with believing that the government bombed its own federal building in Oklahoma City so they could blame it on the militia movement.
Which is not to say that young men and women in good seminaries will not learn things they never learned in church, but why should we expect otherwise? The said thing is that there is such a great gap between what ministers learn in seminaries and how much of it they feel they can share with their congregations when they go back home. If we are to love God with all our minds, then we should be open to new insights and care as much about mastering all there is to know about religion and the Bible as people do when they enter law or science or medicine.
Please forgive the long introduction, and let’s get back to the topic of seeing Jesus in a new light. The gospel writers are not interested in his boyhood (perhaps they knew nothing about it), but we assume he went through some kind of religious conversion as a young man. Not from paganism to Judaism, since he grew up Jewish, but by that process described by William James “whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.” We would like to be inside the mind of Christ to see just how that happened, but the gospels were written only after he had been gone for years and was not available for questioning. We are told that he decided one day to go hear a revival preacher named John the Baptist, but what went through his mind before that decision is a mystery. We have only a handful of lines about their meeting, but it must have had a tremendous impact on the young man from Galilee because he is reported to have said, “There is no one born of woman greater than John.” Think about that statement for a moment. Jesus was born of a woman. If he thought of himself as a god, he has just put that wilderness preacher on the same level. Place that comment beside his other self-deprecating remark, “Why do you call me good?” and you begin to see why careful students wonder whether Jesus thought of himself in the same way the later church thought of him.
I drove 30 minutes to hear a man preach on the night I decided to do the same, but Jesus had to walk for several days to get from Nazareth to the place where John was holding his revival. What would you give to know what he and his fellow pilgrims talked about during the day and at night before they fell asleep? Our sacred records are remarkably brief by modern standards for so important a person. They tell us some things he said and some things he did, but all of us have a world of inner thoughts we never express. Think how we could know the historical Jesus if only he had kept a diary or written a book!
How much difference did it make in his young life, for example, that the man he went to hear preach was a radical social prophet so critical of the economic, political and religious elite of his time that it wasn’t long before an angry ruler cut off his head? Jesus heard this fiery evangelist tell people with more clothes and food than they needed to help others who had none, tell soldiers not to be violent, and tell tax collectors for the Romans to stop stealing from their own people. When Jesus began to preach soon after, he stressed the same kind of social action and promptly made the audience so furious they tried to throw him off a cliff. No wonder that when he heard about how gruesomely John had died for being so bluntly honest, Jesus “went away by boat to a deserted place, quite alone.” Did he only wish to grieve by himself, or did he also whether it was the right choice to carry on John’s reformation? We’d love to know, but the door is closed because the people who wrote about Jesus later were interested in painting pictures of the Christ of faith, not of how much like us the Jesus of history must have been.
Two things are obvious, even in our scant records. First, he was absolutely convinced that happiness has nothing to do with power. In the Beatitudes, those who are happy are the humble, the compassionate, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Ironically, most of us who have honored his name through the centuries have his prescription for happiness. And second, he was obviously so charismatic that for a while, before he got into trouble with the state, huge crowds came to hear him speak, and a few even left their livelihood to follow him. Jesus was a person whom I imagine as having left a sort of spiritual wake wherever he went, like the wake of a boat moving through a lake early in the morning. Charged with energy and vision, he must have been one of those persons who change a room just by walking into it.
He was a gifted speaker. Even his hometown neighbors, just before they got mad enough to kill him, marveled at how well he spoke. And later, as religious leaders who felt threatened by what he taught tried to trap him in debate, he cleverly turned their questions back on them so they could not answer without discrediting themselves. He was also a master of dramatic public action, all before movies and television. He talked and ate with people who were outcasts and untouchables. He staged a rather violent demonstration in the temple one day, overturning tables and driving out the sellers of sacrificial animals. At the end of his public ministry, he parodied the prevailing idea of kingship and power by riding into Jerusalem on a goofy-looking little donkey. He was a stinging gadfly, like Socrates; a thorn in the side of people of pride and power, like John who baptized him — and like both, for his pains, he died at the hands of those whom he pestered.
Pestered not out of anger or contempt, but out of a love and hope which set no limits to human potential. He believed in the possibility of a kingdom of heaven on earth, and in those brief early days it must have seemed incredible to him that he could not make others see what he saw. When people were upset because he didn’t observe all the fastdays, or because he violated some rule about the Sabbath, he tried to explain that while those things might be helpful the ultimate proof of the good life is how we treat others. In that spirit, if he were here now, he would say, “Sing your songs, pray your prayers, hear your sermons, celebrate holy communion (as we will do next week, with the whole Christian world), but remember that you are judged by a single criterion: does your life gived proof of a merciful and loving heart?
To a religious system based on believing all the prescribed things, and observing all the sanctioned rituals, this was heresy — so that first the authorities turned against him, and then the masses who had once listened gladly, and finally his closest disciples ran off in fear or lied about even knowing him. Standing far off, a few women watched his last hours on the cross. I remind you, in this sermon about re-imagining the real Jesus, that death by crucifixion was excruciating torture and that Jesus dreaded it so much he prayed his life might not end that way. He rises to the ultimate nobility and touches the garment of God when he says, “Father, forgive them for not understanding what they do,” but he is kin to the weakest and loneliest human being that ever lived when into the closing darkness he asks of his God the most anguished of all questions: “Why have you forsaken me?”
In that moment, the Son of Man touched the depths of human despair. He was not playing a game, pretending to feel God had forsaken him when as a God himself he knew better. The glory and the comfort of his life is that he was one of us as, in his own blessed words, any one of us may become if we share his vision of a kingdom of love. Those wmen watching from a distance that day must have whispered, “It’s all over,” but they were wrong. I cannot imagine a better way to close than by quoting that incredible tribute from the Gospel of John: “In him appeared life and this life was the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” I want you to go away this morning remembering that the reason the light still shines in the darkness is because you are the beloved sons and daughters of God.

We have tried, gracious God, to imagine more fully and more
vividly the life of that son of yours whom we call the Lord of
our lives. May we have done so in ways that will bring in
more fully the kingdom he dreamed of. Amen.