University Congregational Church
July 14, 2019
The Fundamentals: Christ
Matt. 16: 13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matt. 16: 13-20
“Who do you say that I am?” It is an interesting question that has been answered by people through the millennia in a multitude of ways. Teacher. Rabbi. Savior. Prophet. Charismatic. God. Perfect. Friend. Pacifist. Lover. Carpenter. Son of God. “Who do you say that I am?”
Think for a moment about the images of Jesus in your mind. Track them in your mind. This is one of those moments when I wish I could show you images on a screen – images through the years and how they may have changed in art from the early church to the Renaissance and into the 20th century. When I started seminary, the secretary to the President of Phillips Seminary had a lovely large rendering of Jesus by her desk. His head was back and his hair was blowing as if the Sea of Galilee was being blown around by a gust of wind. He was laughing – like a big belly laugh – and his mouth was open in a large grin. At first it caught me off guard. Jesus is usually more poised and pious. This seemed less holy. But every time I saw this depiction of Jesus I grew more attached. And I began to realize that was exactly the point. If Jesus was the kind of man who people were willing to follow around the countryside, he must have had a great sense of humor; he must have been fun to be around; he must have laughed. “Who do you say that I am?”
I remember lots of pictures of Jesus with sheep and with children. One of the fundamental ideas of Jesus is that he was fully divine. Of course, we look to the Bible and to church history to help us with this question and it gives us mixed messages. The Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus as very human while the Gospel of John immediately attributes divinity to Jesus. Members of the early church spent a lot of time debating the exact nature of Jesus. Was he human? Was he divine? Was he a combination of the two?
About 300 years about his death, the bishops of the church gathered in a series of councils to determine the true nature of Jesus. From these early councils came the creeds recited throughout the church today… the Nicene Creed came from the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. and served as the foundation for later creeds. At this council it was determined that Jesus is fully human and at the same time fully divine.
Various councils and theologians have written about this since and tried to unpack what it means. They call this Christology – what you think about Jesus and how he is the Christ. I like to think about it as a scale – perhaps a scale from 1 to 5. Some people think of Jesus as low on the Christology scale (he is more human than divine – more of a 1 than a 5). Others think of him as more divine than human – more of a 5 than a 1. And others are somewhere in the middle. In the early church this could have labeled you a heretic, but today it is more common and acceptable. Jesus even told his own disciples not to say that he was the Messiah in our traditional word for today… a puzzling request.
One of the lasting pictures I would venture to guess that many of us have is of Jesus’ mother Mary dressed in blue. Blue is a color of purity. Of the 4 gospels, only 2 give any account of Jesus’ birth or early years. Mark was the gospel written first and it says nothing about Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of John also says nothing about Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke wrote their accounts around 80 CE, approximately 75 years after Jesus was born and they wrote stories that differ greatly in their detail. They do agree, however, that Jesus was conceived through a miraculous act of God.
Many scholars insist that the virgin birth was an invention of the early church. Because sex was considered naughty, dirty and sinful, Matthew and Luke wanted to depict Jesus as far removed from such earthly sin. Other scholars hold that the virgin birth is an important tenet of the Christian faith.
Let me say that it was common in the ancient world to attribute a virgin, or pure, birth to persons who were to become royal rulers. Caesars, princes and emperors were often called “the sons of God” when they were born and miraculous wonders were ascribed to their births. When the stories of their births were recorded in royal records, the narratives read very similarly to what was recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. If you read them side by side, you would be astounded at the similarities. By today’s standards of plagiarism, it would not pass scrutiny.
All of that being said, whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin we know that Jesus is the Christ. How God brought him into the world remains a mystery to us. In fact, the miracle of birth should be just that – a divine mystery and miraculous in every way! Whether it is your own child or grandchild or the birth of Jesus, it is a divine gift not to be taken lightly.
Another picture of Jesus that lingers in our minds likely has something to do with his death and/or his resurrection. As Paul told you last week, part of this sermon series is based on Gary Cox’s book “Think Again”. I like what Gary wrote about the physical resurrection: “I believe in the resurrection. I believe it happened. I think it was real. But just as surely as I am convinced in the truth of the resurrection, I must admit that I have serious reservations about the physical resurrection. I am not convinced that the resurrection had anything to do with the atoms, molecules and cells that comprised the early body of Jesus of Nazareth.” Gary goes on to write about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. And he says that one thing is certain: that the writers of the gospels believed that Jesus lived on after his crucifixion. He writes, “The Gospel writes are intent on convincing the reader that this Risen Christ was real, that he was physically there with them. But he didn’t behave like a person who had walked out of his grave. This Jesus wasn’t resuscitated; he was resurrected, and there seems to be a difference between resuscitation and resurrection that is nearly impossible to explain.”
Many of you have experienced this yourselves. When you lose someone you love, you miss them with all your heart. Their presence is gone from your life in palpable ways. But there are moments – too infrequent probably, but real nonetheless – when you experience their presence for a moment.
Wind is real, and we can see its results but we don’t see wind itself. Love is real and we know when it is present, but we cannot hold it in a physical sense. The risen Christ is real. He lives as more than a memory. He is real enough that millions continue to worship him in hundreds of thousands of churches around the world. People’s lives change because of him – in his name, children are blessed, people care for the poor and sick, and others are forgiven. The resurrection has given strength and hope to those who despair and provided light when everything else seemed dark in the world.
Who do you say Jesus is? The fundamentalist answer might be that he was born of a virgin, that he is the Son of God, that he was crucified, died, and was resurrected after 3 days. Perhaps you agree. Maybe you are more like the Gospels of Mark and John and don’t have a strong opinion about Jesus’ birth. Or you have a lower Christology than others, like the Gospel of Mark.
Ultimately, I think it is less important what we say about belief and how we live. The fundamentals of belief now succumb to action. Jesus taught this and we have been fairly slow in understanding. It’s called the greatest commandment and it is in every gospel – the fundamental law of love. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The next time someone asks if you believe in the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection or something else… you can simply say this… “I believe in love.” Who do you say that I am? I say that he is Jesus, the personification of God’s all-encompassing, gracious, boundless, ridiculous, borderless, never-ending, forgiving love.
Cox, Dr. Gary. “Think Again; A Response to Fundamentalism’s Claim on Christianity.” University Congregational Press. 2006.