The New Christianity, Part 4: Jesus

February 15, 2004



The New Christianity, Part 4: Jesus (2/15/04)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

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Wow. Time flies when you’re having fun, and I hope we’re having fun! This is part four of our series on the New Christianity, and I’m thinking we should try to reign things in before the month is out, which means there will two more sermons in this series after today, making a total of six parts. We’ve been following the outline of Marcus Borg’s great book, The Heart of Christianity, and have covered the Bible, faith and God in the first three parts. Today we will talk about Jesus. Where does that enigmatic figure from 1st Century Palestine fit into a 21st Century faith?

My position is that Jesus will continue to play a central role—the central role. I said from the beginning that the whole purpose of this series is to see if we can reclaim the heart of Christianity. Many argue that the New Christianity is not so much a faithful religion as an academic exercise. It’s all about analysis, and study, and taking apart the old ideas; and in doing so it has lost its heart—its soul. Using Marcus Borg’s language, I concluded last week’s sermon by saying that God is the heart of reality, and that Jesus is the heart of God. So if we are to reclaim the spiritual foundation of our faith—its heart—we must not stray far from the one after whom our religion is named.

Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Bishop John Shelby Spong, all important voices of the New Christianity, share something important in common. They all believe that when we say the name Jesus Christ, we need to take a deep breath between those two words—Jesus and Christ. They think it is a mistake to insist that the Jewish teacher named Jesus of Nazareth who walked through ancient Israel is identical to the Christ of the Christian faith.

Now, I want to say up front that I have a higher Christology than do many of the modern theologians I most admire. I attribute that to the fact I have a bit more of a mystical bent than do most academic scholars. So in many cases—certainly in my prayer life—I tend to place more importance on the “Christ of faith” than they do. But I agree with them that it is very important for us to distinguish between Jesus of Nazareth and what our religion calls “the Risen Christ.” And I should note that in varying degrees, the scholars we are talking about—Borg, Crossan, and Spong—do believe that the Christ of faith is something real. It is just that they insist, and I agree, that we are walking on shaky ground if we claim that the Christ of faith is exactly the same thing as Jesus of Nazareth.

Marcus Borg differentiates between Jesus of Nazareth and the Risen Christ by calling them the “Pre-Easter Jesus” and the “Post-Easter Jesus.” The Pre-Easter Jesus existed as a flesh and blood man who died and is no more, and the Post-Easter Jesus continues to exist in the mind of God and in the hearts of Christians. The first was a man—a physical being. The second is something spiritual. The physical man—the 5 foot 6 inch Palestinian Jew named Jesus who walked about on earth—is no more. And if that is the only way we can envision the Christ of our faith, we are shortchanging ourselves—spiritually speaking.

So if we attempt to separate the Pre-Easter and the Post-Easter Jesus, and want to learn about and understand each of them, we’d better start with the Pre-Easter Jesus. This Christ of faith can be pretty difficult to get our minds around, and we are likely to envision that Jesus—the Christ—in many different ways. But what about the Pre-Easter Jesus?

Well, there are no shortage of opinions about the itinerate preacher from Galilee. Reputable scholars portray Jesus as everything from an intellectual revolutionary to an illiterate peasant. I appreciate the way Marcus Borg presents Jesus. He says that each of us has a sketch of Jesus in our minds. We take the stories we read in the gospels, and the best guesses of the scholars, and from what information we have, each of us sketches our own picture of Jesus.

It is a mistake for any of us to claim we have a nice clear snapshot of Jesus of Nazareth. That picture does not exist. One of the biggest problems is that the only written information we have about the historical Jesus comes from the four gospels, and each of them sketches a very different picture of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is a faithful but frustrated Jew, trying to reform the faith; Mark’s gospel has been described as a revolutionary tract, to be whispered between co-conspirators at midnight; Luke’s Jesus speaks almost exclusively of the poor and oppressed; and the Jesus we discover in the Gospel of John, unlike the Jesus from the other three gospels, talks almost exclusively about himself. The Jesus of the other three gospels goes to great lengths for most of his ministry to hide the fact that he is the Messiah. The Jesus we find in John’s gospel proclaims himself as the Messiah throughout.

It would be interesting if we could see each other’s sketches of Jesus. Congregationalists insist of the right to their own opinions, and I have a feeling we would have some very different looking sketches. I’m not talking about his physical appearance. I’m talking about who he was, and what he said and did.

It would be interesting to see his physical appearance in our sketches. I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to envisioning Jesus as looking something like most of us—a white person of European descent. I remember at seminary one of the professors showed us a painting of Jesus and the twelve apostles. They were all handsome men who looked like they were descended from European royalty—all except for one. There was this short, dark figure off to the side. He had a large hook-shaped nose, with very dark hair and a scruffy beard covering a dark-olive face. The painter, of course, was depicting Judas. The professor, however, told us that if we wanted to see what Jesus probably looked like, we should look at the way the artist had depicted Judas, because while there is no physical description of Jesus of Nazareth anywhere in the Bible, it is safe to assume that, unlike most modern depictions of him, he would have stood out like a sore thumb in a room full of blue-eyed Nordic men.

Physical appearance aside, how can we sketch out a relatively accurate portrait of Jesus? Who was he? What was he really like? Marcus Borg claims there are five elements we should include in our sketch. The emphasis you place on any one of these elements will make your sketch different from mine, and from everybody else’s. But we have five tools—five styles of brushstrokes with which Borg says we can create our sketch.

The first tool we have is the fact that Jesus was a Jewish mystic. A mystic is a person who has a vivid experience of God. For many mystics—surely for Jesus—these experiences are frequent. Now, remember from last week that this “God” we are talking about is not some old man sitting on a cloud. This is the Ground of Being, the Transcendent, the Ultimate Reality, the Sacred. There are rare occasions when a person seems to be in a special relationship to God. They experience God not as some sort of abstract concept, but as a living reality. In the great writings of every major religious tradition we find people who are in touch with God in ways the rest of us simply are not.

And Jesus was certainly one of those people. We can think he was much more than that, and many do. But if we deny the fact that Jesus was a mystic, we are leaving out an important element as we attempt to create our sketch.

The second tool we have in the creation of our sketch is the fact that Jesus was a healer. A lot of modern Christians don’t like this image, because the parade of phony faith-healers who we see on television and read about in books has given the idea of healing a bad name. But we have to accept the fact that the Bible gives us story after story of Jesus’ ability to heal. Even scholars from outside the religious world, while they argue with the stories of physical healings, agree that Jesus must have been able to exorcise demons. Today, perhaps we would say he had the ability to make people confront their own demons and cast them out. After all, when a person was healed, Jesus typically said something like, “Your faith has made you well.”

Because the healing of psychological wounds invariably begins from within, many would say Jesus was able to bring out the healing parts of a person’s inner being—a part that was dormant until he found a way to wake it up. Maybe Jesus was the greatest psychologist of all time. Of course, many think he was much more, but the point is, even skeptics agree that he had an ability to heal people. So as we create our sketch of Jesus, we have a second tool—not only was he a mystic, but he was also a healer.

Third, Marcus Borg tells us it is safe to believe that Jesus was a “wisdom teacher.” A teacher of wisdom looks at the world differently than most of us, and asks us to follow a new way. The great American poet Robert Frost would call that new way the “road less traveled.” Somerset Maugham called the new way a path “as narrow as a razor’s edge.” The Buddha told us the path was visible only to the very few who were “awake”—those who could see beneath the world before our eyes and understand its truth.

For Jesus, the path involved being born into a new way of life—a dying to the old self and an awakening—a rebirth—into a new person—the person we were meant to be in the first place. This is a central element of Jesus’ message, and we should not overlook it as we attempt to make our sketch.

The fourth tool at our disposal is the fact that Jesus was a social prophet. Jesus really upset the apple cart. The prophets of the Jewish tradition who came before Jesus protested the powers and principalities of their times. They stood up against the unfair systems of government and economics that left a large percentage of the world in hunger, while a very small percentage had great wealth.

Jesus stands firmly in this tradition. Jesus saw the kings the world told us we must bow before, and instead envisioned a world where God is the king. Jesus swore allegiance to that kingdom. And that’s what got him killed. There are still those who like to say that Jesus was not political. Actually, Jesus was extremely political. The fact is, the Roman government did not crucify people for telling everybody they should love one another. Jesus was charged with sedition—treason. He was considered a traitor. A person’s specific crime was often attached to the cross. Jesus crime read, “King of the Jews.” It was political—he refused to put Caesar—the government—before God.

One more element and our toolbox will be complete. Jesus was a movement initiator. What was this movement like? Well, it was radically inclusive. In the first century, it was unheard of—disgraceful—for women to be following some guy around the countryside. Women had no place in religious or political movements. The most public of this group’s practices was the eating of meals—meals that were shared with the nobodies of society. At the table, Jesus and his followers violated every acceptable social taboo. They did not perform the ritual handwashing required of Jews. They ate with prostitutes. They dined at the home of the hated tax collectors. They sought out the most marginalized and hated people in town, and made a public display of loving them, and eating with them. And it was in this practice that we see what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God. This was a world where God is the king, and all the exclusive social levels human beings have created are destroyed.

So, make your sketch! Jesus was a mystic, a healer, a wisdom teacher, a social prophet, and a movement initiator. The way you combine those five things in your own mind will determine how you envision Jesus of Nazareth. And there is no right answer. Your sketch of Jesus has just as much validity as mine—just as much validity as any seminary professor’s.

Much more difficult to get our minds around is the Post-Easter Jesus. Okay, there are many who believe Jesus of Nazareth and the Post-Easter Jesus—the Risen Christ—are the exact same thing. And I have no problem with that. In fact, the old Christianity often insists that the physical body of Jesus, after being dead for three days, was resuscitated. It then walked about Galilee, and eventually floated up through the sky to be at the right hand of God.

It is fine for people to believe that, and many wonderful people of faith do. The New Christianity, however, in many cases, questions the idea of confusing resurrection with resuscitation. I myself am a big believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the idea that that very cells and molecules that comprised the earthly body of Jesus went up into the sky and exist to this day in that same physical form—well, many refuse to accept that we have to believe that in order to be a Christian.

And we have strong support from the Bible when we think the resurrection wasn’t necessarily a physical event. Our support comes from Paul, who is generally recognized as the founder of Christianity. It was Paul who started those early churches. It was Paul who never met Jesus, but who experienced the Risen Christ. It was Paul who wrote all those letters that comprise the bulk of the New Testament. And Paul never talks about Jesus of Nazareth, other than to say he was born of a woman like everybody else. Paul’s only concern was the Risen Christ—the Christ of faith—the Post-Easter Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, everything truly important about Jesus began with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Everything before the cross is just detail.

Paul insists that if Christ is not resurrected, than all our faith is in vain. But he does not equate the resurrection with some resuscitation of Jesus’ body. Paul tells us quite specifically that the resurrected Jesus does not have a physical body. Paul says the difference between the body of a person who dies and what is resurrected is as different as a seed is from the plant it becomes. He says that what is sown physical is raised spiritual, and adds a specifically as he possibly can, quote, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”

So where is Christ? Where is the post-Easter Jesus? Well, the scholars can’t give us five elements from which we can make our sketch. We’re on our own. But there are a few things I want to tell you from my heart before we move on, next week, to the next phase of our series on the New Christianity.

First, there really is a Risen Christ. I know this because I have experienced the Risen Christ in my life. I know this because I have read the testimony of thousands of people through the ages for whom the Risen Christ has been a reality. I know this because I see the work of the Risen Christ going on in the world, every day, healing those who have been knocked down by the evil, the cruelty, and the apathy of this world.

Second, while the Risen Christ does not have a physical body, the Christ was revealed in that person we call Jesus of Nazareth. I like the idea of taking a deep breath between the words “Jesus” and “Christ,” but I firmly believe the best place to begin our search for the Risen Christ is by looking at the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

And third, and most importantly, even though we cannot be in direct contact with Jesus of Nazareth who walked this earth two thousand years ago, we can be in contact with the Spirit he embodied—the Spirit that we now call the Risen Christ. And we know where to look for it, because Jesus told us where it would be. We don’t look for Christ up in the sky. We don’t look in our best theology books. We don’t even have to look in the Bible! I quote the Spirit of Christ, as it spoke through Jesus: where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

The real and living Spirit of Christ is right here, right now. Look!