University Congregational Church
Sept. 20, 2015
“Why Christian… Jesus?”
Phil. 2:1-7 a
In this series “Why Christian?” each week I will be asking a question about why Christians believe, say, or do certain things as part of our faith. This week I am asking why Christians base our faith on Jesus.
The Christian religion is built around an itinerant Jewish preacher, Yeshua Ben Joseph. Later, Gentile Christians gave him the title Jesus Christ. (Jesus is the translation of the Greek version of Yeshua).
According to one gospel, he was born in Bethlehem. Another indicates he was from Nazareth in the Galilee region. He was probably born between 4 and 7 B.C.E. He was raised in Nazareth. At that time, the area was very unstable politically. It had been under severe Roman oppression for decades. Many Jews were hoping for a military/political/religious leader to lead them into a military victory over the occupation forces and then later reign as King. For them, when this messianic King was in power, it would be like the Reign of God on earth.
Jesus became an itinerant preacher whose message found an enthusiastic audience. He collected a group of followers during his ministry. The Bible has multiple lists of twelve followers, but the names differ. Among those listed are women and men – and not only the number of twelve.
The prime elements of his message were:
- A call for personal repentance and realignment of behavior which would lead to the creation of the Kingdom of God, a new social and religious order on earth.
- A call to fully love God with all your resources.
- A call to love your neighbors, including your enemies, and to take no aggressive acts against those who oppress you.
- A new interpretation of Jewish law which gave priority to one’s responsibility to God and how you treated other people, while downgrading the relative importance of ritual and ceremony.
The conflict between “Jesus and Caesar” is a major theme of the Bible. In Matthew’s gospel, King Herod, the Rome-appointed ruler of the Jewish homeland seeks to kill the new-born Jesus. Luke’s gospel emphasizes that Jesus will bring down the powerful from their thrones and wealthy from their place of privilege.
Before Jesus ever existed, there was already a human being who was called God Incarnate and was given all of these titles that Christians later would use to describe Jesus. These were not created for Jesus and not specific to Jesus – they were identical to the governmental officials of the day. “Son of God” “Son of Man” “King of the Jews”…
“Caesar” has a particular historical meaning: it referred to the emperor of Rome. Some of the most infamous: Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. In some languages, it continued to refer to emperors for more than 1,000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.
More specifically, the term “Caesar” refers to domination systems, people of privilege, those with power. Scholar Marcus said of Jesus: “There was a sociopolitical passion to him – like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day…. And I suggest that, as a figure of history, Jesus was an ambiguous figure – you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as some of his family did; or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat; or that he was filled with the Spirit of God.”
In Jesus’ time, Rome was forcing many Jewish families into destitution, with high taxes and land seizures. Some Jews advocated violent rebellion, but others opted for non-violent resistance. Jesus called for nonviolent resistance to Rome and just distribution of land and food. He was crucified because he threatened Roman stability. In other words, his teachings were such a threat to the oppressive Roman system that Jesus was executed by Caesar.
After Jesus, a lot of people in the first century thought Jesus was saying something so important that they were willing to die for it themselves. His teachings caught on in various communities and were observed in assortment of methodologies.
It is important to understand the Roman imperial world to truly understand the radical challenge Jesus represented. The Romans believed that the only way to peace was through war and victory. Jesus taught that through God’s plan of justice and compassion, peace could be achieved in a dramatically different way. Jesus taught that this world belongs to God and it is good and can be transformed. I, personally, find this compelling.
Even though people of other faiths may not agree with Christianity, many believe Jesus to be one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived. Mohandas Gandhi, said “Jesus occupies my heart, the place of one of the greatest teachers who have had a considerable influence on my life. I shall say to the Hindus that your life will be incomplete unless you reverentially study the teachings of Jesus. Because of the life of Jesus, I believe he belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all races and people, it matters little under what flag, name or doctrine they may work, profess a faith, or worship a God inherited from their ancestors.”
I believe that Jesus was extraordinary because of how he lived, not because of how he died. Our traditional word for today expresses this beautifully. It is commonly referred to as the Philippian hymn, because it is believed to have been a recitation of the early church:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave. Philippians 2: 1-7 a
being born in human likeness.
I would like to take a moment to speak about what Jesus means to me personally. When I was a young girl, I felt like an outcast. My mom was single, and our family struggled to pay the bills. Thankfully, my mom and grandma knew how to sew. I had all homemade clothes, especially polyester pantsuits in delightful colors like lavender and pink. Hillary Clinton had nothing on me! I was large for my age, and tall. That meant that I was always on the back row at the center of every grade school class picture. I didn’t own a pair of jeans until the 8th grade. On top of this, my maiden name was Bretz. It’s not a bad name, unless you pair it with the first name of Robin. The kids called me “Robin Red Bretz” and I was humiliated.
And then I met Jesus. He ate with the poor and the outcast. He met a scorned woman at the well, and he told her to go and tell others what she had seen and heard. Jesus stood up for the underdog. He believed in people. And he tried to make the world a kinder, gentler place for people like me.
As John Dominic Crossan said, “In a world of inequality and injustice, Jesus offered and lived out an alternative vision. He also invited others to take part in it. He believed and began a community of free healing and shared eating, a community of equals before God and each other. To women, children, men, to lepers, the destitute, the disturbed, he issued the same invitation: come eat with me and be healed, and take what you experience to others. The new community was what the Kindom of God looks like, what the whole world would look like if God, not Caesar, were directly in charge. That is what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.”
After Jesus died, people continued to experience the working of God. The spirit of Jesus – which is the love of God personified – continued to live on. It wasn’t confined to a particular time or place. The historian Josephus reported at the end of the 1st century that “those who had in the first place come to love him, did not give up their affection for him… and the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day, not disappeared.” Let it be so for each of us. Amen.
“Jesus in the 21st Century” by Rev. Brooks
“What Jesus Means to Me by Mahatma Gandhi” by Nayaswami Kamala
“Gandhi’s View of Jesus Christ” by Fr. Benny Aguiar
“A Letter About Jesus” by Marcus Borg
www.readthespirit.com “An Interview with John Dominic Crossan on Challenge of Jesus”.
www.cnn.com “John Dominic Crossan’s ‘blasphemous’ portrait of Jesus”
www.marcusjborg.com “Christmas, Jesus, Caesar and Us”
www.marcusjborg.com “What Would It Have Been Like to Be a Companion of Jesus?”
www.religioustolerance.org “The Jesus Movements (7 BCE to 170 CE)”