Texts: Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 1:68-79
The internet is fascinating. It has changed much about our lives and our world in both helpful and perhaps unhelpful ways. Some wonder what the effect may be on memory now that we can look so many things up instantaneously. The other day I was wondering what the name of the actress was who played the talented young singer in Mr. Holland’s Opus, and what the television series was that she later starred in. There’s you challenge for you with smart phones. Let me know when you have the answer (Jean Louisa Kelly – “Yes Dear”).
So I saw this story on the internet this week. At an Applebee’s restaurant, a person who had eaten with a larger group, and was thus charged an 18% gratuity, scratched off the tip and wrote “I give God 10%, why do you get 18” and then signed the receipt, Pastor _________. The server posted the receipt on-line, the pastor complained. The server has been fired for breaching privacy and the pastor has apologized. It does make me want to ask about the kind of Jesus this pastor follows. Jesus who?
Also on the internet this week I discovered a sermon excerpt. Much of the hate and discord that has been poisoning our nation has been preached in the name of Christ and the church. This sermon was preached in Dallas, Texas in a Methodist Church on the Sunday following the assassination of President John Kennedy fifty years ago (November 22, 1963/November 24, 1963 – Rev. Charles V. Denman, Wesley Methodist Church). The words still have relevance, and they make me ask, “Jesus who?”
A few weeks ago, I posted on my blog some reflections on being an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. In part I wrote about the unique situation of the church today, and how, though some have compared our situation with the First Century, I don’t think that comparison holds up very well. After all there are Christians in powerful places and doing some powerful things and the example I used was Hobby Lobby suing the federal government arguing that providing contraceptive health coverage for female employees violates the Christian values of the store and its owner. It was not the main point of my reflection, but I received this response: "contraceptive health coverage" = abortion and abortifacients. You, David have a gift of communication, it's too bad it's wasted on politics and social engineering instead of preaching the Good News of the Gospel and the saving power of faith in Jesus. The respondent is someone I know. I was the pastor to this person’s parents in another place.
I happen to disagree with my respondent’s view that all contraception is abortion, but I also think the criticism misses the point of disagreement between us. We disagree on the question of “Jesus who?”
Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year before the beginning of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Traditionally it is known as the Sunday of Christ the King. It is a Sunday to focus in a unique way on Jesus. It is a Sunday to remind ourselves that Jesus is at the heart and soul of Christian faith and life. No Jesus, no Christian faith. On that every Christian would agree.
But the question then becomes, “Jesus who?” And that question matters profoundly. Theologian and biblical scholar Marcus Borg puts it well. There is a strong connection between images of Jesus and images of the Christian life, between how we think of Jesus and how we think of the Christian life. Our image of Jesus affects our perception of the Christian life in two ways; it gives shape to the Christian life; and… it can make Christianity credible or incredible. (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, 1-2)
How might we answer the question, “Jesus who?”
This morning’s invitation to worship provides one answer. He was a man's man, but we feminized him in the church ... He was a tough guy and that's the Jesus that I want to be like. That's the side that I want to be like. But we've feminized Jesus in the church and the men can't identify with him anymore; not the kind of men that I want to hang out with, they can't identify with this effeminate Jesus that we've tried to portray. He was a tough guy. He was a man's man. (Jerry Boykin)
Does focusing on masculinity, and importing a certain idea of masculinity into a picture of Jesus get at the heart of the Jesus who is at the heart of the Christian faith and life? How do women get to follow Jesus the tough guy?
Some answers to the question of “Jesus who?” focus on Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death is significant, but too often that death is disconnected from Jesus the teacher, and healer, and welcoming presence. Too often Jesus’ death is disconnected from history. The Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution for those they considered politically subversive. That matters, I think. If we only focus on the death of Jesus in answering the question of “Jesus who?” I think we miss the richness of his life as given in the Gospels.
Today is Christ the King Sunday and we are going to sing later “Crown Him With Many Crowns” – a very stately song. And sometimes in answering the question of “Jesus who?” we have focused on this magisterial Jesus, but imported our ideas of royalty into the picture. We make Jesus a new Caesar, with thrones and dominion and ruling power, as in the language in Colossians. Yet we should not forget that at least part of the function of the language of King and Lord being used for Jesus was to put him in contrast with the Roman Caesars. Jesus is not intended to be a different Caesar, but stands for a different kind of ordering of life altogether. Our understanding of Jesus as king needs to fit with these words of Jesus from Luke 22: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you…. I am among you as one who serves.
There are more adequate ways to answer the question, “Jesus who?”
Jesus is the one who shows us the character of God. He is the image of the invisible God…. In him was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell And what does Jesus reveal about the character of God? A very good, succinct answer can be found in one of Charles Wesley’s hymns: Jesus thou art all compassion. Pure unbounded love thou art. (Schubert Ogden, The Understanding of Christian Faith, 28). The character of God shines through the character of Jesus – pure, unbounded love.
Jesus is one who transforms our lives, who moves us, whose presence in our lives changes us. We have been “rescued from the power of darkness.” We have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We are reconciled. I appreciate the language Eugene Peterson uses in his Message version of the Colossians text. So spacious is he [Jesus], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies.
I had a conversation this week about church with someone and in that conversation she said, “Isn’t it really about being a good person?” And the person who said this really is a good person and we did not have time for a longer conversation. Christian faith, isn’t it really about being a good person? Yes, but only if we have a rich enough idea of what that means. I think I would say it’s about goodness and graciousness. Jesus wants to bring out our goodness, but God’s pure, unbounded love is there before anything we do and cannot be lost because of anything we do. If it’s just about being good, I know some folks who are always comparing their goodness with others, and that’s not the point. That easily leads to self-righteousness. Jesus is about bringing out our goodness, but also offering forgiveness when we mess up, and offering healing for those broken places, places we sometimes try to hide when we think it is all about being good. Our goodness is rooted in the graciousness of God and our goodness should always be mixed with graciousness towards others.
My last “Jesus who” for this morning. Jesus is one who guides “our feet into the way of peace.” There is a social side to the Jesus way. It is not just about our personal relationship with God through Jesus, though it is importantly about that. God in Jesus invites us into a way, a way that sometimes challenges the way the world works. The way of Jesus is a way of peace, of caring for the poor, of welcoming the outcasts, of healing the hurts of the world and trying to prevent further hurts. We can disagree about exactly what the Jesus way means for our politics and social arrangements, but someone would be hard pressed to say that the Jesus way has nothing to do with the larger social world.
In his rich and thought-provoking book about Jesus, The Human Being, theologian and biblical scholar Walter Wink writes: My deepest interest in encountering Jesus is not to confirm my own prejudices… but to be delivered from a stunted soul, a limited mind, and an unjust social order (16).
My friend who wrote about my disinterest in Jesus and faith in Jesus is wrong about me. I am pretty wild about this Jesus.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who delivers me from a stunted soul, from the power of darkness.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who delivers me from a limited mind, and who is always teaching me about this God who is pure, unbounded love.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who teaches me about goodness, who enriches my understanding of being good, and how being good means also being gracious.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who offers my life space and grace and forgiveness.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who takes all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – and fixes and fits them together in vibrant harmonies. Some of those broken pieces are the broken pieces of my own life.
Ø I am pretty wild about this Jesus who seeks to guide my feet in the way of peace, justice, reconciliation and love.
I am pretty wild about this Jesus who, and I invite you to be wild about this Jesus who too. Amen.