Monday, December 08, 2014

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Jesus at 12 in the Temple by Bénèdite de la Roncière
 See more at: JesusMAFA
Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to the Christian Fellowship here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.

In many ways each Sunday in a Unitarian Universalist church is an interfaith service, and like all interfaith services it is important to consider the words and symbols used so as to make the service as accessible to as many as possible.

I’ve often said that religions are like languages.  You can convey most things in most languages, but friends who speak more than one language tell me that there are certain things that you can really only say in French, for instance, or that you really have to speak Russian in order to fully comprehend a certain idea.  I have become quite comfortable in my adopted language of Unitarian Universalist, and I have a fair proficiency in Buddhist, but my native tongue is Christian.
This morning I want to hang the sermon on four passages from the Christian scriptures.  There is a story told in the Gospel of Mark:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do the people say that I am?’  And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’  And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
And, you know, this question kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?  It’s a very human question, isn’t it? 

Have you ever been introduced to someone and had them say, “Oh … I’ve heard a lot about you.”?  When that happens to me I usually say something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” or something like that, but don’t you wonder what they’ve heard?  I know that 12 Steppers have a saying – your opinion of me is none of my business – but you kind of want to know, don’t you?  So Jesus asks, “Who do the people say that I am?”
I imagine them walking as they’re talking – Jesus up in front with long, powerful strides, the others half running to keep up.  But after his friends tell him about other people’s opinions of him I imagine Jesus stopping – the disciples nearly bumping into him and each other.  He looks at them, hard, and then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

And that’s really the crux of things, isn’t it?  The heart of this whole Jesus thing, right?  Who do I – who do you – say this Jesus – Yeshua ben Miriam – who do we say that he is?  Because more so than any other religion I know of, the language of Christianity is the language of relationship.  Who do you say that I am?  It’s not an academic question; it’s a relational one.

Marcus Borg, beloved scholar, says that to be Christian we must “take seriously what Jesus took seriously.”  He seems to be suggesting that – well, no, actually, he doesn’t “seem to be suggesting,” he’s outright saying it – that creeds and theological constructs really aren’t all that important.  What matters really isn’t what you believe about Jesus, it is – and here we are again – the relationship you have.  Do you care about the things he cared about?  Do you look at the world in the same way?  Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction."
And apparently this is what God thinks, too.  At the dramatic height of the story of the Transfiguration, told in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples see a vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, and they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”  Note that the voice does not say, “Bow down and worship him,” but, simply, “Listen to him.”  Pay attention.  Take seriously what he’s taking seriously, because these are the things I take seriously too. 
In the Gospel of Luke there’s a passage that I think points us toward what those things are:
“When the crowds learned [where Jesus was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing”
Four points (and I’m going to quote from Teacher, Guide, Companion for a bit.):
First, crowds of people followed him.  Something about Jesus—what he did, what he taught, who he was—drew people to him. The Gospels consistently tell us that people would not let Jesus alone; crowds followed him everywhere he went, seeking to be in his presence.  
Second, Jesus welcomed these crowds.  He welcomed not only the stereotypically “holy” or “righteous,” but anyone who came to him.  Each Gospel makes a pretty big deal of Jesus eating with “sinners,” “tax collectors,” and others that his society considered “unclean.”  Yet you might be particularly struck when reading Luke by how often Jesus was said to have eaten with Pharisees and Scribes!  Everyone—anyone—who came to Jesus was welcomed; no one was turned away.
Third— … and [he] spoke to them of the kingdom of God, . .  Jesus tried to teach people what God’s rule, God’s empire (in Greek, basileia) was like.  Jesus—with his unconditional welcome—formed a community that strove to be a living model of God’s reign, God’s kingdom, the Beloved Community where a seat at the “heavenly banquet” was offered to anyone who came.  Which was markedly different than the empire of Caesar … the only empire anyone knew at the time.  And not to put too fine a point on it, this Kingdom of God is still different from the nations known today.]
The fourth, and final, element in Luke’s summation of Jesus’ ministry is that, “. . .[he] cured those who had need of healing.”  Jesus—in his lifetime—was known as a healer.  A lot of us have an acculturated skepticism about “faith healing” and may find this hard to accept, yet there really isn’t any way around it.  Those who knew him, and even Jesus himself, acknowledged that his role as a healer was central to his overall ministry. 
Yet, while not wanting to minimize at all the element of physical healing in Jesus’ ministry, we shouldn’t limit our understanding of his healing work to bodily cures.  In the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gutama, who was called the Buddha, was also known as “the Great Doctor” and his teachings were called “Medicine.”   In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, was known to heal the body, mind, and soul of any who needed healing.
So … that seems to be what Jesus took seriously.  Do we?  Do you?  I’d say that I try to, but I’ll confess that I don’t always come anywhere close.  I forget … a lot.  My teachers at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation would say that we are easily “kidnapped” by the cares of our lives and the confusions of our culture.  Those things that Jesus took seriously?  Not so readily apparent in the values of the world around us; not so heavily reinforced.  So I try … and I forget.  After writing and giving this sermon I’ll probably remember for a day or two.  How ‘bout you?

So I’ve touched now on three of the four scripture passages on which I’d said I’d hang this sermon.  And … in case you hadn’t noticed … I’ve neatly managed to avoid answering directly the question Jesus posed to his friends along the road to Caesarea Philippi – who do I say that he is?  What is my relationship with this first century Rabi?

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth – and, apparently, most Biblical scholars do think this is actually one of Paul’s (or, maybe, two of Paul’s. but that’s a discussion for another time) – in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says of Jesus, “all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in him.”  Isn’t that cool?  All God’s promises find their “yes” in this man, Jesus.  Yeshua.  We might say that he is a living, breathing embodiment of God.  Oh wait – that has been said.  That’s what’s meant by “incarnation.”

To me, Jesus is a model.  If you will, a teacher and a guide.  When John records him saying “I am the way and the truth and the light” I think of Mahatma Gandhi saying, “What is my message?  My life is my message.”  Jesus is the way.  The way of Jesus is the way.  (And that’s what the earliest Christians were known as – people of the way.)
And Jesus was not merely just and good; in Bishop Spong’s words, he was “God-intoxicated.”  Those who see Jesus as a fine moral example or as a gifted ethical teacher, yet who want to keep God out of the picture, miss a fundamental fact about this man.  Wherever he went, in everything he did—not only in his words but in the living of his life—Jesus “spoke . . . of God.” Stephen Patterson notes that the quest to know Jesus is the quest to know God; the two cannot be separated.  Jesus’ example points me toward God.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr – who, if you haven’t encountered yet you really should – made a point in something I was reading recently that really touched me.  He said that the important thing for us, today, about Jesus is not the assertion that Jesus was like God.  Rather, he said, the really important thing for us to realize is that God is like him.  So God welcomes all who come – an open and inviting welcome that does not concern itself with categories.  God cares about justice, especially for those who are most in need of it, the few that the many would ignore, the ones people often say don’t “deserve” it, aren’t “good enough.”  And God heals.  Cures your cancer?  Maybe not.  But offers a way toward wholeness?  Absolutely.  Remember –  health, wholeness, and holy all share the same root.

Yet I think there’s something more, too.  For me Jesus is not just a teacher and a guide, he’s a present companion, too.  I can’t quite explain it – and it may just be a kind of imaginative play – but when I am not caught up, not kidnapped, then I do sense a presence that is with me.  Not just a teacher then¸ but a teacher now.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t make sense, but honestly?  I don’t need it to.

Now … I’d like to open up the conversation so that you can share your answers, too … [That invitation was extended to the people in the room, but I'd extend it to anybody reading this.]

Pax tecum,


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Dave said...

Would love to have been there. Thanks, Erik

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the the article springs from the passage of scripture before the point where the object of the passage is revealed which unequivocally answers the question 'Who am I?' The point at which Jesus realizes that His Father has revealed truth to his follower Peter and Jesus institutes His Church.