(Sermon 3 Sep 23)
Precis – How to make sense of Jesus as both God and man; and seeing the human uncertainty in his mission.
I recently realised that I’ve been hammering the theme of ‘love as the fundamental criteria in the universe’ for ten years now – since the very first time Kate first had me preaching here; and it’s about the same time that I started concentrating on the actual words and actions of Jesus rather than on what people said or concluded ABOUT him. If you look at what Jesus actually SAYS his main three themes are love of God & man, the imminence of the Kingdom of God & what it means and a word which we translate as repentance but which actually means ‘change of mind’ or ‘change of heart’. It is all summed up in his twinning of ‘love the Lord your God’, something that to all Jews would have been obvious, with Rabbi Hillel’s dominant theme of first century Pharisaic Judaism of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – which both nails his colours to the mast and reveals the full significance of what we call the Great Commandment: that the man who we believe shows us the nature of God put love as THE core of everything God does. It was also around that time ten years ago that I myself started applying the theme of God’s love to the modern, scientific understanding of world we live in and came up with the model that has a Creator God outside time beginning a process 13.7 billion years ago with a Big Bang and a mechanism called evolution in the hope, dream, aspiration, plan (and if you are outside time these things all mean the same) that sentient species would evolve that were capable of loving each other SOMEWHERE in the universe.
So you might expect me to concentrate on the reading from Romans today. After all it’s one of the very few passages from Paul’s collection of letters which concentrates on love. We don’t know why Paul paid so little attention to the central core of Jesus’ message. May be it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be written about. Possibly Paul was so interested in what Jesus represented for him that he skated over what Jesus actually said. May be Paul was part of that minority element of Pharisaic thought who saw living by the law as important rather than living by love, and so led him to cast his thoughts in terms of law and failing the law, which is what the word ‘sin’ actually means in the Greek? We just don’t know; but anyway I’ve hammered the point of love so often that I’ve started to become a one trick pony; and Kevin, Jayne & Carol have all developed the theme of love extensively over recent months, so I’m going to pick up on something else.
Here’s a quick recap on stuff I’ve mentioned before: early Jewish Christians used the phrase ‘Son of God’ in the same way that mainstream Jews talked about King David – as someone extra special to God. In Jesus’ case it was arguably ‘as a son is to the father’. We then see Paul, John & others starting to play with the idea of Jesus as the Logos of God (which we translate as Word of God) or God’s agent on earth. After two hundred years Tertullian started describing Jesus as one of the three faces or masks of God – an idea bases on Greek plays where the actor takes his part by holding up a mask; and after 300 years those subtleties are lost when the idea is modified further into the model of God the Father, God the Son & God the Holy Spirit at the Council of Nicaea. The trouble is that this model didn’t sort out one of the key questions in the early church: was Jesus a man or was he God. So after four hundred years, the Emperor Marcian, ruling the eastern half of the Roman empire pulled together the Council of Calcedon in 451AD; and IT came up with the fudge that Jesus was both man AND God.
Through much of Christian history we’ve talked about Jesus as an omniscient, all knowing, omnipotent, all powerful but choosing not to use his power. The trouble with that idea is that that’s not humanity. Real people live with uncertainty, fear & doubt and they don’t allow themselves to be beaten, tortured & killed just to act a part in a prophesy. In fact if Jesus was just acting and could float down from a cross at any time it would make a mockery of all that we believe; and if we are honest a lot of what we heard in the interregnum came suspiciously close to this idea of God walking around on earth.
Here though is a reading of the last two years of Jesus’ life and his mission in very human terms. It is one that might help us understand his life in a way that seem less of a caricature and it’s one that might helps us when talking to people outside ‘the bubble’ of church. As to which of these two ways of thinking about the living Jesus is correct, well if I get to the pearly gates and find that I picked the wrong one of two then I’ll have to shrug and say that it won’t be the first time.
Here goes: if we regard Jesus as the man Chalcedon declares him to be; and at his death & resurrection he is subsumed/absorbed into the presence of a God outside time; then Jesus is part of God at the beginning, at the end and for all time. Which of course means that Jesus IS both man and God during his life on earth.
In the context of the last two years of Jesus’ life, and starting with the gospel that best gives us nitty gritty detail and a plausible chronology (John’s), Jesus follows his baptism by kicking off his mission as a fire breathing preacher, overturning the money lender’s tables in the Temple. Switching to the other prime gospel – Peter’s memories as recorded by Mark, though, according to Papias, in the wrong order – we see Jesus retreating to the wilderness to rethink his campaign. He comes out with one of love and healing which he starts in up Galilee. After a bit, sure he’s creating waves, but nothing cataclysmic; so we see Jesus sending out the Twelve to ‘up the ante’ and get the ‘ball rolling’; and when THAT doesn’t work Luke, and only Luke, tells us that Jesus tries yet again with the SEVENTY. Finally, we see Jesus resorting to the last card ‘he has up his sleeve’ in Matthew today: the one that’s going to hurt and the one he REALLY didn’t want to use – a confrontation in Jerusalem where he saw himself in terms of Isiah’s suffering servant and where his death was going to spark the big finale. Then FINALLY FINALLY we Jesus on the cross crying out in desperation “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”: “what’s happened(?); I’ve taken the beating and the crucifixion, so where ARE the angels(?); where is the Seventh Cavalry; and where is the Kingdom of God? He’s played his last card, dying in the agony just like those other men around him. Nothing has happened and there IS no big finale. The human Jesus is saying ‘why have I gone through all this if it’s all for nothing’. His life seems wasted and he’s dying a failure.
Except that it’s not. The despairing ‘human’ Jesus passes through the very depths of agony & misery, as is the lot of many men & women before him and many since, and in his absorption into the presence of God he becomes aware that he has validated the presence of love as the prime reason for Creation. Rabbi Hillel was right. Love IS the beginning and the end. Our part in his mission of bringing about the Kingdom of God? The same as it has always been – making God’s Dream come true.