Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Mark 8:27-38, and completed our series (for the moment) on what Christians believe and the Trinity.

One day Jesus and Satan were having an argument about who was better with technology. This was a continuing argument and God the father was tired of hearing all of the bickering and so decided to set up test. So Jesus and Satan sat at the keyboards and typed away. They created spreadsheets, they did HTML coding, they did research, they wrote Wikipedia entries about themselves, they did some genealogy reports, they did everything they could. But just a few minutes before the time limit was up, lightening flashed across the sky, the thunder rolled, the rains came down and of course the electricity went off.

Satan was furious. He fumed and fussed and he ranted and raved, all to no avail. The electricity stayed off. But after a bit, the rains stopped and the electricity came back on. Satan screamed, "I lost it all when the power went off. What am I going to do? What happened to Jesus' work?" Jesus just sat and smiled. Again Satan asked about the work that Jesus had done. As Jesus turned his computer back on the screen glowed, all his files reappeared, it was all there. "How did he do it?" Satan asked. And God said, "It’s easy, Jesus Saves.”

Today we continue and complete our three part look at the trinity. Two weeks ago we looked at the formulation of the trinity itself, and the complex notion that 1 plus 1 plus 1 does not in fact equal three, but instead equals one, and is ultimately one of the great mysteries of the faith. Last week we looked at who and what the Holy Spirit is as the third person of the trinity and what she does in our lives. And so we finish by looking at Jesus as the second person of the trinity by trying to answer the question that Jesus poses to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

As I begin each confirmation class that I teach I begin by asking what the most important thing is that distinguishes us as Christians, or more directly, what makes us Christians? But every time I ask this the youth never articulate the fact that we are followers of Christ. They nibble around the edges and talk about beliefs and practices, but never actually name Jesus. But Jesus is at the center of who we are because we believe that Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Christians are those who “call upon the name of the Lord.” (Rom 10:13, 1 Cor 1:2) This separates us from other religions.

Just compare this claim to that of Judaism and Islam, the two religions closest to us since we all claim descent from Abraham, but for them the Torah or the Quran are the decisive revelation of God. But while the Bible is obviously important, it is not the foundation of our faith, Jesus is the divine revelation of God for us. In 1 Corinthians Paul says “no one can lay a foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” Our foundation, our decisive revelation of God comes in a person, and that makes us uniquely different. In other language, Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith upon which everything else is built.

Indeed the entire reason that the Trinity as a concept was developed was because of our understanding of who Jesus is and how we are to reconcile that with our belief that there is only one God. In Deuteronomy we hear the Shema, the prayer that Jews pray three times a day, which says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” But after Jesus’ death and resurrection the disciples came to believe that they had encountered God in the person of Christ. But if there is only one God and if we are to only worship that God and we understand Jesus to be divine then how does that work?

Dr. Jerry Grey, a professor at St. Paul School of Theology, says that the trinity is the “way for Christians to explain the uniqueness of their revelation of God,” that God is three and God is one. It was this idea of the Trinity which led and guided the church in its understanding of God and of Jesus for more than 1200 years. But with the rise of the Enlightenment, people began to question whether the Trinity was rational or even if it was scriptural.

Thomas Jefferson, speaking for many, termed the idea of three in one the “incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic.” In response, the church began to downplay or ignore the idea of the Trinity all together. In addition, with individualism coming with the rise of the Enlightenment, the idea of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” of having a personal conversion experience, also became important but this tended to downgrade or diminish the other parts of the trinity to such a point that many people could not even say what the other parts did or why they were important.

Theologian Karl Rhaner said that with this de-emphasis on the Trinity that we became “almost mere monotheists,” paying lip service to the trinity in theory, but ignoring it in practice. “We must be willing to admit,” he said, “that should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” I think that the book The Shack does a pretty good job of highlighting this dilemma. Although I do have a couple of issues with the Trinitarian formulation that Paul Young represents in the book, regardless of what you might have heard there is nothing heretical in it and I would recommend it, but the main character says that he has always been okay with a relationship with Jesus but he could never get the other two parts. God the father could be this sort of scary God who punishes people, not someone we always want to know or have around, and the Holy Spirit was totally unknown, and so he sort of ignored them in his faith. He became a true monotheist in that Jesus was the only part. But the very very significant problem we run into when we deconstruct or ignore the trinity is answering the question of who Jesus is.

If Jesus is not a part of the godhead, of the three in one, then several things can happen. The first is that Jesus can be moved considerably down the scale of importance. Rather than being the divine revelation of God, instead he simply becomes an extraordinary man that we look up to, admire and follow the teachings of, but is really no different than others like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. There are churches that believe this, the Unitarians for example rejected the trinity and in doing so also rejected the divinity of Christ.

But, if Jesus is not divine, then what do we do with his teachings, do they hold any true significance for us 2000 years later? What about worship? How do we worship Jesus and not violate the first commandment? We certainly could not sing many of the songs that we will sing today. But more importantly, how do we understand the cross? Does it hold any meaning any longer? Even the resurrection must be questioned, because if Jesus wasn’t divine then he must have died again at some point. He becomes simply like Lazarus, or Jairus’ daughter, both people that Jesus brought back from the dead, but neither of them are alive today. People have claimed to have seen Elvis still walking around, but not Lazarus. But the earliest witnesses to Jesus rejected this understanding. They said that Jesus was more than just a man.

When the disciples saw Jesus walk on the water they say “You really are the son of God.” The Roman centurion watching the crucifixion says “surely this man was the son of God,” and when Thomas encounters the risen Christ, he bows at his feet and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” The very name Lord plays multiple roles in this proclamation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word commonly referred to as Yahweh, which is known as the tetragrammaton (YHWH), is used only to refer to the God that the Jewish people worshipped. When the scriptures were translated from Hebrew into Greek, this word was translated using the Greek word kyrios, which means Lord. Of the 6,823 times that the tetragrammaton appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, 6,156 of those times it is translated as kyrios, Lord.

Thus Lord was the term used exclusively to name God by Jewish people of the first century. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish people refused to call the Roman emperor kyrios, Lord, because it was used only for God. And yet that is the word that became commonplace amongst the earliest disciples. It was a clear proclamation of who Jesus was, that he was divine and would have clearly been understood by the earliest disciples. We still proclaim today that Jesus is Lord, and although it may have lost some of its significance for us today it is still a statement that is both a political, that our allegiance is with God not with the rulers of the world, and also theological, that Jesus is God.

So in looking at the earliest witness about who Jesus was the other alternative was that rather than denying the divinity of Christ and saying that he was only a man they instead proclaimed that he was not human, but was instead wholly divine. One of the earliest heresies in the church said that Jesus was the literal Son of God, that he was God, but not God in the flesh because he wasn’t in fact human, he only appeared to be human. This is known as docetism, and even though it is a heresy, it is still very prevalent today. But, like the alternative we just looked at this too causes significant problems.

If Jesus was not human then what purpose does he have for us? How can he bring salvation and reconciliation for our brokenness if he doesn’t understand what it means to be tempted? Indeed how do we understand his being led into the wilderness to be tempted if he was only just a divine being? How do we understand his cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” if he was only divine? What about when he cried, ate with people, or grew tired and irritable? People who take this position would say that he did these just to keep up appearances as it were, but that he didn’t really need to do any of these things, and that he never felt any of the emotions that we do they were only for show.

I think we might agree that just like Jesus being only human, that Jesus being only divine is also ultimately unsatisfying, and that it also does not match with the scriptural witness that we have. These two positions, and several others were the real problems that the early church ran into in trying to explain who Jesus was and they are the reason that there were so many arguments and councils in order to try and come to some conclusions. Now these might seem like sort of esoteric arguments, or trying to see how many angles we can fit on the head of a pin, but that is because we are so far removed from them. They were very important to forming the faith that we know, but really these arguments still continue in many different forms.

If you read the book or saw the movie The DaVinci Code then you’ve heard some of these arguments still being discussed in that the main character, Robert Langdon purports that the church pushed the idea that Jesus was divine in a conspiracy to cover up Jesus’ humanity, and in particular his marriage to Mary Magdalene. But in fact Dan Brown gets the points completely wrong. He is a great suspense writer, but he is a terrible historian and an even worse theologian. He claims that the non-canonical gospels, that is books written that purport to tell the story of Jesus that are not included in the Bible, portray an image of Jesus that is all about his humanity. That statement alone says that Brown has not read these gospels, because almost without exception rather than portraying Jesus as human they in fact portray him as fully divine and downplay or discard his humanity entirely.

Now what eventually became the orthodox position of the church was that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Like the trinity this becomes sort of a paradoxical position, but it was the one that the church agreed upon because of the arguments that were being made on both sides. It is in some ways the compromise position, but that is not to say that it is also not the right one, or the scriptural one. Instead it is position in which there is tension, but what we find is that this is true of a lot of Christianity, that there are two opposites that need to be held in tension, and if we go too far to one end then we begin to miss something.

Last week when we talked about the Holy Spirit we talked about combining the intellectual with the experiential, the head with the heart. These are positions that need to be held in tension with each other. When one position becomes dominant then things begin to go wrong. We see the same thing when we approach scripture. When we treat scripture as simply being metaphorical then we lose something, but when we treat everything as literal then we also lose something, instead we have to keep these poles in tension with each other, and then the same is true with Jesus. When we see him only as divine, then we lose meaning for us here, of why he existed and what he means for us as Christians, just as we do when we see him only as human and not divine. These are the paradoxes we have to deal with and keep in tension with each other. But all that being said, we return to the original question of answering Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?”

Bobby Jo Reed is a recovering drug addict who was also a prostitute working the streets of Kansas City. She kept trying to get clean and to get off the streets but every time she tried she kept falling back and ended up in the same spot. But then someone told her about God and about Jesus, and with the help of others began to move away from her old life and began a new way of living. As she was making this new journey her mother died and left her with an inheritance, and so Bobby Jo began thinking about her old life and her friends who she knew were still out there, and so she bought an old home and rehabbed into a place to help women like her get off the streets and begin a new life. Her home, called the Healing House, now has five locations in Kansas City serving 75 women and 30 men, offering them Christ and literally turning their lives around.

Every year at Christmas the people living at Healing House take up a collection amongst themselves and then go out and buy Christmas presents and then deliver them to those who are still living and working the streets, to tell them that they are loved and that there is hope because of Jesus Christ. One Christmas day while they were out delivering they stopped to get gas, and a police car pulled in behind them to see what was going on. One of the officers walked up to the window and then realized that he knew the driver and said, “hey didn’t you used to work the corner of” and then named her old grounds, and she said she did, and he said, “I thought you were dead.” And then he looked into the van and saw more faces, and said I remember you I thought you were dead to, and so it was for many of the people in the car and he had to call his partner over to show them that they were all still alive. But in fact they were dead to their old selves, they had died and been reborn in Jesus Christ.

The Christ that Bobby Jo Reed and the others encountered was not just some man who lived 2000 years ago, this was a risen and living presence in their lives. Someone who was making a difference for them in the here and the now. Someone who was offering them hope, someone who was offering them a new way of being, someone who was offering them abundant life, this was God present for them in their life. But this Christ was also someone who understood their struggles and their failures, their pain and their brokenness, their triumphs and their sorrows, who understood the cry of despair when they cried out from the depths of their misery, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He understood because he had been there to, and he could make a difference because he was fully human and fully divine. This was the Jesus who was offering them new life, a resurrection story, because he too had died and been resurrected and offered them and us the promise of salvation.

Theologian Alister McGrath says “the incarnation is the climax of Christian reflection upon the mystery of Christ – the recognition that Jesus Christ reveals God; that he represents God; that he speaks as God and for God; that he acts as God and for God; that he is God.” Or as the Gospel of John says, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, and the word became flesh and dwelled amongst us.

This week we enter into the season of lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday, as we begin to make our way to the cross and the despair of Good Friday and then to the celebration of Easter Morning. Paul says that what we as Christians do is to proclaim Christ, and him crucified, but in order to do that we must first answer for ourselves when Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am?” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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