Let’s Talk About Jesus

Emerging Christian Story – Lenten Sermon #4 – March 14, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens  –  North Riverdale Lutheran Church  –  Dayton, Ohio

“Let’s Talk About Jesus”

Each Wednesday I have begun somewhat the same. I’m beginning to feel a little like a broken record.  I have started by saying, “Wow, the concept of God is big!”  Or, “Wow, the topic of the Bible is huge!”

Now Jesus!  How do I possibly cover Jesus in one sermon and say all that I would like to say, especially how it relates to the Emerging Christian Story.

I think you all know that I like to read.  When Chris sees me reading she will often ask, “What are you reading?”  I will share the book title and she will say something like, “Another book on Jesus; how many can there be?”

Well, there are lots!  There are more books written on Jesus than any other historical figure!  There are thousands upon thousands of books written about Jesus.  I’ve only read maybe one hundred directly on Jesus, and hundreds more that are in some way related to Jesus.  That doesn’t make me an expert, or a Jesus scholar, but I can say that I have read a lot about Jesus and hopefully have retained about 25% of what I’ve read.

So who was Jesus and why was he, and is he, important in our life of discipleship?  Let’s begin by offering a short survey of the life and teachings of this historical figure.

Jesus was born a Galilean Jew around the year 4 BCE, and executed by the Romans around the year 30 AD. So Jesus was Jewish and grew up in Nazareth.  Nazareth was a peasant village in Galilee, and Galilee was located in the Northern part of the Jewish homeland.  The Jewish homeland being under the control of the Roman Empire. So Jesus lived under Roman occupation.

That’s about all we know about his life until he reaches adulthood unless you include the story of Jesus around age 12 going to the Temple for the rite of purification.

Somewhere about his twenties, he left Nazareth and became a follower of John the Baptist, a wilderness prophet, who proclaimed a message about the coming judgment of God.  When Herod had John arrested and imprisoned, Jesus began his own public ministry.

Jesus taught and attracted a following.  When we study where Jesus taught we conclude that he taught to the peasant class.  The wealthy and powerful elite lived mostly in the big cities and Jesus taught (as far as we understand) in the rural villages, small towns, and hamlets, among agricultural workers and manual labors.

He taught in parables and aphorisms and prophetic actions.  As all great teachers he was a gifted storyteller and often created short sayings and poignant memorable stories.

It was remembered by his followers that he often associated with marginalized people, a group often referred to and put under the umbrella term “tax collectors and sinners.”  His critics were pretty harsh about whom Jesus hung out with.  Obviously his critics thought he hung out with the wrong people.

He was known, and also, criticized for his inclusive meal practice.  In his culture, whom one ate with, was a sign of whom one accepted.  And Jesus ate with those that were commonly understood as outcast and untouchables and “tax collectors and sinners.”

When Jesus taught the core of his message was about the Kingdom of God.  Mark’s gospel is the first gospel written and he sets the tone for the other gospels.  And in his gospel the first thing Jesus announces is the coming Kingdom of God.

As Jesus teaches about God’s kingdom, it is not about life after death.  It concerns life right here on earth, just as Jesus’ great prayer teaches: Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Your kingdom come on earth.

Marcus Borg and other New Testament scholars talk about the Kingdom of God like this:  “The Kingdom of God is about what life on earth would be like if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world were not.”  It is a world where there’s justice and peace.  Justice meaning where everybody has enough, like enough bread; and peace meaning no more war.

Jesus was all about the here and now.  He didn’t teach, “We must just accept the way things are and in heaven all will be better.”  Jesus taught that life is to be lived, here and now, and thus sought to empower those who heard him to change the way things are.

When he did finally take his message from the villages and hamlets to the big city of Jerusalem, he knew he was walking into the center of Jewish and Roman power.

As I mentioned this past Sunday, it was there that he acted boldly and prophetically as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a war horse and overturned the tables in the temple, indicting the Temple for having made the Temple a den of robbers.

He challenged the Jewish authorities in verbal sparring and prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed.  It came as no surprise to Jesus that he was arrested and crucified.  Crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment, reserved for those who challenged Roman authority.

This is just a concise summary of the life, actions and teachings of Jesus.

But what did those that followed Jesus, find in this life of Jesus?  They found essentially the same person that I have found and that I believe you have found.

In the Christian faith we have come to express this with words something like this. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  Meaning Jesus in the one that has most clearly revealed God to us. When we want to know about God, we look to Jesus because through his life and teachings we believe that we can get the clearest understanding of who and what God is about.

Abraham and Sarah began to help us to know God.

Moses gave us a pretty good picture of God.

The prophets sure helped us see and know God more clearly.

As we talked about the Bible last week, we discovered that the various authors and books of the Bible help us to see and understand God.  But as followers of Jesus, we believe, at least I do, that Jesus was the best revelation of God.

As God’s children, created in the image of God and beloved by God, when we need direction and understanding about ourselves and the world, we go to the Source of Life.  We know that Source as God.  We name that Source as God.  Jesus is the one that best and most deeply reveals God to those that seek.

I believe that Jesus is our best way to understand God.  I believe that because I have found no one better to help me with the deep existential questions of life:  Who am I?  Why am I here? What does life mean?  What is my purpose?  Why was I created?  What is the meaning of my existence?

As I said in my sermon this past Sunday, if you want to know the character of God, the will of God, the passions of God, then the best place to look is at the life and teachings of Jesus.

There’s a reason that Jesus divided world history into BC and AD. There’s a reason he’s remembered to this day.  There’s a reason that billions of people still follow him.  What do you think that reason is?  Why did Christianity survive and not disappear after his death?

There are numerous reasons from cultural to sociological to political that can be offered, and they are relevant to the answer.  But Christianity, as a living religious faith, has survived because Jesus connected people to the Source of Life in such a powerful and poignant way that those that listened and followed found Life and Life abundant.

God is Life and we were created in the image of Life and Jesus revealed and disclosed that Life to us, as no one had ever done before.

In revealing Life he taught us the meaning of Life.

In revealing Life he taught us the very essence of Life.

In letting Life shine through his life, we now have a glimpse of how God wanted us to live our lives.  Jesus shared God’s hopes and dreams for the world.  Jesus shared God’s hopes and dreams for humanity.  Jesus shared God’s hopes and dreams for what life is about.

The Emerging Christian Story is all about getting back to seeing and understanding Jesus as the revealer of Life. The Emerging Christian Story is all about getting back to the Jesus before he got so caught up in and captured by doctrine and dogma. The Emerging Christian Story is all about discovering the Jesus that one can build a life around.  The Emerging Christian Story is all about learning the radical message of Jesus that too often has been domesticated and acculturated.

Unfortunately, we have misunderstood what the writers of the gospels were up to when they talked of Jesus doing miracles and signs of wonder.

We’ll get to how the Emergent Church understand miracles and signs of wonder in the year to come, but I can tell you that those that have left the church will point out that they just can’t believe that Jesus did all that stuff, and I often will tell them “you don’t have to.”  Did you ever hear Jesus require of anyone that they have to believe in those signs and wonders?  Even our historic creeds don’t express a need to believe in any miraculous signs of Jesus.

I bring this up because it has become a barrier to people following Jesus and I think that would upset Jesus.  Jesus wanted to connect people to the Divine, not have people believe that he could turn water into wine.

My thesis this year is that our churches are in decline because the predominant Christian Story is no longer relevant, believable, or enticing to live one’s life by.  If the predominant Christian Story offers a Jesus whose purpose is just to believe in him so your sins are forgiven, and you get a ticket into heaven, and the compelling argument that Jesus is real is because he could break the laws of nature, then there is a growing number of people who do not follow the logic nor the persuasiveness of that Jesus.

If that is what Christianity is and what Jesus is, then we can find others things to do on Sunday morning and look for better answers to life’s deepest questions.  Just like you can have a god that is too small, you can have a Jesus that is too small and a Christianity that is too small in scope.  That’s what I think is at the heart of the decline in Christianity.

The radical revelation of Jesus has been reduced down to something too small, like the phrase: Jesus died for my sins.

The Emerging Christian Story is about discovering and allowing the radical Jesus to have a claim on your life, and an invitation to follow Jesus as he follows God’s claim on his life.

Like I’ve said before, the people that have left the church have not given up on the Divine.  And I believe that Jesus is the one who has best revealed and disclosed that path to the Divine.  We understand this because we use language in the church that expresses this:  Jesus is my model.  Jesus in my example.  I follow Jesus.

But to follow, we have to get Jesus right.  If not, we are following the Jesus we have created.  Just like there are many faulty images of God there are faulty images and understandings of Jesus.  Another way for me to express this personally, would be like this: if I am going to give my life to the Jesus that God called his beloved; give my life to God’s Chosen One (and that’s what Messiah means, God’s appointed One), then I want to make sure I’m following the real and true Jesus of Nazareth.

The Jesus of Nazareth that was so radical that the religious establishment tried to discredit him.  The Romans decided to crucify him.  Sinners and tax collectors loved him. And his followers called him Lord and Savior, and death could not keep him, nor his message, down for long.

That’s why I read so many books about Jesus, because I want to make sure that if I’m going to live my life for him and to him, I want to make sure I have the right “him.”  If I am going to order my life around him and set up an ethical structure from his teachings, I want to make sure I understand what Jesus really taught and wanted us to do.

Now this gets pretty complicated because, already by the end of the first century, there are multiple understandings of Jesus.  If you read each of the four gospels – as gospels written by four different authors – and don’t harmonized them into one gospel story, you will discover four different understandings of Jesus.  Some things are slight; some things are rather dramatic.  That’s why for the past two hundred years there has been what is called the “search for the historical Jesus.”  In easier-to-understand language, the search for the real Jesus.

Once the disciples and the first followers started to interpret Jesus’ life, their own understanding of Jesus began to creep in. All four gospels are interpretations of Jesus’ life.  Paul interpreted Jesus life.  The early church interpreted Jesus’ life and in the 4th century tried to capture their basic beliefs of his life in the creeds.

The Roman Catholic Church has interpreted Jesus’ life and shared their interpretation of his life.  Martin Luther interpreted Jesus’ life and shared his interpretation during the Reformation.

You have interpreted Jesus’ life.  The predominant culture has an interpretation of Jesus life.  The Emerging Christian Story is in the process of offering an interpretation of Jesus life.

As a Lutheran, all I can say is, it’s a good thing we are saved by grace and not a perfect interpretation of Jesus’ life.  But that does not mean that we don’t try our best to understand just who Jesus was and what he was about, because Jesus gives us the best and clearest window onto the Divine.

And we don’t shy away from biblical scholarship because these scholars help us to discover Jesus, as the revealer of God, in new and fresh ways!  I believe that the vast majority of those that no longer find Jesus convincing or believable  do not yet know the Jesus that first said “follow me.”

Let me conclude by asking the question that Philip Gulley raises in his book, “If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus.”  Is it more important to believe in Jesus or follow in the way of Jesus?

The predominant Christian Story often gives the answer that believing in Jesus, or worshipping Jesus is more important.  Or to put it another way, Christianity is often seen as more about having Jesus being an object of worship rather than a model for living.

If Jesus walked into most worship services today and found people singing praises to him, I think he might say, “That’s nice, but it’s not about me.”

During his lifetime Jesus deflected attention from himself.  In the gospel selection I read for tonight, a man addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.”  Jesus responded with, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Notice where Jesus directs the man’s attention.  It is to follow him, not lift him up and call him good.

Jesus was extending an invitation to this man – and to us – to consider living life according to the priorities and passions of God, as he had been teaching and sharing those passions and priorities as he walked from village to village.

God is good.  God’s ways are good.  “Follow me,” Jesus said, and I will show you and teach you God’s ways.

The invitation of the Emerging Christian Story will be an invitation to look at the way of life that Jesus offered in a fresh way, and consider if it is a life worthy to follow.  For me, I already know it is, because I have already experienced the abundant Life that comes from following Jesus.

I end with Jesus’ invitation to Life: “Follow me!”