Theology sermon #2— Ps. 2:1-11; Lk. 7:18-23; Phil. 2:5-11; Rev. 19:11-16
Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation – October 15, 2006
We have several Bible passages to read. While they are being read, I would like you to think about a word association – what comes to mind for you when you hear the word, “Christ”?
When I was thinking about this sermon, I remembered one of my favorite movies, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” from back when I was a teen-ager. This movie starred a young Paul Newman and a young Robert Redford as two loveable and smart-alecky outlaws who rob trains in the southwest. Finally the railroad company hires a superstar tracker to get the outlaws. They try to escape through endless mountains and gorges and canyons. They try all the tricks in the book and then some to get away. But they can’t shake the tracker. They make a fancy escape move, then look back in the distant hills and there he is. “Who is that guy?” Butch and Sundance cry time after time.
Who is that guy? That made me think of Jesus. Christians have gone to a lot of trouble to escape from the Jesus of the Gospels – and almost have made it. But he remains at the edge of the picture, always stalking those who have taken his name. “Who is that guy?” Indeed.
We can answer the question “who is that guy?” in line with the little boy during a Sunday morning children’s story. The story-teller has a stuffed animal. She asks, “does anyone know what this is?” And the little boy says, “it looks like a squirrel but I bet it’s Jesus.” “Who is that guy?” – a soft, cuddly friend.
Or we can answer the question more in line with much of Christian tradition. “Who is that guy?” He’s God incarnate. He’s the one whose perfect sacrifice saves us from sin – and who was without sin himself. He’s all powerful and mighty. That is, he’s anything but human and his actual life has little to do with how we answer this question of who he is.
One of my early classes at EMU ten years ago was on Jesus. I made a comment once about Jesus having to pee. Later, one of the students told me that that comment really shook him up – in fact opening his mind to a whole new way of thinking about Jesus. He said never before had he imagined that Jesus actually peed – and he realized that his Jesus wasn’t a human being at all.
I want to suggest a somewhat different answer. “Who is that guy?” A human being, just as human as we are, who lived among us and in that life showed us how God wants all human beings to live. For Christians, “that guy” should be our central guide for discerning our theological convictions. Our “Theology” has to do with our hierarchy of values, the things that matter the most to us, that are expressed in the way we live our lives. The convictions at the top of our hierarchy are the ones that reveal what our God is like. Christian theology, I believe, should identify its highest values in terms of Jesus’ way, the convictions Jesus had, Jesus’ hierarchy of values.
Often the doctrine of Jesus Christ – called Christology – is divided into two parts. First, the “person of Jesus Christ;” second, the “work of Jesus Christ.” The doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ focuses on his identity – “who is that guy?” His second name, “Christ,” is about his identity. Who is he? He is the Christ, the king, the messiah.
The doctrine of the work of Christ focuses on how Jesus brings salvation – “what did that guy do to reunite us with God?” His first name, “Jesus,” is about his work. This name “Jesus” (the Hebrew version is Joshua) means “God saves” or “God liberates.” Today I want to talk about the person of Jesus Christ, his identity.
When we repeat this name, “Christ,” we make a confession about Jesus’ identity, about who we think he is. However, we are not always that clear about what we mean. We may act as if this is just Jesus’ last name with no special meaning. Or, if asked, we may say that by “Christ” we mean something like Jesus is the Son of God (which is literally what “Christ” can mean) – by which we may actually mean Jesus is God, Jesus is divine. And when we think of Jesus as divine we may have in mind Jesus as perfect, sinless, all-powerful. And when we think of Jesus in this way, the term Jesus may actually disappear and be replaced with only “Christ.” And, often, in effect, the life of the person Jesus actually disappears. What matters are his perfection, his god-ness, his perfect sacrifice for sin that makes it possible for God to forgive our sins.
What happens then is what we could call the “Christological evasion of Jesus.” The Christological evasion of Jesus. By this, I mean the process where Christianity’s hierarchy of values ends up being very different from the hierarchy of values of Jesus. We have Christology but we don’t pay much attention to Jesus. Too many Christians have a “Christ” like the one who led the emperor Constantine’s armies into battle – and many, many more armies since then. Too often Christians have a focus on belief instead of a focus on following Jesus. Too often theology speaks of Jesus dying and receiving God’s wrath that we deserve – taking up his cross so we don’t have to (the opposite, of course, is what Jesus actually taught: he told us, indeed, to take up our cross and follow him – the cross of standing for a love that resists oppression and injustice).
This “Christological evasion of Jesus” is what we could call a “Christology from above” – focusing first on Jesus’ god-ness– that is, making doctrine and belief central, minimizing discipleship.
If we take our cues from the gospels themselves, and from Jesus himself, though we will be compelled to seek instead for a “Christology from below.” A christology from below will focus first on Jesus’ actual life and teaching.
With a christology from below, we will realize that Jesus being called “the Christ” is the conclusion his followers drew based on the quality of his life. It wasn’t Jesus’ perfection or his own insisting that he is God that showed him to be “the Christ.” It was his love and compassion, his entering into life with sinners, outcasts, the poor and oppressed, that established his identity – confirmed when God vindicated Jesus’ way of life by raising him from the dead.
I believe that for us to confess Jesus as Christ is a statement about our hierarchy of values. When we say, “you are the Christ,” we are not so much making a statement about Jesus being divine in the doctrinal sense. More so, we are making a statement about Jesus’ values standing at the top of our hierarchy of values.
The problem with much theology, it seems to me, is that it starts with a view of God and king as authoritarian and dominating. So when Jesus is called the Christ he is fit within that view of kings – all-mighty, perfect, aligned with wealthy and powerful human beings, the great judge and punisher.
In contrast, I want to suggest we should define Christ by looking first at Jesus’ life. Let’s let Jesus (the real Jesus of the gospels) determine our understanding of God. Instead of going from our preconception of kingly God to Jesus, instead go from Jesus to God.
This is Christology as if Jesus matters. We look at what his life was like, we confess that this life is what shows us what God is like. That is why I want to say that Jesus provides our way of orienting ourselves theologically in relation to everything. Nothing should be as high on our hierarchy as the way of Jesus. That is what is means to confess him as the Christ.
This problem of the Christological evasion of Jesus has bedeviled Christianity for most of its history. I will just mention a couple of important markers. In the year 325, the leaders of the church in the Roman Empire got together to write what became one of the definitive creeds in all of Christianity, the Creed of Nicea. This is part of what it says. “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father…; who for us men and our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered and the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens.”
With this statement of faith that still shapes Christian theology in powerful ways, what matters about Jesus Christ? He’s God, he was killed, and he rose. What doesn’t matter? What he actually said and did, who killed him and why.
Let me repeat the creed’s words: “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,…God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father…; who for us men and our salvation came down and was incarnate, becoming human. He suffered and the third day he rose and ascended into the heavens.”
Many centuries later, the Protestant Reformation split the Catholic Church into many parts; there was a theological revolution. But the Christological evasion of Jesus continued. One of the greatest Protestant theological statements was the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646, definitive for Presbyterians and very important for Congregationalists and Baptists.
This is part of what it says: “The Son of God, the 2nd person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon himself man’s nature…yet without sin….Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.”
Again, what matters most here? That he is “very and eternal God” and that he is “the only mediator between God and man” (that is, that he offers the necessary sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath). Nothing about what he did and said between his virgin birth and his death as a sinless sacrifice.
Well, let’s go back to a statement from an even more authoritative source than Nicea or Westminster – the Jesus of the Gospels. He did offer a kind of definition of what he meant by “Christ” or “messiah.” It’s found in Luke seven. John the Baptist wants to know – are you the one who is to come (that is, are you the Messiah)?
Jesus replies, yes I am the Messiah. Because this is what I am doing: healing people and bringing good news to the poor. These are what show us what God is like; these are the kingly values. The healings are certainly literal – Jesus did minister to people’s physical needs. However, I think the healings also operate on a metaphorical level. And the most basic metaphor is bringing sight to the blind.
The more I think about it, and the more I study the Bible, the more convinced I become that the heart of Jesus message is one of revelation, of making visible the true character of God and the true calling of human beings. We need sight to perceive God as merciful.
Go back to the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve violate God’s command and eat the fruit. What we often miss in the story, though, is that after this, God still comes into the Garden to hang out with them in the same way God always did. God does not turn against them – but they hide from God. They hide from God because they are afraid. They are blinded to God’s mercy – and the traumas of human history have followed from that blindness.
The Bible may be read as the story of God’s attempt to convince human beings that they don’t have to hide from God. God tries to help humans see that God offers mercy and healing, that God is worthy of our trust.
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first words when he begins his ministry are “The Kingdom of God is here, turn to God and believe the good news.” He brings sight – see this: the universe bends toward justice and mercy, God is not a punitive God to run away from. God is like the father of the Prodigal Son. The son comes back home hoping to apologize and grovel and be accepted back as a servant to his father. Before the son can even speak, the father runs out to meet him, embrace him, return him fully to the family. All it takes are eyes to see.
So when we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we want to see God as he sees God. We affirm that we want to stand for what he stands for. We affirm that we want our hierarchy of values (our theology) to be like his.
When we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we too want to embody radical love in our lives. That we too want to value and respect people who are vulnerable, exploited, and disrespected by the great ones in our world and in our churches.
When we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we too want to challenge the powers that be in our world. We want, like Jesus did, to resist the politics of domination. We want, like Jesus, to resist valuing wealth over workers, profits over nature, or possessions over friends.
When we confess Jesus as Christ, we affirm that we too want to order our communities so that the greatest are the servants. We want to reject imitating the kings of the nations in their authoritarian leadership.
Who is that guy? The one who stands with us as we stand for life. Amen.