March 10, 2019
Luke 9: 18-22
Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist,’ but others, ‘Elijah,’ and still others, ‘that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah of God.’
He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
“Who was Jesus?” or you might ask “Who is Jesus?” The first question relates to the historical Jesus, the man who taught and healed the crowds, and died on a cross alongside other Jews who were convicted of a crime, or considered a threat to the powers that be.
The second refers to “the Christ” who appeared to his disciples after the Easter event, and to Paul, a Pharisee who encountered Jesus on a road to Damascus while persecuting his followers; and to all of those whose lives have been changed by encountering Jesus through scripture, tradition, or even experience.
Scholars, theologians, clergy, and ordinary folks, have been debating these questions since first century Jews encountered him on the banks of the sea or in Galilee or on the road to Jerusalem. One thing we do know: over 2,000 years later, he continues to be a major influence in the lives of people across the planet. There are not many you can say that about. Who do you think he was, or is? That is the question we will be discussing in the parlor after listening to some progressive Jesus scholars.
As we hear in this story, even those with firsthand experience had differing opinions. Even John the Baptist, when he heard what Jesus was doing, sent word from his prison cell by his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” and “Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11: 2-6) In other words, does this look like a Messiah to you, John?
Pilate asks Jesus at his trial, “Are you the King of the Jews?” His only answer was “You say so.” (Mark 15: 2-5)
Peter had no doubts. You are “The Messiah of God.” This story appears in all three synoptic gospels, which says to me it was an important statement for those gospel writers. But what attributes were they attributing to a Messiah, ones they recognized in Jesus. In her book The Misunderstood Jew, Amy Jill Levine, an orthodox Jewish Jesus scholar, writes that “Not all Jews in the first century - or ever - have believed that a messiah was coming. Neither were there general agreements upon messianic attributes.”
One point of agreement shared by those Jews who had messianic expectations, was that he would inaugurate a messianic age, or ‘world to come.’ Scholars today argue whether that world was to be here on earth in some future time, or at the end of time as we know it. In Luke 4, as Jesus taught in the synagogue, he cites Isaiah in describing this age to come, one that he was sent to usher in:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the
and recovery of sight to the blind.
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Jews of that time believed a messianic age would witness a general resurrection of the dead. “Because Jesus’ followers believed him to be the Messiah, they saw in his mission and message the inauguration of the messianic age. They reasoned, quite logically given the Jewish presupposition, that if Jesus were the messiah, then death could not hold him; if Jesus were the Messiah, the dead would rise.”
Levine tells us, “This messianic speculation was as diverse as the Jews’ theology and practice. Some expected a messianic king, others a priest, others an arch-angel or heavenly figure…Some yearned for the removal of the Roman presence from Judea and Galilee…still others looked forward primarily to the end of poverty, disease and death. There was no single view of a messiah other than the sense that his coming would manifestly change the world.”
With these expectations, it’s easy to see how Jesus’ followers could see, in his teachings and actions, the one for whom they had been waiting, the messiah. Those who walked alongside Jesus answered the question: “Who was Jesus?” from their own experience and what they had heard from others. For decades, those experiences and opinions were passed down to future generations through an oral tradition. If you’ve ever started reminiscing at a family gathering about events in your past, you know how differing memories emerge about the details of what actually happened: who was there, what they said, what they meant by what they said.
By the time the stories about Jesus were written down, somewhere between 60 CE and the end of the first century, a number of gospels emerged depicting Jesus in various ways, influenced by the writers’ political and theological agendas, and who they were writing for. That’s why the four gospels who made it into the canon (there were many others), don’t always agree in the chronology and details of events, and their opinion of who Jesus was.
There are over 100 titles and descriptions of Jesus in the scriptures, but the “Son of God” language became one of the most dominate metaphors. Throughout the history of Israel all sorts of people were referred to as “sons of God.” It’s a metaphor that spoke to the intimacy of their relationship to God, or the divine. But in the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, which are not historical accounts, the relationship of Jesus to God became biological and led to the claims of divinity in John and the creeds of the early church.
Theologians then had to come up with the concept of the Trinity to explain how the claimed divinity of Jesus and monotheism could co-exist. And that lead to many more debates among future theologians. Jesus most frequently referred to himself as “Son of Man”, which simply means human being, or mortal. He calls himself a prophet when his neighbors took offense at him, not understanding how such wisdom and healing powers could come out of a carpenter. The scribes and Pharisees, and some of his followers, address him as “teacher” or “rabbi.” Others called him Lord or Master.
The writer of John fills his gospel with “I am” metaphors for Jesus: The Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Word, the Door, the Way, and the True Vine. Mainline scholars do not believe Jesus walked around proclaiming “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
He didn’t talk this way in the synoptic gospels. This is the writer’s theology. In the years and decades after Easter, this is the voice of the community affirming that they had found in Jesus the light in the darkness, the way that has led them from death to life.
For those who no longer experienced Jesus in the flesh, they came to know him through these writings. All 27 books of the New Testament were written before 120 CE, but were not formalized into a canon until the 2nd Council of Trullan in 692. This was after much debate. You can only imagine.
Christians, we know, had differing opinions about who Jesus was from the very beginning, and this became more and more of a problem for the church, so the Roman Emperor Constantine called together the bishops for the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Disagreements had arisen from the Church in Alexandria over the true nature of the Son in his relationship to the Father: in particular, whether the Son had been ‘begotten’ by the Father from his own being, and therefore having no beginning or else created out of nothing and therefore having a beginning.” The first idea won.
A uniform Christian doctrine was written, known as the Nicene Creed, and all but two bishops signed it. They were banished to Illyria. Through this creed and subsequent councils, “Who was Jesus?”, what you were to believe about him, was defined for Christians by the Church. You were told what to believe. Reason and experience had nothing to do with it. Even scripture took a back seat to the tradition of the church. That is, until Luther’s Reformation, when scripture for Protestants took precedence.
Many creeds have been written since the Nicene Creed, including what the UCC calls a non-binding Statement of Faith. We read it this morning in the form of a Doxology. In the UCC we do not have doctrine in which we are required to believe. We are challenged to determine for ourselves who Jesus was, and is, for us today. We do this through the scriptures, tradition, experience and reason.
During the age of Enlightenment, reason began to play a major part in how mainline scholars, and some of us ordinary folks, came to understand Jesus. The early image of Jesus we find in the Nicene Creed and other doctrines - that he was the only Son of God, born of a virgin, died for our sins, rose physically from the dead, is the only way to salvation - became an impediment to being a Christian. It no longer made sense to many of our rational minds. We needed new ways of thinking about Jesus. Groups of progressive Jesus scholars like those in the Jesus Seminar, have opened up new ways of thinking.
Each of us, coming from different backgrounds, raised in different denominations, will have different beliefs about who Jesus was, and is for us today. My beliefs have changed drastically since my Catholic upbringing. I wouldn’t presume to tell someone they have to believe in a certain way. Many churches do. But I will encourage you to look back at what you were raised to believe, and now, as an adult, explore who Jesus was: through the lens of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.
We all don’t have to believe the same. Marcus Borg, a progressive Jesus scholar, and N.T. Wright, a conservative one, wrote a book called “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions,” where they debate who Jesus was. They came to different conclusions, and they remained good friends.
One thing I think we all can agree on, comes from the writings of Borg: “Jesus is, for us Christians, the decisive revelation of what a life full of God radically looks like - one radically centered in God and full of the Spirit.”
Next week I will explore who the historical Jesus was as revealed to us in the scriptures. Was he a spirit person and healer, a teacher of alternative wisdom, a social prophet, the son of God, or all of the above?