Jesus said to the crowd, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-20
Imagine someone stopping you on the street with a microphone in hand and cameraman beside him to ask you this question: “Who is Jesus?” That’s what the producers of a video series on the Christian faith known as Alpha did to people on the streets of London. Here are some of the answers they heard:
–I have no idea.
–I actually don’t know if Jesus exists, but I believe in him.
–Jesus is the Son of God for the Christian faith.
–I think Jesus was a really cool dude who lived a long time ago, gave great advice, and
things snowballed from there.
–I don’t know–the Savior or something?
–I think he was a fellow who walked around with a bottle of wine in his pocket and, you know, switched it out for water a couple of times to convince people he had special powers.
–Jesus is my everything. He is someone I can relate to, and pray to.
–They say Jesus is the Son of God, but apparently we’re all God’s children, so what is so special about him?
Now imagine sitting around a table with a group of people–people that you’re coming to know and trust–and the question for discussion is: “Who is Jesus?” What would you say then? That’s what an Alpha course does: it creates an environment for people to consider foundational questions of the Christian faith.
Whenever we walk into a church service like this one, we’re invited to say together a lot of things about Jesus, as if we believed them to be true. We hear stories told about him. At times we pray to him. We recall his last meal in a ritual known as the Eucharist, and in so doing, we open ourselves to what those who handed this tradition down to us assure is his living presence among us. Maybe we’re here because we’ve had a sense of that presence ourselves.
But what is our answer–or the beginnings of an answer, or our answer now–to that most basic question: Who is Jesus? If we’ve been a Christian for a long time, how has our answer to that question changed? And where have we gone, or go, to get more information about him or opportunities to experience what others describe as his spiritual presence in their lives?
Rest assured that people have wondered about Jesus from the very beginning. In his lifetime, people around him kept asking: who is this guy? What manner of man is this? In the passages leading up to the one I just read, John the Baptist–Jesus’ cousin and the one who baptized him–is in prison, and he’s wondering who Jesus is. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to look for another?”
In a sermon preached two weeks ago, I answered the question by way of testimony. I spoke of who Jesus is to me, how I came to the Christian faith, and how my relationship with him and understanding of him has changed over the course of my life. That part of my story is reflective of the adage, Faith is more often caught than taught, which is to say, I came to faith as I saw it lived out in other people. Only later did I take the time to learn anything about this person, Jesus, that others had told me about.
Today I’d like to come at the question from the written witness about Jesus in the part of the Bible Christians call the New Testament. There are 27 documents in the New Testament, all short and probably written between A.D. 50 and 95. They include four books known as gospels, named for their presumed authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The gospels offer a great deal of information about Jesus, but they’re not biographies in the ways we might understand that genre. For they were written by people who had come to believe certain things about Jesus that they wanted to preserve for others who believed the same things and for others who might become followers of Jesus with them. The four accounts are by no means identical, but in their diversity, they are remarkably consistent in telling the narrative of the man Jesus. (Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why (Creed series) (Kindle Locations 395-400). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.)
From the New Testament record, then, this is what we know (with thanks to world religions scholar Huston Smith for this outline):
Jesus was born in Palestine during the reign of Herod the Great. He grew up in the town of Nazareth. He emerged as a public figure in his early 30s, rising up out of the movement begun by the John the Baptizer. He had a ministry of healing and teaching that lasted about three years, focused primarily in the region of Galilee, primarily focused on what he called “the Kingdom of God.” He made the fateful decision, however, to bring his message to Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power. There he openly challenged the religious leaders of his people, which did not sit well with them. He also aroused suspicions of the Roman authorities, and that led to his crucifixion, a form of death they reserved for insurrectionists and escaped slaves. Jesus died as a young man.
It’s impossible to understand Jesus without placing him in the tradition of the spiritual prophets of ancient Judaism. These were people who had a strong sense of a spiritual realm that informs and gives meaning to human existence. Jesus was exceptionally connected to and empowered by this spiritual realm, and he used his connection to heal people. As his disciple Peter said about him after his death, Jesus went about doing good. (Acts 10:38)
Jesus was an extraordinarily vivid teacher. “Jesus talks of camels that squeeze their humps through needles’ eyes,” writes Huston Smith. “His characters go around with timbers protruding from their eyes while they look for tiny specks in the eyes of others.” His teaching style was invitational. “Instead of telling people what to do or believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so, their behavior would change.”
Jesus’ core message is simple, summarized in a few, often-repeated phrases: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven” (in other words, if you’re still counting, you’ve missed the point). And the wonderfully evocative, consoling words we read today: “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
Most of the time Jesus told stories: of buried treasure, lost coins, and sowers in the field; of a good Samaritan (which would be like us telling a story today about a good gang leader), a man who had two sons. More than anything Jesus wanted people to believe two important facts of life: God’s overwhelming love for us and our need to accept that love and let it flow through us.
Jesus lived in such a way that people believed him when he spoke of God’s love, for he himself loved freely. He heart went out to all people, no matter if they were rich or poor, young or old, saint or sinner. He knew that everyone has a need to belong, and he encouraged those who had the means to invite the poor, the lame and the blind to their tables. He loved children, and he hated injustice for what it did to the most vulnerable people. He also hated hypocrisy, for what it did to the human soul. (This is a summary of Huston Smith’s description as found in The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).)
Jesus seemed to know that the journey into Jerusalem would end in his death. In fact, in the words of Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton, (and I’m reading now from Hamilton’s book, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why):
Jesus seemed to view his death as the only way to usher in the kingdom he taught about. On Thursday night of what we now call Holy Week, Jesus had one last meal with his disciples, redefining the meaning of the Jewish Passover Seder. He hoped that his disciples might thereafter share a meal of bread and wine as a means of remembering the events that were about to unfold. On Friday morning, at the urging of the religious authorities, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. Jesus was given a crown of thorns as the Roman soldiers mocked him and beat him. He was nailed to a cross, then lifted up to hang before the crowd. They watched as he was left to suffer. Yet in his death, Christians would come to see profound meaning: an act of divine suffering whose end was redemption for the human race. He was taken down from the cross and hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.
That should have been the end of the story.
But on Sunday morning, the heavy stone that sealed the entrance to the tomb had been tossed aside, and the tomb was found to be empty. Jesus appeared on that day to a couple of women, and to his disciples and a few others.
Over the next forty days, Jesus appeared again and again to his disciples in various places and ways. Finally Jesus bid the disciples farewell one last time and commanded, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
This is who Jesus was when he lived on this earth and what his first disciples believed about him. Their testimony has been handed down to us.
I want you to know these things about him, and more, all that helps us understand why our ancestors began to speak of him as the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, how they came to the extraordinary conclusion that in Jesus we see not only what it means to be fully human, but also that in him, we see God.
In the words of St. Paul:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Or from the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
Jesus’ teachings and the stories told about him are amazing. And yes, our forebears believed that he was, in fact, God. But if all the Church did was to teach about Jesus it wouldn’t explain the power associated with him name. As important as learning about Jesus is, it wouldn’t help us understand why he is revered as God if we also didn’t come to experience him, which enables us to believe in him in a way that changes how we live. There is a world of difference between knowing things about him and believing in him.
Believing in Jesus is not always easy. So if you struggle with your belief in Him, don’t imagine that you’re alone here. Or if you’ve already decided that you can’t believe in him, don’t imagine that somehow sets you apart from the rest of us. Doubt is a part of faith. In the end, our choices, that is to say, our spiritual practices, are what guide us when doubt sets in or our fervor wanes.
I’m here today to encourage you, no matter where you are on the path of faith, to consider taking one step further in your efforts to know Jesus, asking yourself what it might look like now for you to follow him. I happen believe that what our church teaches about Jesus and promises for us when we put our trust in him to be true. I have no doubt the world would be a better place for everyone who showed up in church on Sunday morning if they decided on Monday morning to go one step further in taking Jesus’ teachings to heart, committing to know him more deeply and doing our part to love others as he loves.
What does it look like to believe in Jesus? I think we catch glimpses of him, often through the lives of other people. For most of us faith is more often caught than taught. And we don’t recognize him at first; sometimes we don’t recognize him at all. But other times, somehow we hear him call our name. And in that moment, we feel his presence and love.
Believing in him is also like leaning into thin air, trusting that a rope will hold. It involves letting go. When I imagine what it will be like to die, I think of leaning back, letting go, and trusting that God will be there to catch me. Believing in Jesus now involves practicing, in small ways, leaning back and letting go as I live.
Believing in Jesus also involves accepting change. To believe in resurrection is to trust that we can have another chance, a fresh start. That’s what the passage from St. Paul we read today was trying to get at: Paul was writing on a really bad day, when everything that went wrong for him was his fault and he knew it. Have you ever had a day like that? I certainly have and on those days, it’s good know that in Jesus we can start again. More than that: to believe in Jesus is to trust that no matter how bad things get, no matter how stark the failure or disappointment or grief, God can raise new life in us, which gives us courage to face the greatest surrender and loss that awaits us all when we take our final breath.
So here is my invitation to you: Why not take some time this summer and read again, or for the first time, one or more of the four gospel accounts? If you’ve never read one through from beginning to end, I recommend you start with the Gospel of Mark, and read along with those of us who follow what’s called the daily lectionary. Or the Gospel of Luke. Hold off on the Gospel of John until you’ve read the other three–it was written later and has a different perspective that makes more sense once you have the other three under your belt.
More important, talk with one another. Ask each other, at dinner, over coffee, while taking a walk, “Who is Jesus?” Piece together all that you know about him and take time to fill in some of the missing pieces. If you’ve been a Christian for a while, ponder whether your understanding and experience of him has changed. If you’re going on an adventure and meeting new people, dare to ask them to tell you a bit of their faith story and share some of your own. Be open to the ways he might speak to you, be present for you, saying words that your soul most needs to hear, such as:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.