A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, March 21, 2004, Lent 4, One Great Hour of Sharing Sunday, dedicated to The Rev. Drs. Smith K. Smith and Johannes Christian in celebration for their ministries of grace, love, and power and always to the glory of God!

"Jesus: The One at the Heart of God"

(Part V of VIII in the sermon series, "The Heart of Christianity")

Joshua 5:9-12; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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At the heart of God is Jesus Christ. And at the heart of our Christian faith, Jesus Christ stands as our center and our Savior. When the author of Hebrews wrote, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever"(Hbs. 8:13), we have to wonder if he had unforeseen insight into the future which has eluded Jesus' followers? Clearly, we have only to look at the record of Christian understandings of Jesus to see how he has changed and continues to change in the eyes of his followers. Since our earliest days, Christians have been trying to understand, name, and describe Jesus and his place in our faith and history.

More books, more paintings, more plays and films have been written about Jesus than anyone else. No matter what the medium of the message, Jesus tends to be pictured however the beholder portrays him. In the past 100 years alone, writers have depicted Jesus as a political Liberal and a Conservative (And First Church would find such a delineation here as well!); a rationalist and an emotionalist; a feminist and a super Macho Man. Theater has portrayed him as Superstar and Clown. Film has rendered him as a homeless street person and a man wrapped in dreams about temptation. And now The Passion of the Christ characterizes Jesus as a pulverized super heroic victim of intense brutality, scourging and crucifixion.

Beginning in 1906 with Albert Schweitzer's critique of 19th Century writings on Jesus entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus, the last century saw thousands of publications about Jesus - each author claiming to have discovered his essence over and against the last. The spectrum of writings range from historians and theologians who question whether Jesus ever existed to those who say that raising any questions about Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection is blasphemous.

In 1986, Dr. Daniel Harrington illustrated the present problem in theological writings on Jesus. Harrington showed how seven different scholars created at least seven different images of Jesus in the span of a few years. Jesus was a political revolutionary (SGF Brandon, 1967), a magician (Morton Smith, 1978), a Galilean Charismatic (Geza Vermes, 1981, `84), a Galilean rabbi (Bruce Chilton, 1984), a proto-Pharisee (Harvey Falk, 1985), an Essene (Falk, 1985), and finally a prophet of the end of time (E.P. Sanders, 1985).

In addition to first-world white and male theological perspectives, feminist or womanist, Native American and African-American, and a host of Third World theologians have all portrayed Jesus as a Liberator in the midst of suffering poor and oppressed people, especially through the lenses of their own struggles for freedom and liberation. For example, in the 1977 book, Faces of Jesus, Latin American theologians present for the first time, 12 essays on the question "Who is Jesus in Latin America Today?" This fascinating collection of writings paints a portrait of Jesus very much different from the classic North American and European portraits which most of us have been trained to see and in which we find comfort for our journeys of faith. At the end of day, from the four corners of the earth, the question still remains:

Who is Jesus?

The problem of getting to the root of Jesus and who he is begins, not in the minds of scholars, but in the incongruity of the fourfold record of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

If you follow Jesus Christ's Gospel story vertically from birth to death, from resurrection to ascension in glory, you gain a picture of unity, harmony, and agreement. However, when you dig through the texts horizontally, side by side, word by word, disagreement rather than agreement strikes you most forcibly. In fact, by the middle of the second century A.D., pagan opponents like Celcius and Christian apologists like Justin, Marcion, and Tatian were clearly aware of discrepancies between the gospel texts. In Luke and Matthew for example the Lord's Prayer is different. The church's solution to dealing with the differences was to drop Luke's version from the liturgy and accept Matthew's as our prayer. There are two versions of the birth story (and in John's gospel a mystical story of beginning). The solution has been to merge the shepherds and the magi together at the manger rather than struggle for reconciliation in the texts.

In the end, we know that the story of Jesus which has been passed on to us is given by thinkers, but not memorizers of his words; by his disciples but not reciters of his sayings; and by people of faith, but not parrots of parables (Paraphrased by John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 1991, p. xxxi).

By putting all the Jewish texts (religious and historical), Christian texts (canonical and non-canonical) and pagan writings together we can somewhat form a picture of Jesus of Nazareth. We know he was born in the underbelly of the Roman Empire - one of the most vast empires our world has ever known. From his earliest days, he was outside the center of power and spoke from there to the people who were around him. Born in a barn (or perhaps a cave) used for animals in Bethlehem, he was raised in Nazareth of Galilee. We know almost nothing of his childhood. One historian records that when Jesus was about eight or nine years old, there were almost 1,000 Jews executed on crosses for subversion. Since Joseph was the only carpenter in the small village, one can imagine that Jesus assisted as a crossmaker and witnessed the torture and mass crucifixions of his people before his tenth birthday.

Around the age of 29-30, Jesus enters a "hamlet of lower Galilee" and begins his life among the brokerless kingdom of people in the lower Mediterranean plains. John Dominic Crossan carefully describes the scene:

This yet unknown peasant is closely watched by the peasants who are scratching out a meager existence in a politically cruel and violent context . . . He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else. They all know about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession. What they really want to know is what this Kingdom of God can do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming in tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edge of the village? Jesus walks with them to the tombs, and in the silence after the exorcism, the villagers listen once more . . . (but differently this time) . . . He is invited . . . to the house of the village leader. He goes instead to stay in the home of the dispossessed woman. Not quite proper to be sure, but it would be unwise to censure an exorcist or question a magician . . . The next day he leaves them, and now they wonder aloud about a divine kingdom with no respect for proper protocols - a kingdom, as he had said, not just for the poor like themselves, but the (spiritually) destitute. Others say the worst and most powerful demons are in the cities, maybe he is heading there . . . But some say nothing at all and ponder the possibilities of catching up with Jesus before he gets too far away (Crossan, p. xi).

What was Jesus thinking? As a preacher, healer, teacher, and exorcist, Jesus must have known he was shaking the foundations of his culture. As one who was following in the footsteps of his soon-to-be beheaded cousin, John the Baptist, didn't Jesus realize that some form of political-religious execution was in store for him, too? To heal and speak out-loud about God's coming kingdom was subversive. And Jesus must have known (or quickly been told) that five hopeful Messiahs had been executed in the last ten years. Still, he spoke. As John's voice was silenced, Jesus found his own voice. His message was clear and simple. "You are healed healers. Take this message to others. God's kingdom is available for everybody. It does not belong to the powerful, but it belongs to all people."

Jesus brought a combination of ecstatic vision and social vision which sought to rebuild their society from the grassroots. From healing individuals within a communal context, he combined miracle and meal, free compassion and open community, a challenge to Judaism's purity regulations, patriarchy, and patronage with an absolute commitment to stop civilization's eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies and maintain discriminations. He did not invite a political revolution but envisioned a social one in which no distinctions were given to Jews and Gentiles, females or males, slaves or free, rich or poor. He did this not by attacking these distinctions in theory, but by simply ignoring them in practice and overcoming them with the power of love and justice.

If you want to know who Jesus is, pay close attention to what Jesus says and does. Whatever incongruities exist in the Gospel texts dissolve in the person and in the actions of Jesus. Compassion, humility, healing, laughter, love, pain, prophetic solidarity, practice of equality, presence of God bursting from his body - this is the Jesus who stepped into lower Galilee and transformed lives and societal visions through his very life among common people.

Jesus is a servant would rather serve than be served. His nature is one which is not to be feared and obeyed, but rather walked with, questioned, listened to and responded to. He is not supremely detached and indifferent, but intimately connected - weeping openly in face of his friend Lazarus' death and crying in anguish in the face of his own death. He is committed to the liberation of humankind because our God identifies Godself with all people in a spirit of solidarity, humility and compassion.

And then, this man who stepped into lower Galilee, embodying all of this and more, is willing to die for his friends. He is willing to lay down his life for all of humanity. Into the heart of darkness and the embrace of pain Jesus goes. He carries with him the hurting ones from whom he came and with whom he walked. In this transformative death, Jesus moves from darkness to light.

On Good Friday, Jesus is executed because he embodies of all this - social prophecy, movement initiation, personal healing, compassionate friendship - and so much more. By critiquing the social system of domination, this once mystic Jewish healer and wisdom teacher comes under intense scrutiny by the power elite - both Roman and Jewish. His passion for justice and change ultimately brings about his execution. His death becomes the fatal consequence of what he is doing, but not the purpose of it. His resurrection three days later transcends history and lifts Jesus Christ to a sphere outside the control of human historical experience. Thus, the great paradox of Jesus Christ is that through his resurrection, which happens in an historical period, he is raised outside and beyond the realm of history itself!

The death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth changed the world. Never again would people of any faith, in any age, relate to God in the same way. For close to two millennia, this story which is paradoxically in history and yet beyond history, has been changing lives and denting the injustices of the social order.

I can tell you in my own life, it was a vision of Jesus that transformed me. When I was 19 years old, my life had bottomed out. Jesus entered my life one night in the depths of darkest despair. As I cried out to God for God to reveal himself to me, God's presence was clear and strong. "I LOVE YOU!" came the words in the dark of a room filling with light and a cross was formed on the white wall across from the placed where I sat crumpled on the floor. "I am love and I love you." Through this in-breaking vision of Christ's cross, I encountered the unconditional love of God. And then, for the first time in my life, my faith was my own, not the faith of my parents, not the faith told to me by the church. It was my faith. It was centered in the central figure of Jesus Christ. What started that night has been an ongoing experience of growth in faith and love.

Each day, my life, my faith, my spirit is awakened and enlivened by the Holy Spirit of God, known to me in the peasant from Lower Galilee who came among the poorest of God's children, lived the language of love, healed the deepest wounds of the lives he encountered, danced and prayed, laughed and embraced all those whom he met on life's pathways. I am known by God and I know God in Jesus Christ through his transforming life, his transformative death, and the paradox and power of his resurrection.

Jesus Christ is the central figure of faith at the heart of Christianity. I invite each one of you to come to know him and be known by him more fully. There are times when he will call you to places you would rather not go. But, come and follow him. He will never forsake you. In the words of the Apostle Paul, "Lo, I tell you a mystery . . . we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed." Yes, your relationship with the Risen Christ is a mystery. It is mysterious and beautiful. But, I tell you, if you choose to follow him, you will be changed each day. His eyes will twinkle and in the twinkling of an eye, you will be changed. Amen.

Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church

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