11 Feb Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
1 Corinthians 15:12-19 and Luke 9:18-20
February 11, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Will the real Jesus please stand up? This is the sermon series that will accompany us along our Lenten journey this year. First things first—I know Lent doesn’t start until next week, but we will be taking a one-week pause in the middle of this series, hence, the early start. And let me be clear, I mean a pause from the sermon series, not from worship.
It’s a fair question to ask, why are we doing a series like this? I’d like to suggest three reasons.
First, Jesus is the center of history. As noted author Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in the beginning of his wide-ranging book Jesus through the Centuries, “Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of western culture for almost twenty centuries. A large [portion] of the human race continues to divide history into BC and AD by reference to [Jesus’] birth.”
Second, Jesus is the focus of scripture. The Bible is the best-selling book of all time with over 100 million copies sold a year. Furthermore, for Christians around the globe, it is not just a random collection of religious documents. As Jesus himself said, “The Scriptures…bear witness to me.” (John 5:39) Christians have long recognized and celebrated this truth. Jerome, one of the church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, wrote that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
Third, Jesus is the heart of the church’s mission. Why is it that Christians live sacrificially so that other people can experience the love and hope offered in Jesus Christ? Why would people leave their homes, sometimes even their families, to preach and teach the Good News? We are not commending an institution or an ideology, but rather a person whom we as the Church believe to be unique and uniquely qualified to show us how to live as authentic, whole human beings.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter: when we say that Jesus is the center of history, the focus of scripture and the heart of the church’s mission, which Jesus are we talking about? Down through the centuries since Jesus’ birth, hundreds of different versions of Jesus have been offered in the world’s religious supermarkets. There has been and continues to be a kaleidoscope of views of Jesus, of who he was and what he accomplished.
One pastor and blogger by the name of Kevin DeYoung highlights at least twelve different views of Jesus in our culture alone. There is the Republican Jesus who is against tax increases and activist judges, and for family values and owning firearms. There is the Democratic Jesus who is against Wall Street and Wal-Mart and for reducing our carbon footprint. There’s Yuppie Jesus who encourages us to reach our full potential, reach for the stars and buy a boat. And, then there’s Hippie Jesus who teaches everyone to give peace a chance and reminds us that “all you need is love.” My personal favorite is Starbucks Jesus who drinks fair trade coffee, loves spiritual conversations, drives a hybrid, and attends film festivals.
Over the next several weeks we are going to look at different views of Jesus and see how each one stands up against what is revealed in scripture. Let me say here at the outset that we’re not launching into this endeavor because it is a novel idea. It is, instead, an attempt to answer a question that sits at the heart and soul of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the question Jesus asks all who want to follow him: “Who do you say that I am?” That is the question I pose this morning, and the question I ask you to keep uppermost in your mind this Lenten season. How would you answer that question?
We start by looking at the view of Jesus that might best be called Super Human Jesus. Super Human Jesus is the view that Jesus is the supreme model of what a human being is to be like. This can be articulated in a number of different ways. For some, Jesus was a great teacher, for others a great prophet. For some he was a great philosopher, and for still others, he was the most loving person who ever walked the face of the earth. What all these viewpoints have in common is that they believe Jesus was a great human being, the greatest human being that has ever lived.
Let me give you a few examples, spread through history, of people who thought of Jesus this way. In the late third and early fourth centuries, there was Arius, who was an elder from Alexandria, Egypt. Arius taught that Jesus was not God but was the first and finest of all God’s creatures. You’re likely more familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s views. Jefferson revered Jesus for his benevolence and ethical teaching, but rejected his miracles as incompatible with nature and reason. Four decades after Jefferson, a theologian who lived and taught during the Enlightenment, Ernst Renan, wrote of the “sensitive and kindly heart of Jesus and of his gentle and penetrating genius….Let us place, then, the person of Jesus at the highest summit of human greatness.”
Finally, fast forward to 1973 when we find Jesus the super human portrayed in an art form, a film adaptation of a rock opera called Jesus Christ Super Star. It is striking how consistent this film is with the Enlightenment view of Jesus’ human superiority, so there are no miracles portrayed and the final scene is what one would expect of a superstar death.
Here’s the thing about this view of Jesus as well as the others we will look at—there are elements of truth in each of them. The Super human view of Jesus elevates for us the importance of Jesus’ humanity. It reminds us that because Jesus was fully human, he can identify with us in our humanity. Jesus experienced joy as well as hunger. He knew what it was like to be tired and also frustrated. He was well acquainted with temptation and pain, both physical and emotional. He also knew what it was like to face death.
When we understand Jesus’ humanity, it frees us to face the brokenness in our world as Jesus did. Like Jesus, we are free to feel what it is human to feel: sorrow at what is heartbreaking, shock at what is shattering, outrage at what is flagrantly out of joint. Jesus shares our anguish at all that is not right, and part of the gift of Jesus’ life and death is that we see God’s heart broken for all that one day will be set right. But for right now, Jesus cries alongside us.
The problem with Super Human Jesus is that Jesus is not just human. This is not the whole story. If Jesus was just a great teacher, prophet and philosopher, and we stop there, then there are entire sections of scripture that have to be ignored. To say that Jesus is just a good role model of what it means to be a human being is the equivalent of saying that Barak Obama is just a lawyer. There is more to his story.
Perhaps no one wrote more eloquently about this very point than C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. Lewis says, “I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that [option] open to us. He did not intend to.”
Another dilemma that the view of Jesus as Super Human creates is that it leaves us still guilty for every sin we have committed. If Jesus was only human, even super human, he would have shared the condition that all human beings share: that we are sinful creatures. And if Jesus had sinned, his death would have paid the penalty for his sin, but not for the sin of all humanity. Were Jesus only human, there also would have been no resurrection, a thought that led the Apostle Paul to conclude: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)
Finally, a Super Human Jesus means there is no promise of eternal life with God or the coming of God’s kingdom. Even if Jesus was the greatest man that ever lived, if he was only human, the final words of his story would be what they are in the Jefferson Bible: “…they rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” Those are the last words. Death was the last word. If there was no resurrection for Jesus, that would mean there would be no resurrection for us. Death would be the benediction on us all.
Was Jesus an incredible human being? Absolutely. Did Jesus in his humanity show us what it is like to be our most authentic, whole selves? Without a doubt. But, there is more to Jesus than being a Super Human.
That’s why Jesus’ question is so important: “Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question permeates everything—every relationship, every decision, every attitude, every thought, every action. How we answer that question reorients our entire lives, which is why viewing Jesus this way is so appealing to so many. Super Human Jesus is a fantastic role model, but he can’t demand our allegiance, our obedience and our faith. Super Human Jesus doesn’t confront our idolatry of wanting to be in control of our own lives. “Who do you say that I am?”
Join us next week as we continue our search for the real Jesus. Amen.