Who is Jesus?

Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11
Mark 8:27-30
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Intro to scripture]  During the weeks of Lent, I will be preaching a series on “Essential Questions,” looking at things such as “What Matters most?” “What about Suffering?” “Is There Hope?”  In the interest of full disclosure, I want to acknowledge that I have borrowed the series idea from a minister named Martin Thielin 1 but while I credit him for the inspiration, all blame for the actual sermons I produce in this series should fall on me because I will be going my own way with the exploration of his questions.

The first question of the series which we will look at today raises the central issue of the Christian faith.  It is the fundamental question:  “Who is Jesus?” 

“Who is Jesus?”  This question has been asked since the very beginning of Christianity and has been answered in a variety of ways throughout the history of the church.  Some of those answers became accepted doctrine of the church, holding sway over religious thinking for centuries, even millennia, while other answers were mulled over, debated, and finally rejected.  Many of those rejected ideas became labeled as heretical but we have to remember that when they were first proposed, they weren’t heretical at all because the church’s position on the matter had not yet been settled.  The word “Orthodox” simply means that when church leaders came together to decide what it means to be a Christian, a certain viewpoint carried the day and was from then on considered the only position acceptable to the church.  It was similar to what happens today in the Supreme Court: arguments were heard for both sides and the position that won a majority of supporters was from then on “orthodox”, while the dissenting position became known as heresy, except that in the church, dissenters tended to get burned at the stake.  I had a church history professor in seminary who began the first class of the semester with the warning, “We are going to study a lot of ideas that the church eventually declared heretical and as we study them you may be inclined to accept their arguments, but remember they are heresies.”  As a Baptist who grew up without creeds, and with a tendency to question authority, I wondered at the time why if those heretical arguments are so persuasive that we might be tempted to adopt them, should we continue to reject them out of hand just because the church closed the book on them 1500 years ago?  And in fact, the church has on occasion changed its mind about theological ideas.  There was a theologian named Origen, for example, who lived from 184-253 who during his lifetime was proclaimed by the church to be a theological genius, but in the fourth century his writings fell out of favor and were condemned as heretical, only to be a bit later resurrected and declared once again orthodox, until the 6th century when some adherents of Origen’s writings caused schisms in the church and so he was denounced anew.  Today, Origen’s see-saw reputation is on the rise again and in 2007, Pope Benedict declared him to be one of the most remarkable figures in the history of Christian thought and recommended that all Catholics welcome into their hearts “the teaching of this great master of faith.” 2   The one time heretic Origen is now recommended reading for good Catholics.  Heresy is a slippery word!

The story of Origen’s changing fortunes teaches us that as our understanding of the world, of life, and of God evolves, it is often helpful to return to earlier ideas, even those that were once rejected, to mine them for inspiration.  In today’s sermon then, I am going to lay out some of the ways people answered the question, “Who is Jesus?” over the centuries and try to suggest a way of thinking about the question that will take us back to the beginning of things.

And the beginning of things is what the New Testament writers themselves — the very first Christians — said about the nature of Jesus.  The question, “Who is Jesus?” goes all the way back to the first disciples and as we will hear in our scripture today, was posed to those disciples by Jesus himself.

Mark 8:27-30

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Mashiach.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

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“You are the Mashiach,” Peter said to Jesus, and he undoubtedly said it with breathless excitement, surprised at his own boldness in declaring what he had come to believe.  The Jews had long been waiting for a figure they called the Mashiach or as we pronounce it in English, the “Messiah” and as Peter had watched Jesus work and listened to his teacher’s words, he was sure that he was in the presence of that mystical hero, God’s chosen one.

Messiah is the Hebrew word for “Anointed One” and it refers to the ceremony in which Israel’s kings were anointed with oil to show that they were favored and chosen by God to represent God’s will on earth and to protect and save God’s people from harm.  In Psalm 2, God says to the King of Israel, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” and in Psalm 72 the Psalmist prays, “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son…. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”  Unlike the Roman Emperors who actually declared themselves to be gods, the Jewish kings never claimed to be divine but they were understood to be God’s instruments, leading the people in God’s way, which is why the prophets were scathing in their condemnation of Kings who ignored matters of justice and righteousness: they were supposed to represent God on earth. When the Jewish nation was destroyed by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians and eventually the people came under the rule of the Romans, the Jews no longer had a king to be for them God’s representative and protector, and so they looked to a day when God would once again anoint a King — a Messiah — to free them from their political oppressors and establish God’s rule on earth.  As Peter listened to Jesus’ words and saw the healing Jesus brought to the people, his heart swelled in hope. 

“He is here,” Peter thought.  “With my own eyes I am a witness to the one who will finally save us!”

And so when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter trembled with his audacity but said those beautiful words he could hardly dare to believe himself:  “You are the Messiah!”  From the way in which Jesus received Peter’s declaration, we can assume that Jesus agreed with Peter’s insight though Jesus also realized that his own interpretation of what it meant for him to be the Messiah was very different from what the people were expecting, which is why he didn’t want the disciples to go spreading this idea around. 

“He began to teach them,” the gospel says, “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Jesus said that God had chosen him to establish God’s rule not through military overthrow but by changing the hearts of men and women.  Moreover, Jesus would lead the people to a new way of living not by imposing his authority with might but by becoming the lowest of the low, by suffering the worst the world could do to a person, in order to show us that God’s love is stronger than brutality, God’s love is stronger than bigotry, God’s love is stronger even than death itself.  Jesus would embody the words of the prophet Isaiah: “By his stripes, we are healed.”

“You are the Messiah, God’s anointed one, chosen to save us.”  For all of the variety of ways in which Christians have answered the question, “Who is Jesus?” the one thing everyone has agreed on is that Peter was right:  Jesus was the Messiah.  As Christianity spread to the Gentiles, they used the Greek word for Messiah, declaring Jesus the “Christos,” which means that when you say, “Jesus Christ,” you are simply saying, “Jesus Messiah,” or “Jesus, God’s anointed one.”  What is important to understand about this declaration, however, is that when a person proclaims Jesus as the Christ — Jesus as God’s anointed one — they are talking about Jesus’ function in the world.  To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that you believe that God chose Jesus to work in the world as God’s unique representative and that as such, he embodied the full authority of God in all he did, but it makes no statement about Jesus’ form.  It says nothing about whether Jesus was divine in body or in substance.  One person could claim that Jesus was fully human and another person could claim that Jesus was very God of very God — two extremely different statements about Jesus’ form, but both could agree that Jesus was the Messiah, because Messiah refers to his function.  In fact, all of the biblical descriptions of Jesus were about his function even the phrase “son of God,” which we saw in Psalm 72 referred to God’s anointing of the king as God’s representative.  I am not saying that the first Christians rejected the idea that Jesus might be divine; I’m saying that they didn’t think about divinity in the way that later church thinkers came to understand it.  The Hebraic mind didn’t talk about the metaphysical nature of God but rather about the way in which God was at work and present in the world; they considered function, not form.

A few centuries later, however, when the church was hammering out the creeds that would shape the doctrine of the church, theologians were schooled in the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and all of those ancient Greeks who spent a lot of their time thinking about ideal forms and metaphysical substance.  They weren’t satisfied with saying that Jesus was functionally God for the church; they wanted to describe the metaphysical nature of that relationship; they wanted to describe Jesus’ form.  They wanted to know what Jesus was made of.  Was he — to put it crudely — made of divine goo and if so, how did he come to be made of the same divine substrate as God? 

To understand the difference between questions of function and questions of form, we can put Jesus aside for a second and consider the innocent tomato.  If you want to start a lively debate on the internet, all you need to do is ask, “Is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit?”  Biologists and gardeners will shout out knowingly, “It is a fruit!  All of you ninnies who call it a vegetable just don’t understand biology.  A tomato is an ovary that carries the plant’s seeds and that is the definition of a fruit!” to which the cooks in the group will sneer, “All I know is that I sure don’t want tomatoes on my cheesecake!  It’s a vegetable.”  Both groups are actually right because while the form of a tomato is a fruit, it functions as a vegetable and most of us could go our whole lives without knowing the form of the tomato but we had better understand its function if we don’t want our fruit smoothies to go awry.

And so it is that when the church theologians left behind questions of function to delve into matters of form, I believe that things went awry.  People came up with some silly theories about the nature of Jesus’ form, saying for example that Jesus only appeared to be human but was an illusion that God took on in order to enable God to minister on earth, or that God appeared to humanity first as the Creator, then God morphed into Jesus, and finally God transformed into Holy Spirit.  One theory said that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are each partially God but only become God in full when they are all together (some assembly required.)  And of course, there were the battles of the Nicene Council in which bishops shouted at one another about whether Jesus and God were of the same substance or of similar substance.  This is why the winners wrote into the Nicene Creed that Jesus was “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”   You can almost hear the, “So there!” in that sentence.

To me, the strange and paradoxical conclusions of all of these various positions, including the one that finally became the church’s official stance, demonstrate the problem of getting form and function confused.  When you are standing in your kitchen getting ready to make a fruit smoothie, you don’t want to get hung up on issues of form because putting a tomato in the blender with the bananas and blueberries is going to be a breakfast disaster.  I believe that while questions of Jesus’ form and substance might be interesting intellectual puzzles for the church, they are ultimately unnecessary to a person’s faith.  The biblical writers had it right at the start; they concentrated on how Jesus functioned as God, not on how his form was like God because in the end they knew that when you are trying to love your neighbor as yourself, forgive seven times seventy times, and turn the other cheek, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was of the same substance as God or only similar substance; what matters is that Jesus functioned as God’s voice of authority in the world.  When Jesus spoke, we knew his words were God’s words.  When Jesus invited the poor to sit at the head of the table, we knew that God elevates the impoverished and seeks justice for the forgotten and the rejected.  And when Jesus took on the sins of the world and went all the way to cross for us, we could have no doubt that there is nowhere that God will not go on our behalf, and that God’s love will always triumph in the end.

“Who is Jesus?”  After two centuries of arguing over the nature of Jesus’ form and never coming to a place of agreement or I would say, anything ultimately very helpful to our faith, I think it is best that we go back to the beginning and say with Peter, “You are the Messiah.”  Jesus functioned among us as God’s voice of authority in our world, God’s hands of comfort and strength, God’s heart of compassion, God’s eyes that see even the smallest and most lost of us all, and God’s arms stretched out wide taking on the worst that the world can do for our sake so that by those stripes we might be healed.

Next week:  “What Really Matters” (or “What I Have Learned from Funerals”)

Footnotes:

  1. https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/2375/seven-essential-questions-a-lenten-series
  2. http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20070425.html