The Most Holy Contest

Luke 3 and 6

Today is a 3 for the price of 1 Day! Instead of getting just one measly sermon for your money this morning, you will also get a little bible study and a church history lesson complete with visual aids. And by the time you walk out of here, you will know a little more about the doctrine of the Trinity, the meaning of the incarnation, and why anyone should care.

Obviously we have a lot of territory to cover before the benediction so let’s get started. We’ll begin with the Bible study portion of this offer. Everyone take out a Bible. (There are some in your pews but I know some of you also have your own translations on your phones so those will be fine.) When you have a Bible, I want you to find the gospel of Luke.

Now that you’ve all located the gospel of Luke, let me give you some quick background. The gospel of Luke is one of the four gospels that we have in our Bible which tell about the ministry of Jesus. None of the gospels were written by eye witnesses of Jesus’ life — they were all written about 40-50 years later — and so though they share a lot of the same material, stories, and teachings of Jesus that had been passed along over the intervening decades, each gospel writer organized that material in a slightly different way in order to emphasize particular theological themes that he thought would be important for the community to which he was writing. We do the same thing: if you were asked to make a presentation about Martin Luther King, Jr., to a class of underprivileged African-American high schoolers, you would probably choose different material than what you would use for a presentation on King to rich white Wall Street executives. For the high schoolers, you’d choose stories and quotes from King’s life to encourage them and give them hope as young Black people in America while you might remind the Wall Street executives that King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The purpose of your presentations would be not simply to give dry facts about King’s life but to uplift, persuade, and change your audience as a result of his teachings and actions, and so you will select your material accordingly.

So it was with the gospel writers. When you read Luke, you should ask yourself, “What seemed to be his greatest concern for his community? What questions was he addressing? How did Luke want us, the reader, to think about Jesus?”

With that in mind then, let’s begin by looking at Luke 1:44. In this story — only in the gospel of Luke — Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, is pregnant with the baby who will grow up to be John the Baptist. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, comes to visit Elizabeth and what does Luke say happens when Mary walks into the house? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Little unborn baby John leaps for joy when little unborn baby Jesus enters the room.

Now Luke has already told the reader that both of these pregnancies are special: Elizabeth was quite old when she become pregnant with John so her pregnancy was just short of miraculous, but Mary’s pregnancy was miraculous because, Luke tells us, she was a virgin. Luke chooses to begin his gospel with a comparison between John the Baptist and Jesus — John born of an old lady, Jesus born of a virgin, John as a baby leaping in joy at the entrance of the baby Jesus. If you had to predict a winner in Luke’s “Who’s the most holy?” contest, who would you guess it’s going to be, John or Jesus?

After the familiar nativity story in chapter 2, Luke comes back to John in chapter 3. By chapter 3, John and Jesus have grown up and John has started preaching. John the Baptist, historically, was quite a popular figure and his life had a lot of parallels to Jesus’ life: he was an itinerant preacher in Galilee, he had disciples, and he preached the forgiveness of sins and Luke knows that the reader might be confused about the difference between the two men, so after Luke tells us about John’s ministry, he inserts a quote from Isaiah to clarify for the reader what is happening. Look at Luke 3:4.

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

“In other words, dear reader,” Luke says, “John’s ministry might look a lot like Jesus’, but he’s just the opening act for the featured performer who will be the Lord.”

And then to really drive home this point, Luke includes some material about John the Baptist that isn’t found in any of the other gospels so you know it’s important to Luke’s theme. Go down to verses 10-14. The crowds ask John what they can do to escape punishment for their evil ways, and this is what he says:

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Do these words sound familiar? Well, in fact, they are very similar to something that Jesus will say later in Luke near the beginning of his ministry so let’s turn to one more Bible passage and compare John the Baptist’s words to Jesus’ words. You might want to keep your finger there in Luke 3 while you look up Luke 6:29-31

“…If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Let’s compare those two passages. John the Baptist told people that if they have two coats, they should give one away. What does Jesus say? If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt too.
 John told the tax collectors to collect no more than the amount prescribed and the soldiers not to extort money. What does Jesus say? “Give to everyone who begs, and if someone takes your goods, don’t ask for them again.”

What we discover in the gospel of Luke is that every time John the Baptist appears and does something remarkable or good, Jesus comes right after and does him one better. I go back to my original question: in Luke’s “Who’s the most holy?” contest, who is the winner, John or Jesus?
 Every one of the four gospels includes material about John the Baptist because the early Christians all knew that he was preaching at the same time as Jesus and had, in fact, baptized Jesus. John was known throughout Galilee as the epitome of an upright religious man, a prophet to be held in high esteem. John even died for his beliefs, executed by Herod when he dared to challenge the King’s behavior. When people thought about John the Baptist, they thought of him as exemplifying the best kind of servant of God that we as human beings can be.

Luke then deliberately uses John, the best of the best, as a yardstick by which to measure Jesus: if John the Baptist is the best servant of God that we as human beings can be, but Jesus is even better than John, then what does that make Jesus? What is better than the best a human being can be?

Go back to Luke 3. In verse 20, John the Baptist exits the stage, imprisoned by King Herod, and Jesus steps into the lights.

“When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus, Luke said, wasn’t just one of a long line of exemplary servants of God; he was the Son of God. Jesus wasn’t the epitome of an upright religious man; he was the very incarnation of God. Yes, Jesus was very much like John, was somehow the same as every one of us, but was also fundamentally more than any one of us, as the unique incarnation of the holy.

The Christian faith is an incarnational faith: we proclaim that God isn’t some unknown otherness watching from a distance while we muddle along on our own but is available to us in the person of Jesus and continues to be present in a real and tangible way in our world through the working of the Spirit. We may not be able to explain the molecular makeup of God or God’s cosmic origins but we can know God’s values, God’s expectations, God’s personality, and God’s will for us by just looking at Jesus because in Jesus, God was perfectly revealed. And the flip side of that is that in the life of Jesus we saw that God is not emotionally distant from us or unaffected by human suffering and needs, but that the incarnate God completely experienced and continues to experience what we experience in a very real way.

The New Testament is very clear that God is incarnate in our world all of the time, and that incarnation didn’t begin or end with Jesus. The Spirit of God moved over creation at the very beginning of time and God continues to be present in and with each of us: God knows our suffering and our grief and when we choose to align our hearts with God’s spirit, for that moment, we too can become the incarnation, showing the face of God’s love to others. The difference between God’s incarnation in our lives and God’s incarnation in Jesus is a matter of degrees, but those degrees matter because while each of us may only be able to maintain alignment with God’s will imperfectly and temporarily, the gospel writers declare that God’s incarnation in Jesus was complete, perfect, and unceasing. Jesus is for us the perfect embodiment of God in human form.
Unfortunately, though the New Testament writers all agree on the principle of the incarnation, they leave it up to the reader’s imagination to figure out the “how” of that testimony. How could Jesus be human yet also the perfect embodiment of the divine? What did it mean for the human being that was Jesus to be co-inhabiting a body with God? Or is co-habitation even the best way to describe it? Was it a fusion of spirit or a mingling of molecules? The Bible doesn’t answer those questions – frankly it doesn’t even seem interested in those questions — but enquiring minds want to know and so church theologians argued about the answers over a period of several hundred years, and after debates, battles, and schisms finally formulated the mechanics of what we call the doctrine of the Trinity. And so now we come to the second part of the sermon and the visual aids, and I promise, I will be brief because frankly, I’m more of a biblical scholar than I am a theologian.

Several years ago, I was reading a book on the early church and was having problems remembering all of the various theological positions of the time so I drew cartoons as memory aids.


The cartoon I handed out is the one I drew for the Council of Chalcedon which is when some of the key features of the doctrine of the Trinity were hammered out.

The Council occurred in 451, which you’ll see is the date on the cheese next to the mouse on the table — (the mouse is just there to eat the cheese. He has nothing to do with the Trinity) — and was held in northern Turkey, a central gathering point for bishops around the Mediterranean Sea.

The Council was called to debate the question of how Jesus could be both human and divine at the same time and there were three primary positions offered. The first was that of the Coptic church in Egypt, represented by the figure on the left with the cop hat. The Coptic church argued that God poured God’s self into Jesus and that the human nature of Jesus was absorbed into the divine nature of God just as water added to wine would be. In essence, the human and the divine became indistinguishable. For the word nerds among you, that position is called the miaphysite (my-A-phi-site) from the Greek μία meaning “one”) + φύσις, meaning nature. On the other side of the table are the Nestorians (hence, the bird’s nest), who were from churches in Syria and Persia (the genie’s lamp). The Nestorians argued that if the human Jesus was absorbed into the divine Godhead, then you couldn’t really say Jesus was human at all, so they believed that the human Jesus and the divine God remained completely separate within the person of Jesus, occupying the same physical space but remaining independent. The metaphor they used was oil poured into wine. (The two headed guy is not their metaphor but mine.) This position was know as the diaphysite (die-A-physite) position (two natures). And there in the middle of the picture is my depiction of what would would become the official position of the western church: rejecting the Coptic idea that Jesus’ humanness is completely absorbed into the Godhead, and the Nestorian idea that the human and divine are completely separate, the church decreed that it’s neither one or the other, but both: in Christ there are two natures each retaining its own properties, but that they are united in a single substance and person. In other words, Jesus is both 100% human and 100% divine, and we just have to accept this incomprehensible paradox on faith — hence the two ducks on the shoulders of the bishop in prayer (a pair o’ ducks!)

Now, in spite of the Council’s decision, this didn’t really solve anything because people kept believing what they wanted to believe and Christians today are still debating the nature of the incarnation. One modern day interpretation proposes that today’s quantum physics has revealed that the world is not formed just of substance and matter but of a flow of energy, experiences, and information. To describe the incarnation in 21st century terms, we could say that Jesus’ experience of the world and the web of relationships that formed that experience were indistinguishable from the experience and relationships of God. Whom God loves, Jesus loved; the suffering Jesus experienced, God experienced. Maybe it’s not so much that God poured God’s self into Jesus as that Jesus poured himself into God so completely that God’s will become his will; God’s nature his nature; and God was able to be completely known to us in the person of Christ because of the fusion of identity and will.

The reason I handed out this cartoon to you was partly to help you understand some of the central arguments of the Trinitarian debate, but also because it leads into my final point of today which is the sermon, and my sermon is simply this:

In the end, we must remember that all church doctrine is a cartoon not because it’s silly or unimportant but because like a cartoon, church doctrines are admittedly simplistic representations of complex ideas. And like cartoons, they will be affected by the culture and knowledge of the time in which they are written, and by the biases and varying degrees of talent of those who write them. Doctrines can be helpful models that clarify complex ideas but they should never be confused with the reality of what they are trying to represent, and they should always be open to revision as we find new ways of conceiving ultimately inconceivable mysteries. The biblical testimony asks only that we believe that Jesus is the pure reflection of God. If you want to know what God is like, the gospels say, just look at Jesus. Those whom God loves, Jesus loved, and the people Jesus fought for, God fights for too. The poor, the rich, the forgotten, the flawed, the courageous and fearful, the loyal and the betrayer, even those who hated him so much they would nail him to a cross — Jesus insisted on loving them all fully and completely because he was the full and complete embodiment of God, and God loves the world, all of us.