This sermon is the second in a series of three sermons responding to questions about Jesus’ identity. You can explore the part one here
Part Two of this exploration of Jesus’ identity includes three reflections interspersed throughout the liturgy. The audio picks up the liturgy as the congregation is remembering our old friend Jesus by singing an old hymn that evokes our personal histories with the character Jesus. You can listen to the songs as well as the reflections here
Reflection 1: Remembering.
Can any of you remember the first hymn you ever learned? (responses)
“Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.”
What about the first prayer you ever learned?
“Now I lay me down to sleep.”
“Come, Lord Jesus.” graces
“The Lord’s Prayer”
For those of you who were raised in the Lutheran Church, think back to your confirmation classes, do you remember learning the Creeds? I never went to church until I was 15. I was considered too old for confirmation class. So, I received private instruction from my pastor. I remember weeks and weeks spent learning both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Remembering those creeds still influences the way I respond to the question that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call “Matthew” puts on the lips of Jesus: “Who do you say that I AM.”
I remember, a few years back, when Emily Eastwood was helping us in our struggle to move the wider church to be more inclusive. Emily, insisted that the only way to reach out to those on the other side of the argument was to tell our story. Stories have the power to move us. Stories well-told can move us beyond the boundaries we have set for ourselves. So, Emily encouraged each of us to learn how to tell our own stories. Emily taught us to be able to tell our stories about being gay, or knowing someone who is gay, or about changing our minds about homosexuality. Emily, insisted that we needed to be able to tell our stories in about 3 minutes. We were encouraged to seek out folks who we suspected might be among those who were working to limit the roles that LGBTQ folks in the church. In just 3 minutes, our personal stories were told. These stories humanized the issues that divided us and indeed divided the church. Putting a face on the pain made the issues that we were debating, more than just theological, they made them real, immediate, and personal. By moving out beyond the boundaries established by doctrine we could touch the pain caused by doctrine.
Remembering all those weeks of learning the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which were designed by their 3rd and 4th century authors to answer, once and for all, all the questions surrounding the identity of the man we call Jesus, I can’t help but see the young woman that I was, reciting week after week, year after year, the doctrinal response to this pivotal question. For years, no for decades, my answer to Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I AM?” was bound up in my belief that the Creeds had answered the question: “Who do you say I AM?” All you need to do is remember and believe.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Or the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit
and the virgin Mary
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
I remember trusting and believing the answer to all my questions was Jesus. I remember trusting and believing that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God who came down from heaven, suffered, died and was buried. I remember believing that Jesus died for my sins. I remember believing that because God was gracious HE sent Jesus to die so that I might live. I remember believing that this grace of God was all I needed to understand who Jesus was and is. I remember believing that Jesus’ death upon the cross was necessary so that I could live forever. I remember believing that I knew exactly who Jesus was. I remember knowing without the shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
I remember eagerly eating the Body of Christ and drinking the Blood of Christ trusting that: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
I remember knowing who I knew Jesus was. I also remember my doubts. I remember worrying about the character of a God that I knew, because I am Lutheran after all, I knew God’s grace. But I could not, no matter how hard I tried, reconcile the notion of a loving and gracious God, with a God who could devise a plan to save me, that included the crucifixion of God’s beloved Son. I remember my doubts. Doubts squashed by doctrine.
I remember the very day that my dear pastor, the same pastor who had taught me the Creeds, dear Pastor Ernst invited me to join a Bible Study. Some of you may remember the old, Word and Witness program. Three years of intensive study of the Bible. A study based on the materials that seminaries were teaching prospective pastors. Pastor Ernst said I was too young for the program, but he thought I might just like to give it a try. Once again, I was the only one in the class. I remember well the day I learned the Jesus may not have said all the words that were clearly printed in red in my bible.
I remember the day I learned that the writers of the gospels were not actually Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; not actually eye-witnesses to the life of Jesus. I remember the questions that began to flow freely from my lips. I remember the freedom of asking questions that were beyond the carefully set boundaries of the Creeds. I remember the freedom.
Reflection 2: Questioning
So, many questions flowed from the freedom inspired by knowledge. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God; a God who was loving and gracious; how could such a God, design a plan that required the sacrifice of that very god’s own beloved son? What kind of god demands a blood sacrifice? Who in their right mind could or would worship such a god? If Jesus didn’t necessarily say all the words printed in red, what did Jesus say?
“Who do you say that I AM?”
Is Jesus the Son of God? What does it mean to be the Son of God? Was Jesus divine? Begotten not made, of one Being with the Father? Is Jesus a man? If Jesus didn’t say everything they said he said, did Jesus do everything they said he did? Was Jesus a miracle-worker? What does it mean to be fully human and fully divine? Did Jesus raise the dead? Was Jesus raised from the dead? Did Jesus really die for my sins? Why did Jesus have to die? Was Jesus a radical? Is Jesus’ teaching political? Is Jesus a communist? Is Jesus a good teacher or a hopeless idealist? Was Jesus murdered by the Jews or executed by the Romans? Was Jesus a victim of injustice? Or was Jesus killed to atone for the sins of the world? Lamb to the slaughter or willing sacrifice? “Who do you say I AM?” indeed!
Questions, so many Questions? Freedom indeed. My weary soul cried out for that old-time religion. “Jesus loves me this I know.” “What a friend we have in Jesus.” I still miss the ability to “Come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” I want Jesus to “walk with me and talk with me and tell me I am his own.”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to loose.” So many questions. “Who do you say, I AM?”
Reflection 3: Imagining
“Who do you say I AM?” There’s a freedom in that question. Often when I am set free, I find myself floundering. Imagining all sorts of possibilities is all well and good, but that kind of freedom can be terrifying. Set free, I find myself searching for some sort of guide, a signpost or a touch-stone that I can lean on.
For me the terror began to subside when I discovered that even though what I had once thought to be true was doubtful, those doubts were not the opposite of faith. Rather, doubts are the beginning of faith, for without doubt, we cannot come to faith. Doubt is a prerequisite of faith. Only when we have the courage to push beyond the boundaries of what we have learned, can we ever begin to see the endless possibilities of what we may never fully comprehend. For if God IS, that that God IS beyond anything we can ever hope to imagine or understand.
We do well to doubt our limited understandings and our flawed doctrines, so that we can put our faith in the ONE who is beyond, the beyond, and beyond that also.
That being said, we are human after all is said and done, and as humans we need to know a thing or to. To love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our minds, lies at the core of what we profess to believe. Loving the God who is beyond, the beyond, and beyond that also, we must not leave our minds out of the equation! So, what do we do with our doubts? What do we do with our questions?
So, many people who have engaged their minds have come to the conclusion that denial is the only way to go; faced with the knowledge that the bible was not dictated by God, but is the product of hundreds of years of human effort, or that Jesus may not be who they thought he was, many people have simply walked away.
For those of us who have stayed, the knowledge that the church’s doctrines are flawed, may have freed us from the bondage of ancient beliefs, but this knowledge also leaves us with the kind of freedom that leaves us floundering as we wonder what we can say about who and what Jesus was and is. This freedom means that we need to find new ways to approach our beloved stories.
Liberation is not always pleasant, as treasured ideas and assumptions fall apart, what we are left with may not always feel like it is enough. Sometimes this freedom, it makes me homesick, longing for the days when the answers were all give to me. My questions led me to more questions; even the answers when they do come, led to more questions as I wander beyond the beyond and beyond that also.
“Who do you say that I AM?” Wandering beyond the doctrines that were offered as answers to the question of Jesus’ identity, there are signposts that offer some guidance. Those signposts lie beyond the red-letter words of the scriptures. Engaging our minds, we can discover historical evidence that suggests that the first followers of Jesus also struggled with questions about Jesus’ identity.
When we look to the historical evidence, there’s a particular response that the early followers of Jesus gave when questioned about Jesus identity. It is often referred to as the first creed. Emily Eastwood would refer to this first creed because it is short. Just 3 simple words: “Jesus is LORD!” “Jesus is LORD!”
Just like most answers, this answer leads to more questions. Questions like: So, what did they mean by “Jesus is LORD!”? Fortunately, that’s an easy question to answer. Based on the historical evidence, the declaration that “Jesus is LORD!” meant that Caesar is not. In a world where the Caesar was worshipped as a God and ruled with an iron fist, and was not to be challenged on pain of death, the early followers of Jesus insisted that, “Jesus is LORD!” knowing full well that this declaration was a denial of the system that ruled the world as they knew it. To declare that, “Jesus is LORD!” or more correctly translated, “Jesus is CAESAR!” was a bold, radical, rejection of the status quo. In the first few decades after the crucifixion, the followers of Jesus responded to the question of Jesus identity clearly and concisely. I cannot think of a better place to begin to formulate our response to the question of Jesus identity than with the first creed, “Jesus is LORD!”
“Who do you say that I AM?” “Jesus is LORD!” Jesus is the Caesar! And not whoever happens to be sitting on the throne at the moment. The system that governs the way we live in the world is not the way we are about to live our lives. Jesus is the Way.
And yes, as I said, answers lead to more questions. Jesus may be LORD, and Jesus may indeed by the Way, but what can we here in the 21st century say about the nature of Jesus sovereignty and how can we describe the Way that Jesus points us toward? Well, stay tuned. Next week, we will follow the signposts, to see were they may lead us.
But before we move on, let me remind you of the clue that lies in the very heart of the question: “Who do you say that I AM?”
Remember, that as a first century Jew the anonymous gospel-story-teller would have been well aware of how first century Jews would have heard this question for I AM is the very name of the ONE who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. YAHWEH, I AM, WHO AM. I AM Who I AM.
Who do you say that I AM? It’s all in the name!
Stay tuned, as we dwell in the questions, next week, same time, same channel.