The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 16:13-19
Lent Two: Christology
Forty days, not counting Sundays.
Because, in the ancient church, before any splits, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant, when there was just “one holy and apostolic Church,” Sundays were “feast days,” every Sunday, a feast day for all. Sundays were, and still are, a celebration of the love of God for the world. Every Sunday was a little Easter, so, while sacrifice was not prohibited, it was not required. Sundays couldn’t count in the forty days of Lenten penitence and fasting.
I’m not sure how many of you, or how many other Christians are aware of all that. I’m sure many don’t really care too much, either. But I do. We do, this year, at least. We’re taking up that understanding in our Lenten season 2017 and on Sunday mornings together in this sanctuary, we are feasting – on the Word of God and on six doctrines of our church. I’m going to stretch us in our understanding of that Word and in our enactment of those doctrines, taking a table that has been cleared pretty thoroughly, leaving only one or two “descriptions, explanations, expressions” of the mysteries of our faith that are actually pretty boundless, and attempting to set a bountiful board.
Our theology doesn’t “define” God. It can only describe what we think we know so far about the mystery we all experience so powerfully. Our theology is only “all that we can know about the mystery of God, the mystery we name ‘God.’” It’s not God, itself. We explored all that last week. Laid the table pretty full, I suggest, with “who” and, maybe more provocatively for us, “how” God is. God is. God simply, and so extravagantly, is. That message, the first feast, is up on our website (as all our feasts are). Go back and read up, or re-visit. We laid the table full with a feast of God last week and then gathered at our Communion Table, which nourished us for the weeks ahead and teased us with a taste of this week’s feast. The Christ.
Who, how, and why … is Christ? Let’s pray first …
So, when I say, when you hear, the word, the title, “Christ,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind? (Responses …) Some different thoughts, but one pretty common one. The name “Jesus” comes to mind, finds its way to your lips, is spoken.
Speaking personally, I’ll tell you that I cannot remember a time when Jesus was not important to me. Maybe he was exasperating or even infuriating to me at different times in my life, for reasons that are very particular to me but, I bet not uncommon to many of you. But, even then, Jesus was always “important” to me in one way or another. I was baptized as an infant, acquiring in the process godparents who later seemed pretty random to me. One was my father’s old college roommate, who I met once or twice when I was quite young. And the other was an aunt, my mom’s first sister, who I saw a whole lot more, but never talked to about religion, let alone Jesus. Anyway, as I grew up, I enjoyed going to Sunday school. My father was the pastor of my church for the first nine years of my life and my Sunday School teachers all treated me like the Pastor’s son that I was.
When we moved to Pennsylvania my father was no longer my Pastor, but I was used to speaking up by then, so all through high school I pretty faithfully attended Sunday school, where I learned more about this Jesus. I sang in the Cherub and Youth choirs, served as an acolyte, joined the Youth Group in sixth grade, was confirmed into active membership in the ninth grade, and preached part of the sermon on Youth Sunday when I was a senior. I did all those things, in part, because the adults in my life – my parents, my Sunday School teachers, my Choir Directors, and my Pastor – all said that Jesus was present in all of these activities. Jesus … Christ. And he was.
In a beautiful, simple, child-like (not childish, but child-like) way, he was. As I graduated High School, went to college, finished there and began a career, Jesus Christ remained important to me, though those were the more “exasperating and infuriating” years.
Six years after college graduation, years that included getting married to one of the primary experiences of the mystery we call “God” I’ve ever had (again you’ll have to re-visit last week’s feast to better understand and accept that), completing a Master of Fine Arts degree, and enjoying a brief but what I would certainly call a “successful” career in the Theatre, I started a course of study at a theological seminary, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I did so because, once again, the “adults” in my life said that Jesus Christ could be found there. Now at this stage in my life, I heard that more as a “challenge” than an assurance. I applied, was accepted and enrolled with the intent, at least on some level, to prove to them and to the mystery that was calling me to deeper life, that they were … misguided.
Now, I’m sharing all this to tell you, remind you I suppose, that Jesus as the Christ has always been a part of my life, as long as I can remember, a central figure in my faith-story. I am not an objective bystander, or on-looker. I have loved, learned about, been challenged by, disliked, and been in awe of Jesus. And like God before him, I wished for a long time that I could just accept the traditional interpretations and explanations of his divinity and move on. But I haven’t been able to that, not for a long time. It wasn’t until my seminary study that I have realized I didn’t have to – we don’t have to. The Christological table is as bountiful as the Theological one is. So let’s dig in, with no small measure of humility and anxiety, to the feast that is ours this morning.
For my own integrity as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, and in my role as your Pastor, I must – we must – always seek to answer, in deeper, richer, and more meaningful ways – the question which the New Testament suggests that Jesus, himself, posed. Who do you say that I am?
Listen for the Word of God. Read Matthew 16:13-16 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What was there about this man’s very being, including his death, that caused him to be understood by his Jewish contemporaries as the paschal lamb of Passover that broke the power of death; as the sacrificial lamb of Yom Kippur that took sins away; as the suffering servant of the prophet Isaiah that would redeem a nation; as the “Son of Man” from the writings of Daniel that would come again to judge; as the pre-existent Logos, the “Word of God” that creates life; as the Messiah, or Christ, the Son of the Living God? Why was it that those who worshipped the holy God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the great I am, insisted that they had met this God in Jesus? And why did the church, as it came to be in the centuries that followed, limit this divine nature to him alone?
First things first. Today, we set our table with Christ. The Church is in a few weeks, I believe. We’re going to leave that second question for Brandon to explore in a couple of weeks. Let’s begin to layout the incredible food for this feast.
Because , for the most part, we have so profoundly limited our understanding of God, of divinity and how that reality “is” in our world, how “God” works in our world and in our lives, we have necessarily limited our understanding of how Jesus as divine, as “God,” is experienced in our world and in our lives. But … words change. Our perception of reality, of what is real, changes. Our understandings of the mysteries all around us, and far beyond us, change. “God,” too, is reality for us. A mystery, yes, as we allowed last week, but a reality, as we confessed again last week. So “God” – as a reality and a mystery – changes for us, too. On last week’s table is “our God” far beyond the traditional, one-dimensional, external and supernatural “God” we have limited “him” to. And with “one explanation” no longer limiting us, we can begin to explore why it is that Jesus was and still is, a God-experience for us.
On my own table, the table I set for my own experience and expression of these church teachings, I always begin with these words form William Barclay, a theologian writing in the sixties and seventies, about Jesus: “Any understanding of Christ, must begin from the historical fact that those who lived and walked and ate and talked and companied with Jesus saw absolutely nothing unnatural and abnormal about him.” Now, I’m not sure where Barclay would draw the line with me, but what I understand this starting point to mean is that no one who lived, walked, ate, and talked with Jesus saw supernatural events happening all around them, magically radiating from their teacher and friend. The stories we have in our scripture that may suggest such unearthly events are post-Easter writings, written to describe the indescribable experience that everyone seemed to have with this human being. The truth of these stories is not found in literal interpretations, but in the experiences that made these stories necessary. “Those who lived and walked and ate and talked and companied with Jesus saw absolutely nothing unnatural and abnormal about him.” His humanity was complete.
The New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter four, verse fifteen, describes Jesus in this way: Not … a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but … one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Without separation, division, disconnection.
Jesus, in his walk on this earth, was tempted, just as we are tempted, continually to treat God as less than God. He was tested, just as we are tested to question God’s helpfulness and God’s promise and to compromise with the ways of the world. Jesus was tested, just as we are daily, to acknowledge other gods than the “God” of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus was tested and yet, even if not altogether at least to a degree far greater than all others around him, was able to resist his own desire to create “God” in his image. “Who do you say I am?” You are the Messiah … God’s anointed One … Christ.
It is crucial for us, as we profess Jesus as Christ, to understand how, as a fully human person, he could speak and act on God’s behalf and address his followers then, and us today, with authority. As one in whom God’s call, God’s aims or directives, God’s purpose, were received, experienced, and shared every moment of his life. With our “theological table” loaded with all the glorious ways and circumstances in which God “is,” might this not be a faithful and challenging understanding of Jesus’ divinity? In every way tested as we are … Like us in every way … except without sin … without separation or disconnection for the Holy. Fully human and, so, divine. Christ …
This human being that filled my child-like imagination as a boy, captured my admiration as a youth, generated my frustration as a Young Adult, now fills my grown-up imagination once again as a Pastor. This Jesus, this Christ, this Jesus Christ does not differ from us in kind … only in degree.
We’re not sure about that. We believe our humanity as a liability. We trivialize it. “We’re only human,” we lament. I think the real problem is that we’re far too often “inhuman.” But, that’s next week’s feast.
This morning, let us delight in the staggering feast that our search of Christ offers us. If we can honestly give our hearts to this Christ, the implications for our own lives are astounding. We begin to find Christ, then, not only in a human who lived two thousand years ago, as beautiful and “time altering” as that one was, but in the world today. In our own lives today. In our own life today.
On this rock we may just build the church.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 12, 2017