Sermon preached by Rev Dr Noel Preston last Sunday.
Psalm 23. and Luke 4. v. 16- 21; 9 v.18 – 21
We are here today because of Jesus of Nazareth – that is the simple fact. So who is this Jesus, the one who traditional Christianity has named “the Christ”, and the “second person of the Trinity”.
I want to preach about brother Jesus today because, more than any other, his life has influenced mine and the lives of others who have most influenced me. In fact I have a memory that when I was a seven year old I went to my father and said, “I want to give my life to Jesus.” That commitment remains. (though my understanding of it has evolved over a further 70 years)
I have another reason: I made a deal at Christmas time with my teenage grandson, who rarely goes to church, that I would try to preach a sermon for him which conveys who Jesus of Nazareth is and what he is to us today.
If we are to understand Jesus, we must situate him in his time. He lived in a period when the Roman Empire controlled his home country. Actually, he was probably known as “Joshua” in his time. The name we give him is the result of Graeco-Roman influence. He was a Galilean. And Galileans were simple folk. He was not a Christian. He never read the Christian Scriptures. He read the Hebrew Scriptures, and developed his faith from them.
Apart from the Christian scriptures the only historical record of him is found in the work of a Roman Jew historian named Josephus. Nevertheless, his impact on history has been profound and his message has been a saving grace to millions.
As far as the detail of his life, our knowledge comes initially from the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The account attributed to Mark, was the first written, some decades after Jesus’ death. Inspired as Mark’s Gospel is, this and the other versions of the Gospel, rely much on fallible human memory and oral story telling.
Nonetheless, as our Gospel readings today reveal, Jesus himself went through a gradual process of self-discovery. Our second Gospel reading describes Jesus sounding out who his disciples thought he was. In the other reading from Luke we heard how : At the outset of his ministry in the Synagogue of Nazareth he chose a significant passage from Isaiah – his mission statement if you like – I am here to give sight to the blind, free the oppressed and bring good news to the poor. As that mission unfolded, apparently titles like “son of man” and “son of God” were used of him.
In my lifetime, there have been many commentaries on who Jesus is for us today. Scholars have done much detailed analysis on questions like –
who did Jesus himself think he was?
Or, how are we to interpret the miracles recorded in the Gospels?
Or, what do we really know about his birth and the stories we recall at Christmas time?
Or what is the meaning of his cruel death?
Or, how are we to understand the Easter faith of the disciples who declare his Resurrection?
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that biblical scholars began applying the blow torch of historical criticism to the Gospels. A German biblical scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer (who, incidentally, was one of Europe’s finest organists) published a book titled The Quest for the Historical Jesus and that scholarly quest continues today.
And the Jesus story keeps being told by endless and various story tellers. When I began my ministry there were the musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar which made Jesus a rock star and Godspell popularizing him as a clown. Then there was Monty Python’s irreverent Life of Brian which had a measure of truth in it, and would’ve had the real Jesus laughing in his grave I’m sure. In a way these pop culture presentations have humanised Jesus by correcting what I call the dehumanising of Jesus. This “dehumanising” happens through idolatrous beliefs and practices which make him half-human and half divine, a process which was underlined by the Nicene Creed adopted in the 4th century AD. The writers of the Creeds may have lost touch with Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers who were known as “followers of the Way”. Jesus never said, “Worship me” but he did say, “ Follow me.” Of course, it is much easier to worship him than follow him daily.
Reading the traditional Creeds today, you may conclude that they lose sight of the life Jesus lived and what he taught. The language they use attempts to make him someone to worship rather than a brother who is “Saviour and Lord” – He is my Saviour and Lord because he exemplifies and calls us and empowers, to be the best that humanity can be, by living a life of unconditional compassion.
Thus far, I have tried to give some background as to how I answer my grandson’s question : “Who is Jesus for us today?” But there is more to tell.
FIRST A STORY. I have a fellow retired minister friend with whom I was talking recently about this topic. I mused with him. “Some of the supernatural elements which do not fit 21st century knowledge, like the Virgin birth and the Ascension into heaven, have kept the Jesus story alive over the centuries. If we strip the story of these parts, how do we keep the Jesus story alive today?” Instantly Bob, whose mind is burdened by Parkinson’s disease, said: “We keep it alive by living it.” (Repeat)
I have a book by a South African Catholic priest, Albert Nolan, which I have found very helpful. Called “Jesus today”, it explores Jesus’ spirituality, how his mind and spirit were nurtured in the intimate relationship he had with the One he called, in his language, “abba”, a word which means “father”.
Nolan’s opening sentence is challenging: On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christians or not.
I have to confess that’s true for me – the demands of discipleship can be overwhelming – remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler ‘Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me’! What of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) where Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies. Or, if we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, what a conversion that might involve!
Nolan interprets Jesus as a deeply mystical prophet, one who had a special relationship with his abba, his God experience, the intimate father, whose love was boundless. That relationship is the secret of his extraordinary life – and death: A Love that has no limits. So intimate was the relationship between Jesus and his abba that about 100 years after his death, the writer of John’s Gospel has him saying “I and the Father are one.” Jesus’ abba relationship was expressed in his friendship with the downtrodden. He practiced inclusion not exclusion in relationships. He lived by a sense of oneness with all. He empowered others to see through religious hypocrisy and stand up to the abuse of power in the Temple or by Roman overlords. Though he was radically critical of his society, Jesus never blamed, accused or condemned any individual person but his attitude to people labeled ‘sinners or outcasts’ was strikingly different from that of other religious leaders.
Jesus of Nazareth is a breakthrough in human history calling us to be truly human.
Of course no account or interpretation of Jesus the Christ is complete without engaging with the fact and the meaning of the end of his life. The Crucifixion of Jesus is the climax of a life lived so close to abba that the dereliction and abandonment of those cruel hours demands explanation.
But the explanation consistent with the Jesus I have tried to describe is not one about a sacrifice for our sins to placate a god who doesn’t sound one bit like Jesus’ abba. No, the meaning of the Cross is that it is the culmination of a life which challenged the powers that oppress the downtrodden through the costly way of compassionate Love. This demonstration of LOVE to the bitter end means that the cross cannot be the end. So it is that his followers, then and now, claim the realization by faith that Jesus’ life is not extinguished by a burial. But, his followers must learn that the significance of the Cross is that it must become OUR CROSS.
Jesus becomes the one who never goes away, who meets us today, who invites ongoing interpretation of the relationship of our life to his, whose challenges to us may change, but who persists through history as a challenge in all times and cultures. He does not go away; he keeps invading our lives, our society – so, it is not atrivial question to ask, “What would Jesus do ?” “What is the Jesus way of handling this matter in our time?”
I mentioned Albert Schweitzer earlier, the author of a ground-breaking theological treatise, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. I also said he had fame throughout Europe as a musician. The real story about Schweitzer’s quest is that in his thirties, his life changed direction. He came to the conviction that Jesus is to be known and followed in deeds not just words, costly deeds for the needy . So he took up medical studies and became a Doctor and spent the rest of his long life as a missionary Doctor in Africa.
In the final paragraph of The Quest he prefaced this change in discipleship:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, “Follow thou me” and sets us to the tasks he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings that they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience, WHO HE IS.
SILENCE – your response
Noel Preston 13th January 2019