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Who Is Jesus?

Sermon by Michael Wright
Scripture: Luke 22:66-71, 23:1-25
Shared on Beyond the Walls
Sunday, March 26, 2023

In the video recording below, the sermon starts at 31:45

Greetings to all from my home in Rome, Italy.  It is a blessing to be with you.  Yesterday was my fourth anniversary of joining Community of Christ.  These last years have been a continued blessing in my ongoing Christian journey.  However, for those of you who do not know me, I grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My senior, or last year, of high school, my family moved back to the State of Oklahoma, where my father’s family was from.  It was an anxious time for a senior to be changing schools, just about 6 months before graduation.   

It didn’t take long for people to figure out who we were in our predominately Southern Baptist town.  My brother played sports, I was in the band and got the lead part in the high school musical, while my mom became a very popular piano teacher in town.  Everyone knew there was a new Mormon family in town.  One day, between class periods, I went to my locker to get books for my English class.  When I opened my locker door, a little pamphlet fell to the ground.  I picked it up and it was entitled, “Mormonism has another Jesus.”  At first, I was confused about how this ended up in my locker, but then I figured out that someone must have slipped it in through the air vents at the top of the locker.  Someone was anonymously concerned about my salvation.

My heart sank.  The cover had a creepy, distorted picture of Jesus, an image of Jesus that I did not recognize.  This was not the Jesus that I knew. I thought to myself, “Well, this is ridiculous.  Like there is more than one Jesus…” I stuck the tract in my backpack and went off to class. But, I would think about that little tract for many years to come, as I learned that indeed there are many competing Jesus’ in the world.  In art history, there are the porcelain, muscular Jesus’ from the Italian Renaissance Masters, or Michelangelo’s imposing, punishing Jesus who “kicks butt” during the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel by sending saints to heaven and sinners to hell.  

There is Velazquez’s bloody, tortured Jesus from the Spanish Baroque period, who exists mystically between shadows and light. There was the black Jesus on the cross made of mahogany that I first experienced in the Student Union of my Catholic University, which made me reflect reverently about Jesus’ universal role for all peoples.  There are lots of other Jesus lurking today, like nationalistic Jesus who upholds empire rather than God’s Peaceable Kingdom.  There is the Jesus who colonizes, insisting on believers leaving culture and self behind; an oppressor rather than liberator.  There is the Jesus who saves only some.  There is the Jesus who makes you rich.  And many, many others who purport to be the real Jesus. Who is Jesus?  
In today’s lectionary scripture, we are at the trials of Jesus, as Luke dramatically sets up multiple courtroom scenes for us.  Luke’s overall goal with his Gospel is to present “Jesus as the Messiah, and Lord whose life, death and resurrection makes salvation available to all people everywhere.” Luke’s sacred geography takes the reader on a swirling journey with Jesus across the Holy Land, that will continue in a sacred ping-pong fashion, back and forth, between the courts of Pilate and Herod in this week’s scriptures.  Even though a sense of drama is important in re-telling his story, Luke is also an educated author who needs us to know certain, important details, like making sure that we know these are legal courts as they begin after sunrise.   
Luke’s account of the trial might just look like a lot of odd Q&A, enigmatic responses by Jesus, and shuffling back and forth between Pilate and Herod, but there is a lot being said in the unsaid of these passages and much to learn from Jesus.  The council begins with the statement, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Jesus responds, “If I tell you, you will not believe.” Some ancient sources even say, “you will not let me go.”  
Jesus knows his fate is sealed.  No matter what questions are asked of him, his inquisitors have made up their mind about who they think he is. We know from historical sources that Herod had many of his court who were more permissive, or “liberal” executed. He did not allow for dissent and proved this by executing a group of young disciples of religious teachers who took down the golden eagle that he had erected on the temple.   

Jesus goes on, referring to himself as the Son of Man, who will sit at the right hand of the miraculous power of God.  Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man over 40 times in the book of Luke.  This is not a term that we use today but was a common phrase in Aramaic to refer to being human, the son of Adam, or refer to oneself as a being.  Jesus is expressing his humanity, yet gives some foreshadowing of his death, while expressing his privileged place with God.   

The council, in fact then asks, “Are you the Son of God?”  Jesus responds, “You say that I am.”  The council taking this as a blasphemous confession, is happy with their work and will send him off to Pilate. Son of God is a loaded question in Jesus’ world. To our modern Christian ears we hear the question as, “Are you God’s Son?” But it is not that easy in Jesus’ context as there cultural differences whether you are Jewish or Roman and whether you are speaking Greek or Latin.  Remember that Luke opens his Gospel noting that Jesus is born in the time of the Emperor Augustus.   

Here we have another comparison between two people who are carrying the title Son of God. Augustus’ uncle/adopted father, Julius Caesar, was deified at death. For this reason, Augustus was called “Divi filius” or the “Son of god.” Augustus was known for his Pax Romana, or the coercive, negative peace brought to the empire during his reign. Jesus, on the other hand, represents Pax Christi, or God’s Peace, which is a holistic peace available in the coming Peaceable Kingdom of God. Jesus is a different sort of “Son of God”.  Yet, to the Jews, being a “Son of God” does not necessarily mean you are biologically connected to God, but rather that you possess the qualities of God. But for Pilate, who is a Roman, if Jesus confesses to being the ‘Son of God,’ the problem here is not the lifting up of himself to divinity, but rather the lifting of himself up to the same status as Caesar.  

But, Jesus confesses nothing. Rather his response, “You say that I am,” is a remind that it is up to us to declare who He is. The excited assembly before Pilate misrepresents Jesus, taking his teachings and sayings out of context, with their declaration of him “inciting the nation” and “forbidding the payment of taxes.”  

Pilate says, “Are you a Galilean?”  This not only reveals that Jesus might be in the wrong jurisdiction, needing to be tried by Herod, but it also reminds us of where Jesus comes from. Jesus is not a cosmopolitan Jew from Jerusalem.  For those from Jerusalem, Galileans are unsophisticated country-folk, who speak with an accent, are agrarians and carpenters.  They are marginalized people. Remember, there was no room in the Inn for Jesus’ pregnant Galilean mother.  Jesus was born among creatures of the stable, God’s son laid in a trough.

Jesus is putting into practice his nonviolence training program he gave his disciples on the Sermon on the Mount.  He does not scream nor hurl insults.  He does not try to retaliate with violence. He does not fall into their questioning traps. With each insult, mockery and act of contempt, Jesus remains calm and responds only when necessary.  I wonder if in his own mind he thought, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you…” (Luke 6:22) and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27)   
We have an interesting comparison: Jesus a nonviolent social revolutionary is traded for the violent social revolutionary, Barabbas.  Humans are scared of what they don’t know or understand.  It’s simply easier to accept violent Barabbas because at least we know who he is and what he is capable of.  Jesus must be eliminated because his nonviolence is suspect, and his Upside Down Kingdom that calls out privilege and violence, while lifting up the marginalized to be children of God threatens the whole rotten system.  
Pilate does send Jesus to Herod. Raymond Brown reminds us that, even though the ‘bad guy’ politicians in this story have fed their own egos through the maltreatment of Jesus and pleased the people when they know he was innocent, Jesus’ mere presence reconciles people to right relationship. The scripture says, “That same day, Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12)  

Our lectionary scripture for this week has come to an end.  I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to say that the next few weeks in the Lenten journey are excruciating.  We see God Among Us treated in the most violent and lowly way. I never thought about this until my time in Seminary, but no other gods of the ancient world had sought true mutuality with humans.  The ancient Greek gods were capricious in their interactions with humans.  Humans were often for their amusement, entertainment, and abuse.   
Yet, the Christian God came down among us to seek greater understanding of God’s creation, to teach ultimate love, and share God’s ultimate revelation with us. Yet, the dark turn in the Jesus’ journey shows that humans are capable of treating God as amusement, entertainment, abuse and even for political gain.  Yet, the “tah dah” moment of the Resurrection coming in a few short weeks will turn the darkest story into the greatest hopeful and loving story known to our species.   

So, what can we learn from the story of the trial?  Who is Jesus?  Jesus shows in the trial that after a life of ministry of showing us who he is, it is important for us as disciples to confess who Jesus is.  Afterall, the Jesus we confess reflects the type of Christians we are.   Here are some indications of who we believe the real Jesus is through Community of Christ’s Christological Affirmations:  

  • We confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, author of salvation, and head of the church.

  • Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, both fully human and fully divine. In him we see ourselves and we see God, whom he tenderly called Abba, the compassionate One, who gave birth to all of creation and declared it to be “very good.” Together with the Holy Spirit, they are one. 

  • By the mystery of the incarnation, Jesus, born of Mary, came into the world to live and dwell among us to reveal God’s nature and will. He prophetically condemned injustice in the temple and proclaimed the good news of the coming reign of God on earth, preaching liberation to the oppressed and repentance to oppressors. He taught his followers to love God, to love their neighbors, and to love their enemies. By eating with sinners, serving the poor, healing the unclean, blessing children, and welcoming women and men as equals among his disciples, Jesus declared that all persons are of worth in the sight of God. 

  • Jesus was betrayed by his own friends, accused of blasphemy and treason, and sentenced by Pontius Pilate to die on a cross between two common criminals. By forgiving his murderers and choosing to take on the sin, pain, and suffering of the whole world, he reconciled all of humanity to God. 

  • On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating his life and ministry, and triumphing over all injustice, even death itself. He ascended into heaven, having entrusted his followers with authority to minister in his name to the ends of the earth. He sent the Holy Spirit to be with them in their witness of the good news of the Resurrection. 

  • Christ is our peace, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility between us. He promises us the redemption and healing of our relationships with God, one another, and all of creation. 

  • The church, the body of Christ, is called to proclaim the gospel until Christ comes again. It is he who forgives us in baptism, and feeds us at his table. As disciples of Christ, we are all called to conform our lives to his by living in loving community with others, seeing Jesus in the faces of the least of God’s children, and serving those whom the world has forgotten. It is to Christ and to his gospel that we declare our loyalty and by which we will be judged. 

  • The promises of God in Jesus Christ are sure—that by the Holy Spirit we will be given grace to do the things we have been asked: courage in the struggle for justice, passion for peace in the midst of violence, forgiveness of our sin, stewardship in place of materialism, healing of body and spirit where there is hurt, and eternal life in the face of death. 

  • We live and serve in hope that God’s kingdom of justice and peace will indeed come, bringing healing to the whole, groaning creation. Putting our trust in the Risen Christ, present among us by the Holy Spirit, we press on together, giving blessing, honor, and glory to God, now and forevermore. Amen.  

I think back to that pamphlet that was inconspicuously placed in my locker when I was a young, naïve boy who thought we Christians all believed in the same Jesus.  So many times I looked at that pamphlet unsure at how there could be more than one Jesus.  And, yet, there are so many competing versions of Jesus in our contemporary world.

We proclaim the Jesus of the trial: the marginalized Galilean, the fully human Son of Man, and the fully divine Son of God who responds nonviolently in the most threatening and violent of circumstances, while healing enemies into right relationship. Our profession of the Christ in these affirmations encapsulates the teachings, prophecies, parables, actions, stories, tears, love, groans, loneliness, compassion, empathy, embarrassment, vulnerability, bewilderment, hunger, temptation, pain, abuse, betrayal and sacrifice that our God Among Us knows, experienced, and uses not to condemn us, but to love and forgive ALL of us in God’s continued desire to know us and for God’s desire for us to love them.  

The Jesus we confess would have us follow his example of ultimate love by seeing the image of God in our neighbor, in each other, and even more difficulty, in our enemy, treating them with dignity, love and seeking right relationship. I leave these considerations with you in the name of the One who loves, saves, forgives, knows all of us and our inestimable worth, Amen. 

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