An Emerging Jesus for an Emerging Christianity
A Sermon by John Thornley
Access to books which help us understand and live our faith, is a gift we should value. The opportunity for self-growth, for self-education, is something John Wesley put great store on and I know how important good scholarship is in the Presbyterian tradition .
The words ‘An emerging Jesus for an emerging Christianity’, which I have chosen as theme for this sermon, are the words the American writer Marcus Borg would have liked to be given to his latest book. It was not to be and his publishers had the last word.
The 2006 title is ‘Jesus’, and the somewhat cumbersome subtitle: ‘Uncovering the life, teachings, and relevance of a religious revolutionary’.
It would be very tempting to do a quick survey of this book – the author is arguably one of the readable writers today, for helping us understand and live the Christian life in the light of the changes in human knowledge since the scientific revolution which began in the life times of both Calvin and Wesley.
Rather than attempt such an ambitious summary, I will heed that inner voice that says, ‘less is more’. As must be, the focus is on Luke, the words of Jesus, but my response will draw on Borg’s reflections.
This service follows the lectionary journey from Christmas to Epiphany, with the stories of the birth of Jesus followed by John the Baptist announcing the coming of a Messiah and calling people to repentence, then Jesus in the wilderness facing his own demons, before he stands in front of his home congregation at the temple in Nazareth.
Taking his own choice of passage from his Bible – this being the Hebrew scriptures of course – he chooses to read from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
Because he has anointed me
To tell the poor the good news
He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners
And sight to the blind
To set the wounded victims free
To announce the year of God’s special favour.
This is the heart of Luke’s gospel of Jesus.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Luke makes plain that here, in this testimony, is the fulfilment of around 30 years of preparation for the public ministry of Jesus. This includes study of the Law and the prophets, attending worship at the Synagogue, his baptism by John, the 40 days in his wilderness and victories over Satan or the demonic spirits, and the miracles of healing and exorcisms in neighbouring Capernaum, prior to his coming to the Nazareth synagogue. Surely,yes: The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus.
The first claim we make about Jesus is that he comes in a line of Jewish mystics. God is an experiential reality for Jesus and his experience of the sacred is the most persuasive explanation of what else he became.
When the passage goes on to say his listeners were astonished at his words, it is not so much the eloquence of his message that inspires them, but the words from the prophet he chose to speak, and what he left out.
To quote the New Testament scholar Tom Wright: ‘The hearers of Jesus were waiting for God to liberate Israel from pagan enemies. In several Jewish texts of the time, we find a longing that God would condemn the wicked nations, would pour out wrath and destruction on them. Instead, Jesus is pointing out that when the great prophets were active, it wasn’t Israel who benefited, but only the pagans.’
And, now, my own and a contemporary comparison! That’s like a church leader in US today speaking of God’s healing and restoration for Iraq and Iran and urging Christians to find God working within Islam. It’s not what some church people expect or want to hear.
The words of Jesus are the message of Epiphany: God’s grace is for everybody. And following on from this are words of warning to his own nation: that unless they abandoned their futile dreams of military victory over their national enemies, they would suffer defeat themselves. No wonder they tried to throw him over the cliff.
The gospel message, as found in our reading, speaks of release of prisoners, sight to the blind and freedom from suffering.
The words speak of salvation of life in its fullness, in all its complexities. Borg uses an arresting phrase: that our gospel joins ‘Jesus remembered’ with ‘Jesus metaphorised’. The gospel moves beyond the literal/factual reading, and emphasises their truth as metaphor. He uses ‘metaphor’, not as a figure of speech, but rather to refer to surplus of meaning, to more than literal, more than factual. So, when we consider in the Bible incidents such as the creation, the flood, Jonah and the whale, etc, we should not say, ‘Oh, you mean it’s only metaphorical’. Rather, we are invited to discover and explore a surplus of meaning, a richness and depth of truth-telling in these stories.
In simpler language, ‘Jesus remembered’ joined with ‘Jesus metaphorised’ means first, knowing how Jesus drew on the Hebrew history and writings; second, knowing how the gospel writer, in this case Luke, draws on his personal experience and the early church’s; and, finally, bringing our own personal and church response from a 21st century viewpoint.
How, then, do we read our scripture passage in this light? What richness of meaning is there to discover?
Imprisonment, blindness and suffering – each of which Jesus names in our scripture passage - are both personal and political.
Today we are called to work out our own salvation, both as individuals and as communities living in relationship – our city, our country, our world. Nothing less than our survival on this planet earth is at stake here.
First, our relationship to God as persons. This relationship is the path of personal transformation – return from exile, sight given to the blind, liberation from bondage. It is the way to new beginnings, the way to a life centred on God. Beyond believing in God we are invited to belove God. Rather than requiring adherence to a series of intellectual claims about God and Jesus, we are called to enter a relationship built on faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, commitment and trust.
Second, the political dimension. It is about God’s passion for a different kind of world – one in which people have enough, not as the result of charity but as the fruit of justice, and in which nations do not war against one another anymore.
At last week’s service, the Reverend John Murray asked us to consider the global impact on world politics if each and every Christian took a public stance against the waging of war. I recall a former President of Malaysia, and a devout Muslim, as keynote speaker in New Zealand last year, saying that nations preparing armaments or declaring war should be accused as criminals before the bar of an International Court.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus is shown associating with the peasant class. These were the greater majority of Jews worked within a subsistence land-based economy, under the rule of the Roman Empire.
Because he has anointed me/to tell the poor the good news.With these words, spoken by Jesus,Luke wants us to confront this political reality.
While in Matthew the words appear as ‘poor in spirit’, in Luke it is the poorest economically, those at the bottom of society. There is a truth in both ways of seeing it: taking Matthew’s words, we need to be humble and open for God to work in us and through us. But, for the literally poor, the Kingdom of God may more readily be heard and welcomed as ‘good news’. For those whose wealth is measured in material goods, lives spent in harvesting and storing up money – and sadly this IS the prevailing ‘business
as usual’ ethos today – for us, it may be harder to seek treasures in heaven, to see God glimpsed in the lilies of the fields, in the generosity of the widow, in the compassion of a Samaritan, and in the trusting heart of the child. Like the rich young ruler, we may shut the door on God’s way and the rule of God in our lives.
It is not difficult to see parallels between the tensions of Galilee in Jesus time with the horrendous suffering and injustice caused by the rich/poor divide in our world today. But if we no longer really ‘see’ – and momentarily switch off - the images of global suffering on our television screen, then we are blind indeed.
Marcus Borg concludes his book with an Epilogue on Jesus and American Christianity Today, in which he contrasts a religiosity built around an US and THEM division of humankind, and a narrowly individualist salvation focused on an afterlife, with a new picture of Jesus, he describes as ‘an emerging Jesus for an emerging Christianity’.
Fortunately, we do not experience the radical extremes in USA. But the battle for hearts and minds is on-going and taking place in the families and communities of our homeland. The emerging picture of Jesus is a challenge to us all.
On a television show, Marcus Borg was given one minute and a half to describe what Jesus was like. This is what he said:
Jesus was from the peasant class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a socio-political passion to him – like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, Jesus was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of St Francis or the present Dalai Lama. And as a figure of history, Jesus was an ambiguous figure – you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat – or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.
Do we dare to claim for ourselves, our churches, and our community the declared mission of Jesus as our mission today?
Have we any other option?
I read from Good News for Modern Man
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to set free the oppressed
and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.
This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.