Epiphany 7, 2/24/2019: Will the real Jesus please step forward!

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Christian tombstone from Quanzhou with a 'Phags-pa inscription dated 1314.

After some arm twisting, the rector has agreed to share some of his sermons. We enjoy them, finding them relevant, amusing, and thought-provoking, and trust you will, too.

Epiphany​ 7
24 February 2019​
St. James Somerville

Will the real Jesus please step forward!

I fear that, this morning, I shall make some of you glad, really happy, while I shall disappoint others. You will be disappointed that I do not return with a video of my travels. You will all be happy that I do not plan to talk about my own travel. I do, however, plan to talk about the travels of Jesus. And contrary to my usual approach to my homily, I have this morning a title for my reflections: Will the real Jesus please step forward!

In our formal, liturgical worship, we hear about Jesus who selected his disciples, teaching them and anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity; Jesus who healed the sick and injured; Jesus who argued with the learned men of his day; Jesus who admonished tax collectors to extract only that which the law required.

What is lost often on us, is the fact that these activities, the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth did not take place in one location. Jesus was a man on a mission. He was not rector of one parish for 33 years. Luke recalls that Jesus spoke beside the lake of Gennesaret, then, when pressed by the crowd, from a boat, slightly offshore, then going with his newly chosen band of disciples up into the hillside, where he delivered the Beatitudes, then coming down from there, where he encountered another crowd who, themselves, had come from the province of Judea, from Jerusalem, where he had been, from the coast of Tyre and Sidon. Indeed, we cannot and should not ignore the teachings of Jesus which have come to us through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, we must not allow the ease of our worship to cause us to ignore something of equal value, namely: One cannot be a disciple, a follower of Jesus and remain seated. One has to be involved in the community, in the world and with crowds around us. Even the lame, the cripple, the blind, those challenged by height did not sit around waiting for Jesus to come to them. They, often only with the aid of others, sought him out and afterwards went about proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah of God. The record shows that they did not find him always in one location. Jesus was on the go and they went as well.

Although for years now, what has been obvious to me, was made again plain to me. There is an underestimated value in travel. My recent trip renewed my appreciation of the value of travel, of being open to something different, which may cause a new understanding of the words of Jesus of Nazareth. Bluntly put, what my own most recent travels caused me to do, once again, was rethink about how I picture Jesus.

As you will recall, I had looked forward to returning to Hong Kong where my older daughter and family live. This trip, now complete, was not my first, having visited at least once a year for the past thirteen years that they now reside there. This trip, though, was different. I looked forward to seeing them in their new dwelling which, according to all reports, had an even better view of the South China Sea than the one just down the road, because their new flat had a penthouse garden.

My thought? When one has seen the South China Sea, one has seen the South China Sea, not unlike: when one has visited Martha’s Vineyard, one has visited Martha’s Vineyard, always something new to discover, always something which causes one to stop and reflect. What was novel to me, a discovery actually, was made at the rear of the roof garden, away from the sea and the majestic surrounding mountainous hillsides, all truly breath-taking reminders of the greatness of God’s creation.

Behind my daughter’s building, surrounded and almost hidden by expensive high rises, stands a low-rise building, painted white. That building prompted me to realize once again that I, while praising God for the majestic splendor of the sea and mountains before me, am not immune to the prejudices and biases which afflict all humankind, always capable of wearing that comfortable coat that Jesus cautions us against, not only in the Beatitudes or in today’s gospel, but every time that he spoke.

From childhood on, and especially in lower school years, I was taught to believe that the Chinese believed in ancestor worship, Taoism, or Confucius. As I proceeded through high school, I learned that Christian missionaries went to China, in order to save the Chinese from hellfire and brimstone, for the Chinese had not yet heard of or believed in the name of Jesus. And today, after further studies and now many trips to Asia I am aware of Anglican Chinese, Methodist Chinese, Presbyterian Chinese, Pentecostal Chinese, and now “Full Gospel Chinese.” Actually, we Americans do not have to travel to Asia. One can take a trip along Mt. Auburn St. in Watertown or observe church vans on our roadways which announce the denominational affiliation of a particular group of Chinese. And the Chinese are not alone in distinguishing between doctrinal or theological beliefs. On that rooftop, I stopped to ask myself the question: But just which Jesus did the Christians in the Chinese Full Gospel Church proclaim?

What came to mind as I looked from the rooftop of my daughter’s building at the Chinese Full Gospel Church, was another more pressing question for me. How do we know what we know about the person of Jesus, on whom our faith is based and why is it that we have so many different interpretations of what Jesus supposedly taught?

An obvious place to look for evidence as to the kind of person Jesus was and is the four gospels. We looked specifically at parallels. If we have two stories, or three, which is likely to be the oldest, the one from which the others may have burrowed or copied? Namely, if we were to look for which is the prototype, which is the earlier version, we need look only for the simpler one. The gospel of the day poses the question: which Jesus is it today who is speaking. A simple answer to that question is that someone wrote something down, which we call the gospels, and we can read what has been written. Yet, one further question is, how reliable is that which has been recorded?

In Luke’s gospel, we read of the Beatitudes. We are familiar with them: Blessed are the poor, those are hungry now, etc. However, if we look more closely at the parallel between Matthew and Luke, we notice a distinct difference. For one thing, as Fr. Goranson may have stated during my absence, assuming that he chose to address the Lukean Beatitudes, the list of blessings in Luke is shorter than Matthew’s list of nine. Gone are the Matthean blessings on those of a gentle spirit, those who show mercy, those who have pure hearts, and those who have suffered persecution for the cause of righteousness. And Luke fell in love with a series of “woes!”
Do these difference make the one less authentic than the other? One could also say that Matthew is more spiritualized than Luke’s rendition. If these two disciples, turned apostles, witnessed the same thing and heard the same beatitudes, why are their writings not verbatim, identical? Is Matthew’s Jesus the same Jesus of Luke’s gospel? Or did Matthew embellish for his own tactical purposes? Did Luke think his audience too uninformed to understand what Jesus actually said? And for us, would these discrepancies suffice in a court of law to persuade a jury that Jesus did not proclaim the Beatitudes? Would we be able to proclaim that the Jesus who admonishes his followers to give not only their coat, i.e. cloak, but shirt as well, as today’s gospel reading extends the Beatitudes is the same Jesus? I am hopeful that “Full Gospel” means looking not simply at the totality of words, but at the intent of his words and what prompted Jesus to make the proclamations that he did. All of us, whether American, Brazilian, Chinese, Nigerians, Swedes, come to the gospels, to a belief in God’s Messiah, influenced and limited by the culture and geographical location, into which we were born and out of which we have come as adults.

I recall a conversation which I had had with someone, now some years ago, during which he said, if you Christians, and especially you preachers, would stop frightening people with your hellfire and brimstone, but would begin preaching about the beautiful things of your faith, I, and probably others, might consider coming. He went on to say, that he did not need to come to church to be beaten up on. That he could get just by going to work every day.

Well, actually, if we take the gospels and epistles in their totality and ask what it is that they seek to accomplish, I for one do not come away with a sense that Christianity is about hellfire and brimstone. It is, though, about how we live in the here and now. What our study of the similarities and differences between the gospels shows, is that we had and have individuals of more removed times who struggled with how to deal with getting beaten up at the office.

At issue is not a disagreement between and among the gospels, and nor is Christianity about hellfire and brimstone. And it matters not really which words we use, whether “woe, woe, woe, woe” or “shame, shame, shame, shame.” Christianity is about community, and our individual role in building and maintaining that community. We do the message of Christ a grave disservice when, to get individuals into our churches, we believe that we must frighten them with threats of an afterlife of hellfire and brimstone. Luke’s beatitudes, like those in Matthew’s gospel is about a social contract, about how we interact with each other.

The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to us in whatever condition or location we find ourselves. Rather than proclaiming one absolute static truth and giving us/me one image of Jesus, one image that will fit all cultures and all times, the gospel presents a truth which some of us do not like, but stands nevertheless as an unchangeable truth: it is impossible to codify Christ. I, because of my own upbringing, my own culture, my own biases, will never see Jesus of Nazareth in the same way as my fellow human being, a Chinese may see Jesus of Nazareth. But that does not make Jesus less meaningful as to way to community. The remarkable power of the gospel, then, lies in its capacity to proclaim truth. And in the end, what we Christians claim and proclaim is the basic premise of faith: Jesus of Nazareth has secured our eternal well-being. The rest, a building of community based on love on earth where it really matters, is up to us. Amen