The Myth and the Man
First Presbyterian Church
March 3, 2014
love your enemies
hate your father and mother
turn the other cheek
give the shirt off your back
go a second mile
settle on the way to court
lend money without interest
sell your goods and give to the poor
give to every beggar
don’t fret about life, food, clothing
don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does
let the dead bury the dead
look at the birds
notice the lilies
ask, seek, knock, and expect a positive response
give us bread for the day
forgive us our debts to the extent we forgive others theirs
forgive in order to be forgiven
take the timber out of your own eye
let the children come
be generous in love
pay the emperor and God their due
guard against scholars
on the road, eat what is set before you
on the road, stay in one house
“The Admonitions and Injunctions of Jesus”
Robert W. Funk, A Credible Jesus: Fragments of a Vision
During the season of Winter, I have been doing a series of sermons on constructing a theology for the 21st century. I have been calling it, “Spirituality as if the stars mattered.” In an age in which Hubble Telescope provides us with images of light from galaxies from the beginning of the universe itself, what can it possibly mean to talk about the traditional icons of Christianity, God, Jesus, and the Bible?
All of our religious symbols come from a pre-modern time when the sun and the planets were believed to move around Earth. Human beings, animals, and plants were believed to have been created as they are now. The Bible told the story of the universe, our beginning and our end. Jesus sat at the right side of God the Father in heaven just above the sky. God was a person who intervened if he so chose and guided the whole process to a promised completion.
How do these icons of belief translate, if they do translate, into our own time? This is has been a career-long, if not a life-long quest of mine. Is there anything in our religious past that can survive in this new environment and speak to us about a meaningful way to live? I don’t know. I don’t ask those questions with pre-formulated answers. I am asking and searching and I hopefully won’t stop asking and searching until I am dead.
A few weeks ago I was asked why I went to seminary and became a minister. I get asked that question often. Sometimes the questioner is honestly curious about why someone might choose ministry as a career. Others ask because they are searching for a faith that is credible and wonder what I have to say about it. At other times the questioner is dubious and even hostile because my views and my actions seem contrary to the goals of the church.
I can usually guess the tone in which the question is asked. I usually respond to the dubious and hostile group with a dismissive quip. I am not interested in defending myself. The curious and the searchers, however, deserve an honest reply. Here it is. This is why I entered seminary and ministry:
In addition to thinking that I might possess the gifts and skills for preaching, teaching, pastoral care and other duties required by the ministry, I entered this career for two reasons.
1) I wanted to search for truth.
2) I felt that from this path I could do good.
Over the twenty three years since I entered seminary, I have regarded those reasons with varying degrees of cynicism. Really? I entered the church for truth and goodness? Those involved in organized religion for any length of time know that all too often truth devolves into power and control and goodness is defined as success. Power, control, and success are the values, coincidentally, of empire.
Nevertheless, despite cynicism from others and myself, this search for honest truth and goodness has been available to me in the church and it is still my driving passion. For instance, it is from the context of church that I became aware and involved in various human rights struggles including LGBT equality, racial equality, movements for peace, and environmental justice. Ironically, I found that the scholars of the church provide some of the most insightful critiques of empire even as for most of the time the church itself is in bed with empire.
That is why I am in the ministry. I am searching. I am not providing answers but searching with you and seeking to be faithful, I believe, to my role as a teaching minister by being honest with my search.
The last time I preached, the topic was the Bible. Next week, God. This week the topic is Jesus. Three big ticket items, Bible, Jesus, and God. How might we approach these three central symbols of the Christian faith in the 21st century? Thus the search.
It is in the context of search within the church that I learned the difference between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of creed and the importance of understanding the difference between the two and to distinguish the myth from the man. When I speak about separating or distinguishing the myth from the man, I am talking about the importance of understanding the role of each, not necessarily dismissing one or the other.
I am going to give you the bottom line. The mythical, legendary, parabolic, and mystical aspect of Jesus is important. Marcus Borg calls it the post-Easter Jesus. This is the risen Christ that is within me. It is metaphor. It is parable. It is what carries into the present the ethical vision of the historical person of Jesus and the movement that surrounded him.
The historical person, the quest for the actual guy, to use Borg’s language, is the pre-Easter Jesus.
Easter is the theological symbol for the ethical vision of Jesus living in the present. You don’t need to believe in supernaturalism to appreciate this. It is metaphorical language that carries the vision.
Here is where I think we have the problem. The mystical, metaphorical, parabolic, mythical aspect of Jesus has become, for the most part, not a vehicle for the historical vision of Jesus but an end in itself. The mythical Jesus became something to believe in, that through believing one gets to heaven. For instance, the Apostle’s Creed is all myth and legend and says nothing about the ethical vision of the historical person, Jesus.
In and of itself, I have nothing against the Apostle’s Creed. It is a vehicle. It does its job to the extent that it carries the vision of its founder. If it becomes an end in itself, then I find that has become another tool for empire. We might as well replace Jesus with Augustus Caesar in the creed and be honest about it.
The mythical language about Jesus who is declared to be son of God and is raised to the right hand of God is first century imperial language. It was originally given to Augustus Caesar. In the time of Jesus and in the decades that followed, everywhere you looked, from coins to inscriptions on temples and courtyards, the message was loud and clear:
Caesar Augustus was the son of god.
His birth was even told to be miraculous. Because of his great military victories and especially by uniting the Roman Empire under his control, upon his death, he was exalted to divine status. For the first century mind, to accomplish such great feats, he must have been blessed by the gods. He must have been quasi-divine himself.
Thus stories and legends were told about Augustus, the son of a god. He sat at the right hand of Jupiter with his enemies under his feet. His birthday was celebrated as a national holiday, the birthdate of our savior, Caesar, who brought peace. He was the prince of peace.
That blew me away when I first learned that. I never learned it from hearing sermons in church. I learned it from an Irish Catholic scholar named John Dominic Crossan. He and Marcus Borg, who I mentioned earlier, and Robert Funk opened up a way of understanding the mythical language that had been attached to Jesus.
So what do we need Jesus for? Caesar Augustus saves us. The ethical vision of Caesar Augustus is peace through victory. He was a benevolent benefactor. He subdued the enemies of justice and goodness and brought peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces. He did it with law, order, a powerful military, efficient economic policies, slave labor, and the spectacle of crucifixion.
During the college football bowl season, when college students, who will be shaping the vision of the future, were tuned in to watch their teams, the government purchased a large amount of advertising for the United States Navy. The advertisement was a slick production. It featured a view of Earth from space. It showed images of satellites and aircraft carriers and lots of cool computerized weapons. The announcer read the blasphemous tag line:
The United States Navy: A Global Force for Good.
Caesar Augustus looked down from heaven at the right hand of Jupiter and smiled. His vision of peace through victory will carry on and on.
Now of course, we don’t sing hymns to Caesar or claim he lives in our hearts. Greek and Roman mythology did not survive the evolution to monotheism. Christianity stepped into that role. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, took the role of Caesar, and sits at the right hand of God the father and blesses the military conquests, drone strikes, and economic policies of the United States around the globe. Jesus, the divine emperor is the key figure of the Christian civil religion. We sing his praises during every seventh inning stretch. God bless America.
Why do we need the historical Jesus? Because the mythology of Jesus not only has failed to carry the vision of the historical person but it has distorted it to such a degree that it carries the vision of empire instead.
If Augustus Caesar believed that peace was won through victory, the historical Jesus believed that peace was won through justice. That Jesus was tortured and executed by empire should give us pause. What does it mean quipped Dominic Crossan, for us who live in empire to follow Jesus when he was crucified by empire?
Jesus and thousands of others were executed and tortured for the peace of Rome. Rome’s peace, Caesar’s peace, wasn’t peace for everyone. In fact, it wasn’t peace for most people. Most lived under violent, barbarous, and hand to mouth conditions.
It was in resistance to empire that the early Jesus communities were founded. The scandal of the early Jesus communities was that Jesus was son of God, not Caesar. That has nothing to do with metaphysical speculation about gods or miracle-working or whether or not Jesus was divine. That is all first century mythical language. The point of the language is who deserves that title. Which ethical vision will lead us to life and to peace?
The scandal is not that Jesus is son of God as if the declaration is about some supernatural miracle. The scandal is that Jesus, a peasant nobody who accomplished nothing except to offer an alternative vision to empire is the vision that really brings peace.
That is why in those early Jesus communities, slaves took part. Women took part. The poor took part. The foreigner and the immigrant took part. They broke the roles given to them by empire and declared themselves as alternative, as Robin Meyers says, subversive and underground communities.
The vision of Jesus was to liberate people, to liberate their minds as well as their bodies.
He taught them how to claim their own dignity, to celebrate and to trust.
He encouraged them through parable and aphorism to think and to make up their own minds.
He challenged them to challenge the common wisdom and to test it, not just accept it.He knew of empire’s tactic of divide and conquer and challenged them to resist that impulse.
He taught them about the importance of reciprocal forgiveness, and to love our enemies and to make allies with them rather than to increase enmity. The parable of the Samaritan was about uniting groups that had been divided.
He taught them about truth and goodness. Empire’s vision of the good life is a lie. It is not sustainable. It exploits people, Earth, and resources, and grants power and privileges for the few at the expense of the many. That is as true today as it was in the first century.
He encouraged them not to give up. Don’t worry about what you will eat or wear. Search for the kingdom of God first. Live for the kingdom of God as he called it, not the kingdom of Caesar, and trust that it is worth it and that ultimately it will prevail.
Those choices of peace through victory or peace through justice are still choices for us. That is why the historical Jesus is so important for the church. The church needs to recover its soul and its vision.
That is why I went to seminary and that is why I entered the ministry. I actually believe in that vision of peace through justice. Thus I believe in Jesus. Whether or not it is successful is less important to me than whether or not I trust it and live it.
To keep that vision alive in me, I need a little parable and ritual, song and sacrament, and a community of fellow travelers to keep that vision of Jesus in my heart.