Sunday, April 13, 2014

Practicing the Preaching (Passion/Palm 4/13/14)

Practicing the Preaching
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 13, 2014

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus  21:1-12

Led by one of Jesus’ disciples, the police show up at the place Jesus and the rest of his followers were gathered.  Because Jesus had often gone to the place, Jesus’ followers knew the place too.  And the police seized Jesus and held him fast.  And the disciples all deserted Jesus and ran away.

They brought Jesus before the high priest.

The ranking priests bound Jesus and turned him over to Pilate, the Roman governor.  Then Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over to be crucified.

And the Roman soldiers bring him to the place Golgotha (which means “Place of the skull”).  And the soldiers crucify him.

Now some women were observing this from a distance, among whom were Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome.  These women had regularly followed and assisted him when he was in Galilee, along with many other women who had come up to Jerusalem in his company.

Then Jesus breathed his last.

Those few paragraphs are from Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar’s The Gospel of Jesus.   The Gospel of Jesus is a bare bones account of the life and death of Jesus based on the deliberations and eventual voting of the seminar to determine what material is more or less likely than other material to go back to the historical Jesus.     

Even though the passion narratives, the stories about his arrest, trial, and execution, take up a third or more of the material in each of the four gospels, they are creative narratives, that is, not history in our modern understanding of history.   They were early attempts to make meaning out of his life and in particular his death.    

Mark was the first and Matthew and Luke base their narratives on Mark.  You might go home today and compare the first gospel Mark chapter 15 with Psalm 22.   Read them side by side and see how the author of Mark drew from that Psalm and created a narrative of the death of Jesus.    Mark was struggling with the question of what did it mean for Jesus to die the way he did.    For Mark, Jesus is the vindicated suffering hero, while seemingly forsaken on the cross, whose cry is heard, and who trusts in the promise that God’s justice will reign.  

Luke, Matthew, John, the Apostle Paul, other writers whose works made it into the New Testament and those whose works did not make it, all attempted to write about his death in meaningful ways.   This process has continued throughout history.     Several theological theories have developed and have had their day.

These theories have all been supernaturally based.   That is that people have looked to supernatural explanations rather than to natural ones to speak of the significance of his life and death.    

One of these theories is called the Ransom Theory or the Christ Victor Theory.   This was the first dominant theory formulated by Irenaeus of Lyons.  It was the primary theory for the church for a thousand years.  The Ransom Theory was popularized by C.S. Lewis and his children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia.  In this vision, the world is controlled by Satan and the power of sin.   Satan required a ransom to be paid to free the souls of humanity.   God offers Jesus.  Satan has him killed.    The trick is that Satan didn’t realize that Jesus was the Son of God and therefore the soul of Jesus could not be contained and Jesus emerged victorious.   Christ thus defeats the powers of evil.   The resurrection of Jesus and the martyrs is the sign of God’s victory over sin, death, and Satan.   This was the dominant view for a thousand years until the 11th century and Anselm.

In the eleventh century in Europe, Anselm developed the Satisfaction or Penal Theory of Atonement.   In this theory God is conceived as king and judge.  Holy and righteous.    The sinfulness of humankind has offended God’s honor.   It is like a crime against the state.  A judge simply cannot forgive the one who has committed a crime even if he wanted to do so.  He has to exact a punishment.     The punishment for this is death, that is annihilation.    Human beings cannot work it off.  It would require an eternity in debtor’s prison.  They cannot do anything to pay for this sin and have their souls redeemed.   So what does God do?   He can’t forgive it and they can’t pay it.   It would take a God/Man to make things right.  Jesus is the God/Man who because he is God is pure and righteous enough to pay the debt and because he is human he can take the place of those who owe the debt.    Jesus dies on the cross paying the debt we owe to God.   Jesus dies for our sins.   So God looks at us not as sinful but as clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.   The resurrection is the promise of eternal life for those who believe it.    This is a dominant theory today especially among evangelicals.   This is so dominant that people don’t even know there are other options.   

Another theory that has been a minority view yet present since the early church fathers is called the Moral Influence Theory.  It was articulated by another medieval theologian, Peter Abelard.   It was influential among liberal Protestants including Martin Luther King, Jr.   The basic theory is that the death of Jesus demonstrates the love of God for humankind.   That Jesus would willingly die for us such a horrible death makes clear the extent that we are behaving badly and makes clear that God loves us.  Thus as we look upon Jesus on the cross, our hearts are moved and transformation works within.    In many respects the theology that informed Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance was this redemptive suffering.   When we are confronted by the suffering of the innocent, when those who are abused do not return evil with evil, the eyes of the rest of us, including the abuser, are opened to the injustice of our sinful systems such as racism.   When our eyes are opened our hearts are able to be transformed.    Jesus is then the example to follow.     His way of non-violent resistance to the forces of evil, even to the point of his own death is the model for integrity and salvation.

These three theories have combined and each has subsets, but these basic three theories:  the defeat of the powers, the satisfaction of sin, and the moral influence theories are the three key theories that the church has offered to provide meaning for the death of Jesus.   

We have spent great effort over these past two millennia trying to understand the meaning of his death or trying to make his death meaningful.    I will ask an impertinent question:  Why is his death more meaningful than anyone else’s?   And another impertinent question follows:  Why is his death more meaningful than his life? 

The answer, the obvious answer to my questions is that Jesus is God’s revelation or to put it more bluntly, Jesus is God.    I tend to find that answer less than satisfactory.  It sounds to me like the same answer I hear when I ask how the universe came into being and the answer is given:  God made it.   I want to say, “Can you be more precise?” 

Is Jesus only of interest because of supernaturalism?   If it weren’t for Adam and Eve and original sin, Satan, hell, heaven, and God, would the life of this executed peasant matter at all?   At the risk of sounding cynical, I would say the answer is probably no.  If you took the God out and stripped away all of the mythological trappings, I think we would turn away from Jesus in the same way that we avert our eyes from the homeless man on the corner of Roan and Main in Johnson City.  

If Jesus is not the Son of God who died for our sins I think we would care about him in the same way we care about

·      the Palestinian family whose home is demolished by a bulldozer because they have been branded as terrorists,
·      or the transgender woman beaten to death in Memphis,
·      or the child in Kenya who didn’t survive the hunger season,
·      or the disappeared husband and father in Nicaragua,
·      or the Pakistani girl who is collateral damage of the latest U.S. drone strike,
·      or the rough neck in North Dakota crushed by an oil rig.

Jesus was nobody.  He wasn’t interesting.  Just another poor soul bloodied by the machine.    My theology of the historical Jesus, if you could call it a theology, is in a minor key   I have been told it has no traction.  That is true.   My Jesus does not have universal consciousness.   He does not think God’s thoughts. He does not reside in heaven, nor is he embraced in light.   He didn’t rise from the dead, but I do think many of his teachings survived him and thus inspire me.   I suppose I could call that resurrection.  He is certainly no church growth strategy kind of Jesus.   I am not sure if you can build a church on him.


I don’t really insist.  I am fine with singing the songs and performing the liturgy since that is apparently what it takes to preserve his memory.    The Jesus of history is a tough sell.    He was in the way of empire.  Despite the gospels’ narratives of a trial before Pilate and so forth, it is doubtful that even happened.   He was likely strung up on Rome’s torture device along with thousands of others without a second thought.  

If I am to look at Jesus, to care about Jesus, I am forced to realize that it isn’t about him at all.    The meaning of Jesus is not about Jesus.  The meaning of Jesus is the same as the meaning of human beings, particularly that aspect of humanity rendered meaningless by the abuse of power, violence and greed, in short, sin.     I am also forced to realize that more often than I care to admit, I don’t practice what I preach.   I mostly avert my eyes from the suffering of my neighbor.   I do this perhaps to survive, perhaps of fatigue, perhaps of cowardice.  

Maya Angelou when she spoke at ETSU a few years ago told this story.   She said a woman came up to her and told her that she was a Christian.   Maya Angelou was amused and thought to herself, “Already?”   How easily, how glibly we say we love or follow Jesus and even dare to bear his title, Christian.  Maya Angelou understood that looking at Jesus requires looking not only at humanity but the human being in front of us.   That isn’t easy.  

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his prologue to his book, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography, imagines a conversation with Jesus about his book.   He asks Jesus if he did a good job describing him.  He imagines Jesus responding:

“I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good.  So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?”
“I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?”
“Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity.  That at least is something.”
“Is it enough, Jesus?”
“No, Dominic, is it not.”

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the holiest week of the church.  It is a week to reflect on the passion of Jesus and anticipate the hope of resurrection, which symbolizes many things for me, including the opportunity to try again. 

While the passion of Jesus is understood to be about his death and the meaning of his death, I would invite you to light a candle for the passion of Jesus in terms of for what you might think he was passionate.  What was his passion?   

I like to think his passion was to embrace everyone he could, to bear witness to their lives, to say,

“You matter and you count, if even to no one else, but to me.”  

Perhaps this Holy Week, we can embrace that passion and make it ours,
even if imperfectly,
even if haltingly,
but perhaps more courageously than we thought we could;
we can embrace the stranger,
the neighbor,
the enemy,
the other and ourselves as
worthy of love,
worthy of justice,
worthy of dignity,
worthy of remembrance.


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