“A Jesus for Everyone”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
February 21, 2106
This past Thursday, in our weekly Bible study, we read the story of Jesus and his disciples happening upon a funeral procession. By the end of the story, the man in the coffin was alive and well. If this story doesn’t sound familiar to you, you are not alone; the members of the class and I were equally baffled.
Most of us who are familiar with scripture remember that, in the Gospel of John, Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. It’s a dramatic story, but for some reason, we didn’t remember this one from Luke.
That’s the great thing about scripture. No matter how long we’ve been attending church or adult education classes or reading on the Bible our own, there are surprises waiting for us every time we open it up.
This morning’s reading offers another eye-opening event and some alternative ways of thinking about Jesus.
We are so used to Jesus and the Pharisees disagreeing and debating, challenging and questioning one another, prodding each other and even trying to embarrass one another, that it is kind of shocking to see something different happening here.
A group of Pharisees actually warn Jesus that King Herod plan to kill him. The Pharisees, if you haven’t heard of them, were a party of religious people who focused on deepening the religious commitments of the Jewish people through a strict adherence to the religious law. King Herod was a puppet of the Romans and only nominally Jewish. It was widely known that he didn’t follow the laws and traditions of Judaism and he was notoriously corrupt. Maybe that is why the Pharisees took Jesus’ side, but it is still amazing and refreshing to see them looking out for his safety.
The other day, my father-in-law gave Tracy and me a book called, The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. The subtitle is, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.
I think my father-in-law knows that, in an election year, this might be a useful book for a pastor, but also for anyone who has friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors who are on the other side of the political divide from wherever we are. Those of us who are trying to love our neighbors as ourselves need all the help we can get in this kind of polarized atmosphere.
This first verse in our reading for today reminds me that Jesus and the Pharisees had major hopes in common. They both longed for a more faithful society and for a world where they, as Jewish people, could live out their religious commitments without interference from those in power.
So… for the Pharisees, Jesus was a worthy adversary, a constant pain in their necks, a threat perhaps, but a brother in faith nonetheless.
To Jesus’ original followers and to those who came to his movement in the years following his death and resurrection, Jesus was much more than just a brother in faith. To them, he was the Son of God, the Messiah.
However, in the first three gospel accounts, it looks like Jesus’ own identity is as a prophet in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel – like Isaiah and Jeremiah, many of whom were put to death for speaking out in ways that threatened the powers that be.
In our reading for today, Jesus refers to himself as a prophet and to many, that’s just what he is – a wise man who speaks on God’s behalf and has a sense of how the present will lead to either a disastrous or a blessed future.
Muslims… Christians who struggle with the idea of Jesus’ divinity… many folks who follow other religious paths… non-religious people who admire his teaching… Many see Jesus as a prophet and only a prophet.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus famously asks his disciples, Who do you say that I am. In Luke’s version of the conversation, he first asks who the crowds are saying that he is. The disciples say various things: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets of Israel risen from the dead.
It is the ever-impulsive and enthusiastic Peter who answers, You are the Messiah. Many (including me) agree with Peter, that Jesus is the anointed one (which is what the Hebrew word Messiah means). Kings were anointed in the old days. So, to those of us who see Jesus as the anointed one, he is the king — or the leader — of our lives and the one in whom we know the Spirit of the living God most fully.
Lent is a good time to struggle with this question. Who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for this world and for our church? Who is Jesus for you and for me?
I know that some of us relate to the Pharisees and see Jesus as a fly in our ointment — or even our nemesis — as we try to just get through the day to day without too much effort or thought. But there he is, Jesus the prodder, reminding us to be more faithful, asking us to allow ourselves to be forgiven and loved… Saying things like how hard it is for the wealthy and privileged ones to experience heaven, asking us to pray for those who persecute us, commanding us to love our enemies…
Even if Jesus gets under our skin sometimes, we have a strong sense, don’t we, that love was the foundation and motivation for everything he said and did, even going to the cross.
Luke foreshadows the crucifixion in this verse about prophets always being killed in Jerusalem, and Jesus is on his way there in this chapter.
The other day on the radio, I heard a 91-year-old World War II veteran talk about all the close friends he lost during the 36-day battle for the Island of Iwo Jima. He expressed deep gratitude that he is able to enjoy his life (and we ours), including the joys of learning, venturing out into the world, finding meaningful work, falling in love, and holding our children in our arms, because of their willingness to give up their lives.
Of course, Jesus was not engaged in armed combat, so in a different way, he gave his life as well. He gave his so that we might know God, you and I. Though we might not completely accept or understand why his story unfolded the way that it did, this is Jesus’ gift to everyone who chooses to accept it.
One gift that we may be hesitant to accept is Jesus as a mother figure in our lives, and yet he claims this role in today’s reading. As the eternal Christ, he is not bound by one or another gender and this is one of the few verses in the Bible that offers us a clear feminine image of the Divine. So this is a real gift to those oof us who long for that. But even if we are comfortable with the idea of a mothering Jesus, we are not very good (most of us, anyway) at allowing anyone (including Jesus) to nurture us.
How about you? How do you like the idea of Mother Jesus… the Jesus who holds us in his heart and longs to protect us? The Jesus who worries about us, in a good way? The Jesus who may nag at us a little bit, but only for our own good? The Jesus who would not abandon us for the world?
In the end, each of us has our own understanding of whom Jesus is and what roles he plays in our lives.
One role that I invite all of us to accept is the one Luke offers us in the final verse of this passage. In it, the author quotes Jesus: I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (which is what the crowds shout out on Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem).
If we can embrace the Jesus who enters triumphantly into the holy city, then, hopefully, we can embrace the coming of God’s new world, which Jesus heralds. May we all continue to long for that new world, a world remade in God’s image, the world that Jesus embodies.