Jesus Then and Jesus Now: A Sermon

Introduction[1]

Audio of the sermon at the 5.00pm Mass
Opening Prayer
Jesus, son of Mary, you come among us
as one we think we know all too well.
Open our eyes
to see you again for the first time.
Open our hearts
to see God in one another.
Open our hands
to live with compassion.
Amen.
First Reading: Rumi, “What Jesus Runs Away From
Gospel: Mark 6:1–6a
Blessing
With open eyes, open hearts, and open hands,
may we be a blessing to all we meet this week,
in the name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Let me begin by bringing greetings from the Christian community in Palestine, and especially those communities with which I am most familiar: St Luke’s Anglican Church in Haifa and the Sabeel community in Nazareth. This is a difficult time to be a Christian in the Middle East, and I would seek your prayers for my friends there, just as they offer their prayers for us.

My task in the homilies this weekend is to reflect with you on the significance of Jesus for our kind of faith community here at St Mary’s in Exile. Rethinking Jesus is a big part of our project, I suspect; even if not always at the top of the agenda.

As we say at the beginning of most liturgies, “We gather to reflect on our lives in light of the Christian mystery …”

After five years, the conversation about what kind of community we are at SMX is not yet finished. My focus in this homily today is the part that Jesus plays in our collective and personal lives.

 

The Book

First of all, and especially in this context, it seems appropriate to begin with my recent book, Jesus Then and Jesus Now: Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves.

Yes, it is yet another ‘Jesus book’—and there have been quite a few of them in recent years. As the sub-title seeks to suggest, this one has its own character and focus. It is as much about the meaning of Jesus for today, as it is about Jesus in the first century.

A few times recently I have asked to describe the book. When that happens I like to outline the three major sections of the book in order to indicate its own particular logic:

The first section draws on my involvement with historical research:

  • history of the Galilee and Second Temple Judaism more generally
  • the work of the Jesus Seminar, of which I am a long-time member
  • and my involvement with the archaeology dig at Bethsaida

This part of the book is very much about getting a fix on ‘Jesus back then’ in first-century Galilee.

The second section draws on my work as a lecturer in Biblical Studies, and focuses on selected Jesus themes in the NT Gospels:

  • Jesus and the kingdom of God
  • Jesus and the afterlife
  • Calling Jesus names
  • The death of Jesus

This middle section of the book is very much about getting a fix on the Jesus tradition during first 100 years after Easter. What were people thinking about Jesus and saying about him in that formative period for Christianity?

The final section draws on my personal perspectives as a person of faith myself, and it deals with the relevance of the person of Jesus and the traditions about Jesus for us here and now:

  • Jesus as one of us
  • The significance of Easter
  • Jesus in a world of many faiths
  • Being a follower of Jesus today

This part of the book is much more theological and much more personal. It is probably also more controversial.

Brevity is a key virtue in this context, so let me just say a few words about my reading of Jesus as a first-century Galilean Jew and then offer some reflections on the significance of Jesus for me as a progressive Christian.

 

Jesus Then

I locate Jesus within Torah-observant Jewish settler communities in the Galilee. “Settler” is a term I have chosen with intent. It disturbs both my Jewish and Palestinian friends, not mention other Christians.

It is important to keep in mind that Jesus was neither an eco-theologian nor a first-century feminist. He was a person of his time and place, and he is a stranger to us and our values.

We may well criticise creedal Christian for divinising Jesus too easily, but we also tend to domesticate him. We recruit Jesus into our social and political agendas.

In very brief terms, then, I see Jesus (‘back then’) as coming from a small Jewish settler community at Nazareth, with maybe not more than a dozen or so families in the settlement. The people of that newly-established community were deeply attached to their Jewish identity. This included loyalty to the Temple and cultural resistance to Hellenism.

Jesus of Nazareth was more like a prophet (Elijah, Elisah, Hosea, Jonah, et al) than a sage or rabbi.

‘Prophet’ may not be a perfect category, but it is better than most others and no better one comes to mind. This seems to have been his preferred self-description and to get us about as close to his own self-understanding as we are ever likely to reach.[2] His prophetic mission put him on a collision course with imperial Rome and its local puppets.

However we may care to label him, Jesus seems to have been a catalyst for a Jewish renewal movement centred on the “reign of God”. He was, after all, a disciple and successor to John the Baptiser, so a focus on the kingdom is not surprising.

 

Jesus Now

Assuming that this description is reasonably accurate, and even if it is not, I still need to address the relevance of such a Jesus here and now.

Because I am a Christian, Jesus is central to my understanding of God and my understanding of myself. To be like Jesus and to see the character of the Christ develop within me is my religion in a nutshell.

It could have been otherwise, and most likely would have been otherwise had I not been born and raised in a family that took its Christian faith very seriously. But my family set me up to experience life through the lens of Christian faith, and thus Jesus has been at the very centre of my worldview from as early a stage as I can recall.

One helpful way to explore the significance of ‘Jesus then’ and ‘Jesus now’ is offered to us by Marcus Borg, who speaks of the difference between  “Jesus before Easter” and “Jesus after Easter.”

I think Borg is onto something very important for Christian faith in this idea, as the formula upholds the essential continuity of Jesus on both sides of Easter while also recognizing that Jesus is ‘something else’ after Easter than he had been before Easter. In using these terms we are not speaking about the ontological essence of Jesus, but rather our perceptions of Jesus and our reception of the blessings that God offers us in and through Jesus.

The prophetic identity and mission of Jesus before Easter was expressed in his actions as he healed and exorcised, taught in private and public spaces, called disciples and sent them on mission to act on his behalf, as well as when he challenged and confronted those with privilege and power. His prophetic role is seen in his teaching activity, and especially in his aphorisms and parables. In addition, his prophetic character is anchored in his personal integrity; culminating in his death on the cross.

That Jesus—the one we knew before Easter—continues to be a significant prophetic figure with much to say to us today. That faithful humanity is enough for us, and it is as a prophet that Jesus is honoured within Islam.

Indeed, as I see it, the faithful humanity of Jesus is itself a prophetic act that cuts across the centuries and invites us to get ready for the coming reign of God. Jesus speaks for God, and he does not always need to use words.

But something happened to Jesus at Easter.

This is not the moment when Jesus became God, but it is the moment when we see Jesus differently. Jesus after Easter is a combination of radical transformation and profound continuity with Jesus of Nazareth.

It is the same Jesus. The Jesus who cared about the poor and the sick, is the Jesus in whose face shines the eternal light of God. Yet something significant has changed.

Jesus after Easter relinquishes his role as prophet, becoming instead an epiphany (revelation) of God. Not surprisingly then, the Easter traditions in the New Testament are as much about epiphany as they are about resurrection.

Almost certainly none of the first disciples stopped to ask themselves what had become of Jesus’ flesh and bones. It seems crass even to contemplate such a question in this context. They had glimpsed the human face of God.[3] They knew the truth of the saying that to see Jesus is to see God (John 14:9).

Perhaps we could modify this statement slightly. Can we suggest that to see Jesus after Easter is to see God, while to see Jesus before Easter is to catch a glimpse of God?

Jesus after Easter is the Christian encounter with God.

This God has a human face, and it is a Jewish face..

This God is not just compassionate, but suffers and dies and rises again.

This God knows what it is like be alone, cold, hungry, loved, mocked, and touched.

This God sets a table and calls us to eat.

This God overturns the crass transactions at the centre of our lives and challenges us to become houses of prayer for all nations.

This God has become the Spirit poured out on all flesh, so that Paul could also say, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).

 

Conclusion

As disciples of Jesus, as people who responds to the call of God who was deeply present in Jesus of Nazareth, how do we live out from that encounter with God in Jesus in our own time and place? This encounter with grace and love and forgiveness and life transforms and radicalizes my own life. How am I to put it into practice?

However I answer that question to myself, it will not be a solo project. It will involve others and it will require me to be part of a community people seeking to fashion their own response to God in Jesus.

We see this dynamic in the story of Jesus. The human face of God did not drop out of the sky in splendid isolation. Rather, the Word of God was born into a human family and nurtured within the village life of first-century Nazareth. Even in his death, Jesus was surrounded by people: the other victims, the perpetrators of the violence, the vested interests that stood to benefit from the violence, and the intimate circle of those who would most deeply feel the impact of his violent death.

In between that communal birthing and dying we have the public years that leave no mark on the creeds and confessions of Constantine’s church. The hallmark of those years was that Jesus gathered a community of people around him. Our God is a gregarious god. She likes company!

God’s preferred company are the broken and the misfits, the blind and the lame, the poor and the outcasts, widows and hemorrhaging women, parents with sick children, collaborators, and women with reputations. Cast the first stone, our God says, if you have no sin! Come as you are. Come and eat at my table.

Given the importance of community in the life and ministry of Jesus, this is going to be a priority as I respond to my experience of God in Jesus. I am looking for a community of disciples of Jesus that is committed supporting each of its members in their personal and collective response to their encounter with God. As a priest I long to shape and serve such a community. As a Christian I want to be a part of such a community.

In fact, I think I have found such a community here at SMX.

Our is a community that reflects the character of our God, the God encountered in Jesus. We seek to be generous community, a church that takes our humanity seriously. This will not be a church where everything is tidy and all the questions have been answered. Most likely this will be a messy church, a church that is living with the questions rather than clinging to traditional answers, and a place where we do not have to be right in order to be loved.

I suspect it is also the kind of church where God likes to be seen.

 

Endnotes

[1] A sermon for St Mary’s in Exile, Brisbane (24 & 25 May 2014).
[2] For a more detailed discussion of this suggestion, see “One of the prophets,” chapter 4 in Gregory C. Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now.
[3] This phrase is an intentional homage to the influential book by Bishop John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (London: SCM, 1973; reprinted, 2012). I read this book as a theological student and the phrase has been a part of my personal perspective on Jesus ever since.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean-elect, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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