A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 29, 2015
John 18:28-38a GNT
When the gospel writer John included in his passion story the scene of Pilate questioning Jesus, he was being much more universally prophetic than he could have ever imagined. According to John’s account, Pilate posed two very pointed, all-important questions to Jesus: “Are you a king?” and “What is truth?” Incidentally, all four gospels include Pilate’s first question, “Are you a king?” (or, “Are you the king of the Jews?”). But John alone includes the second question, “What is truth?” Ever since that fateful day, much ink has been spilled, an untold number of books have been written, and many debates have ensued as men and women have tried to answer these two questions—and more—about Jesus. More books probably have been written about Jesus than any other person who has ever lived. Was—is—Jesus the king of the Jews? If not, who was he? And just what is truth when it comes to Jesus, who he was, and his place in world?
As we ponder Pilate’s questions regarding Jesus on this Palm-Passion Sunday, we do well to remind ourselves that those faithful pilgrims who gathered on the Mount of Olives on that first Palm Sunday must have had a variety of preconceptions as to who Jesus was, depending upon each one’s frame of reference. Messiah. Deliverer. Prophet. A new King from the line of David. Bringer of peace. Zealot. Insurrectionist. All of these ideas and more must have been swirling in the minds of those gathered in Jerusalem that day as Jesus made his way down the Mount of Olives on a donkey and into Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish religious power and authority.
But the question regarding the true Jesus is as relevant today as ever. On Interstate 40, coming from Crossville toward Oak Ridge, at mile marker 315, there is a giant billboard that reads, “Who is Jesus?” And below the question a phone number is given that one can call to learn “The Truth.”
As we consider the person of Jesus at the start of this Holy Week, we find that the Jesus that has come down to us through history is a Jesus of many different faces. That is to say, there is no one, universally-accepted, golden standard of Jesus that is honored in churches across the world. No, the perceptions that people have of Jesus are many and varied.
Within the pages of the New Testament alone we find several different portrayals of Jesus, including, but not limited to, the long-awaited Messiah who would deliver Israel from their enemies and release them from the hold of the mighty Roman Empire; to an itinerant rabbi who taught in parables and shed new light on what it means to be a child of God; to a compassionate faith healer who went about doing good; to the One chosen by God to oppose and conquer the forces of evil; to the advocate for justice for the marginalized and oppressed; to the Lamb of God who would become the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. These are just some of the faces of Jesus that we see in our New Testament; there are more.
But there are other faces of Jesus that prevailed in the early decades of Christianity that didn’t even survive, as Bart Erhman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, elaborates upon in the course titled Lost Christianities that the adult Sunday school class is viewing on Sunday mornings.1 Early Christianity was very diverse, much more diverse than most Christians today probably would like to admit. It was only when Constantine in the early fourth century felt the need to unify the Christian religion that many forms of early Christianity (and many conceptions of Jesus as well) were weeded out and declared heretical.
Some 100 years ago, the great humanitarian, African doctor, biblical scholar, and writer Albert Schweitzer sought in his monumental work published in 1906 (translated into English in 1910), The Quest of the Historical Jesus, to go back in time and recover the true Jesus stripped of all the layers of interpretation that his followers had placed upon him over the centuries. Basically, Schweitzer concluded that modern man really cannot understand the real Jesus, since we are so far removed from the time in which Jesus lived. But basically, Schweitzer concluded that Jesus epitomized “late Jewish eschatology,” believing that the end of time was imminent, and that his preaching and ministry would help bring about the end of history.
I find it interesting that when we read the prominent biblical scholars and theologians of our own day that each of them, in his or her personal interpretation of Jesus, presents a different picture than the others. For instance, since I mentioned Bart Erhman, it is interesting that his picture of Jesus is similar to that of Schweitzer’s. Erhman believes Jesus was what he calls an apocalyptacist, one who believed and preached that the end of the world was near and called his hearers to make changes in their lives and help usher in the Kingdom of God. Such a view can be supported from the gospels of Mark and Matthew, for example.
John Shelby Spong presents a picture of Jesus as one in whom “people met God. ‘God was in Christ,’ they said—and we say with them—because life, love and being flowed through the fullness of his humanity” (Jesus for the Non-Religious, 289).2 Echoing somewhat the thought of 19th century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spong believes that Jesus was one who understood what it really means to be fully human, to fully love, fully serve, fully give of self. By so doing, Jesus revealed God and the will of God for the world.
Marcus Borg’s picture of Jesus seems to be multi-faceted. In his watershed book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg describes Jesus as filling a number of roles. Borg’s four faces of Jesus include the following:
- “a spirit person, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God.”
- “a teacher of wisdom who regularly used the classic forms of wisdom speech (parables, and memorable short sayings known as aphorisms) to teach a subversive and alternative wisdom.”
- “a social prophet similar to the classical prophets of ancient Israel.”
- “a movement founder who brought into being a Jewish renewal or revitalization movement that challenged and shattered the social boundaries of his day, a movement that eventually became the early Christian church” (Meeting Jesus Again, 30).3
Well, I have great respect for all these biblical scholars I have mentioned, but I don’t always agree with each one’s particular perception of Jesus in every detail. As we have seen, they don’t always agree with one another either. But that is okay. I have my own perception of Jesus—a compassionate, itinerant teacher of spiritual wisdom whose primary message was compassion, and in compassion reached out to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized of his day who opposed and stood up to the powers of oppression—and when I think of being a follower of Jesus, that Jesus is the One I seek to follow.
But the pertinent question is, When you think about the face of Jesus, who do you see? Or to put it another way, Who is Jesus to you? I am guessing that if we were to pose the question, “Who is Jesus to you?” to every member of this United Church, and really press for an answer, we would get a variety of responses. And who is to say that one perception of Jesus is better or more correct than another?
Perhaps the fact that the persona of Jesus is so complex, and different facets of Jesus appeal to so many diverse circumstances, helps account for his wide appeal and influence down through the ages. Jesus continues to speak to new generations as the interests and concerns of the times continue to change. And in the final analysis, maybe we don’t need to pigeonhole Jesus, one particular face of Jesus, but rather, just let Jesus be the many-faceted person that he is. Amen.
1Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication (DVD series). The Teaching Company, 2002.
2John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. New York: Harper One, 2007, p. 289.
3Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995, p. 30.