Thursday, January 16, 2014

Who Do You Say I Am?

Scripture for the first week after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

The crèche has been packed away, having done its job reminding us that in the redeemed order of the new creation accomplished in Jesus Christ, shepherds and farmhands proclaim the good news with eloquence and authority equal to kings and angels. The crèche, unlike most religious art in the western tradition, insists that this new creation is not just for human beings: cows and donkeys, sheep and camels, not to mention a rat and a zebra, have as honored a place at the manger as “homo sapiens”—perhaps a gentle suggestion that “sapientia”, wisdom, requires the human race to learn reverence for all creation. That message would surely fit Francis of Assisi, who gets the credit for making the crèche a popular fixture of Christmas.

And the Giving Tree is put away, having done its job of channeling great generosity, ensuring that for twenty North County children, Christmas was brighter than it would have been. And the wreaths are down, having reminded us to draw circles that embrace all.

Only the poinsettias remain, to remind us how we deck our halls at Christmas. If evergreens proclaim the importance of what’s locally grown, poinsettias are all about imports and immigration. We’ve welcomed them because they’re so colorful, a perfect antidote to the dour color scheme of a New England winter. Their Latin name locates them among the two thousand species of euphorbias, plants producing milky latex used over the ages to produce healing potions. Most euphorbias originated in Africa but the poinsettias made their way here from Mexico, where the Aztec nation valued them for their dye. It’s good that we keep our poinsettias well into the Epiphany season, which is all about universal proclamation of the new creation.

If there’s a central question for the Church during Epiphany, it’s the one Jesus asked his disciples to answer: Who do you say I am? As if jumping to the bottom line, our collect answers this question: at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, God proclaimed him beloved Son and Anointed One. To anyone whose religious thought has been shaped by the Hebrew Bible, the words of our collect mean that Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited helper come from God, very God of very God, to fulfill the promises reported by prophets like Isaiah.

But what kind of Messiah is he? By nature, man at war with man will want a messiah who can marshal the troops and whomp the enemy into submission. It is to save mankind from its own violent streak that prophets like Isaiah proclaimed a servant Messiah. Emmanuel, God-with-us, will not lead like a demagogue at the microphone or a military strategist in the situation room.

Rather, the divine helper is shaped by delight and upheld by spirit: delight because the helper fulfills what human beings are meant to be: image-bearers of the divine, demonstrators of the likeness of God. The Messiah truly gets it, and so has unique capacity and desire to give. Shaped by the delight of the Creator, the Messiah is upheld by the Spirit that moved over the waters of creation, and moves over the waters of the Jordan to release the movement of the new creation.

If this Messiah is not popular demagogue or military strategist, what he is is forecast by the Hebrew prophets and reported by apostles and evangelists of the New Testament: a light to the nations, a direct connection with the heart of God, opener of blind eyes, guide to freedom for the captive, doer of good, healer of the oppressed, host setting a table for all, achiever of forgiveness, the one who turns the tables on death.

The Creator God summons servant Jesus to this messiahship—but to do justice to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we need to find a way to say this that avoids the impression that this is two unrelated parties agreeing on a brand new agenda. This Jesus, shaped by divine delight and upheld by divine spirit, is true God from true God, of one being with the Father, and the vision that impels both the anointing God and the anointed Jesus is the ancient timeless vision of the world set right, the competing components of creation reconciled, the unity of purpose between Creator and creatures restored, the ancient wrong made right. “To fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptizer.

The library of memoirs, sermons, and letters that we call the New Testament presents the early Church’s answer to the questions, Who is Jesus Christ? What is God up to in Jesus? And, What is asked of us who have been attracted to God in Jesus Christ?

En route to answering these questions, the New Testament asks how and when does the fully human Jesus become the divine being, Jesus the Christ?

We could say that this was the theological handiwork of the Church in later ages, like those infamous ecumenical councils of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries—about which one great Church father, Gregory Nazianzus, wrote, “My inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them.”

While we later Christians have gone on reciting the creeds hammered out at such councils, many of us prefer to examine the evidence ourselves, the evidence of the New Testament.

When we do, we see three moments in the Christian gospels when the story line declares that Jesus the Christ became God—“was Godded”, to use a word coined by Church historian Philip Jenkins.

One is the resurrection on Easter Day. This is St. Paul’s answer, found in the opening words of his Letter to the Romans: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship…”

Paul’s letters are the earliest, the oldest of the New Testament writings, so his answer—that Jesus Christ is Godded at Easter, stands as the Church’s first answer.

Then read the Gospels of Mark and John (which have no Christmas stories), and it makes sense to see the baptism of Jesus as the moment when he acquires divinity. This became the Church’s second answer, which gained popularity in the late first and second centuries.

And, as we know, being fresh off Christmas, if you turn to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, you get the Church’s third (and, in terms of New Testament development, its newest) answer: Jesus comes into this world fully Godded at his birth. This became the orthodox answer, over time.

I say, let’s be grateful for a religion of diverse answers. Let’s take encouragement from the New Testament’s examples of how the Church wrestles with questions. And let’s recognize that while the Church’s answers are meant to guide us, it is for each of us to answer who we believe he is, what difference this makes in our lives, and what this belief asks of us.

Notice how John needs persuading to contribute his part. “I need you to wash the grit from my eyes, the dust from my lips, the mud from my feet. I, who cannot see as you see, or speak as you speak, or know with confidence how to put one foot before the other, I need you to anoint me for your service.”

“Trust me,” replies Jesus. “ What you see, what you say, what you stand for—I need all this to embrace fully what the world needs, what the new creation requires. The fullness of God will make of our offerings together what is called for.

I wonder if the Church invites us to revisit annually this exchange between John and Jesus so as to find ourselves in the conversation between them. We protest that we of little faith (or of real faith but not much self-confidence, and perhaps with limited attention spans), we haven’t much to offer Jesus.

Jesus begs to differ. But rather than argue with us, he’s apt to ask us the foundational questions: Who do you say I am? How will you represent me in your daily life? Will you trust me, and yourself, and those others whom I also need, to work together for the sake of the world, to advance the new creation?

These Epiphany questions will occupy us for several weeks now, in a season marked by proclamation and mission. Getting clear what the Christmas Gospel is, and how to carry it, proclaim it, embody it as people who know the Word made flesh and intend to allow that incarnation to keep happening in us, and through us in this world.

Philip Jenkins’s book is “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” (Harper Collins, 2010) was helpful in the preparation of this sermon, and is the source of the two quotations.