Who is Jesus? This question has fascinated people for already two thousand years. In his own time everybody in Israel felt the urge that they needed to get to grips with who this person is. And in our own day, it is not different. Everybody has an opinion. And theology of the last 50 years in particular has again focussed on what is called “the quest for the Historical Jesus”. This sermon will not explore that quest, though I strongly believe we should not be afraid of it. The Jesus of real historical research will turn out to be far more of a friend to the Jesus of faith and devotion, than we might at first think. In the end, the person of Jesus is a mystery, and we recognize this in our service by bowing our heads slightly when mentioning his name in the Creed.
We who say we are his people and disciples must be the more aware of this. Many in our day seem to want to make a distinction between Jesus and his followers. As one dear friend of mine said: “I am a fan of Jesus, he is the first real revolutionary, I dislike the Church. Why would I need that institution, if I have Jesus?” Let us not deny the faith which is there in such a statement. Jesus did not deny the Pharisee coming to him. So let us go through the conversation in the Gospel point by point. It will draw a picture of who Jesus is. And then we will relate that to the problem posed by my friend.
Part 1: Who is Jesus?
Jesus the Fraud and Teacher
The Pharisee clearly seemed to have already made up his mind. Like many in our own day, the Pharisee calls him “Teacher”, but clearly believes Jesus to be a fraud. He saw Jesus as a dangerous distraction from serving God by being zealous in observing the Law. And so he comes to Jesus, hoping to show Jesus’ opposition to the Law. He asks: “what is the greatest commandment?”
For the Pharisee this was the defining distinction. By being zealous for the Law you showed yourself to be part of the people of God who would at the Day of the Lord, the day of judgment be in the right – or justified. And Jesus – unexpectantly – affirms the importance of the Law, summarized in the command to love God with your very live and soul, and to love your neighbour. And he adds that the whole Law and the Prophets depend on it, literally are hung up on it. Everything what the Law is about is in there.
Jesus the Messiah
So far so good. But Jesus has a different image of this love and the law than the Pharisee who asks the question. And he shows this by asking a question in return: “what do you think about the Messiah?” This is not Jesus suddenly changing the topic of discussion. As a teacher he wants to bring the Pharisee to a deeper understanding of the topic: “how do I know I belong to God’s people who will be in the right with him?” Jesus tells him to focus not just on the Law itself but on the Messiah, who was to come to save the people of Israel from their exile and renew the covenant.
Jesus is saying the Love for God and the Love for Neighbour – the whole purpose of the Law – will be seen and fulfilled in the Messiah, namely in his life, self-sacrificial death and resurrection. As Isaiah says about the suffering servant: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
This life and self-sacrificial death of Jesus is the embodiment of the steadfast faithful love for God and neighbour on which the whole Law depends. With this simple question he tells the Pharisees that in order to belong to the people of God who are accounted righteous in the Day of the Lord, you need to belong to the Messiah. Apart from him, such righteousness is impossible.
Jesus is God
But there is more. Jesus further asks: “whose son is the Messiah?” Any Jewish child would immediately say: “the son of David”. But Jesus goes further: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying the Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand?”. This was a lightning-rod. The Pharisees were stunned, baffled and silenced. And we read that “from that day no one dared to ask him anymore questions.”
Why? What was so radical about this question? To understand it we must turn to what that word “Lord” meant. A few centuries before the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, called the Septuagint. The translators choose to translate the word for Jahweh, the covenant God of Israel, as Kyrios, which is Greek for Lord. And this is the word that Jesus uses. Thus Jesus is saying to them: “The Messiah isn’t just a warrior like David who will kick out the Romans, just another revolutionary in the story of Israel; He is God returning to his people.”
And just like Jesus in the Gospel, Paul in the Epistle uses the familiar Old Testament concept of “the Day of the Lord (Yahweh)”, and refocuses it on Jesus Himself, the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And so, to conclude our first part, here is Jesus. At this time in Trinity Season the readings are leading us to contemplate him as he is in true glory. In Jesus “we are enriched in all speech and all knowledge”. He is not a fraud. He is the embodiment of the faithful and steadfast love of the Creator for everyone. He is himself God, fulfilling his covenantal promises to the Jews , and the start of a revolution and Kingdom embracing the whole of humanity. That kingdom is formed by you as the people of the Messiah, the church.
Part II: Jesus and the Church
The Testimony of Christ confirmed among us
This leads us to the problem posed in the introduction by my friend: many people are a fan of Jesus, but do not like the people and the institution who claim to be his followers. What is wrong? Paul would pose the question to us in this way: “is the testimony about Christ confirmed among you?” For if it is confirmed among us, people would not make the distinction.
So how is that testimony confirmed among us? Well, if Jesus is, as we saw earlier, the embodiment of the faithful and steadfast love of God, and if he showed that love by his self-sacrificial death, there is only one way in which that testimony is confirmed among us: we too are called to show forth that very same revolutionary love. First we too die, die with Jesus to our selfish passions and desires. Then we rise again with him in a new holy life. We are lifted up into heaven to behold him and are enriched with all the gifts of the spirit. Not just for ourselves, but that we may go out and serve in the revolution of God; showing the steadfast love of God to all people; willing to suffer in our bodies, our comforts, our relationships, and yes even in our bank accounts; as long as we can show the steadfast love of God in Jesus.
The Church as institution
No wonder people are so sceptical of the Church as institution. Worldly institutions always try to work in their own best temporal interests; want to hold its grip over people and societies; want to capitalize on political power. They focus on numbers and money. How can that ever be self-sacrificial love? And the Church as an institution has done so and sadly often still does so.
Do not get me wrong, I hope that after this sermon, you will still be there next week. We are not to leave our churches. For Jesus and his people, the church, are inextricably linked. It is Jesus Himself who founded her, and only through her that each of us have come to know him. In other words, what revolution can be achieved without organized resistance.
So, do not just attack the church. That is easy. First of all ask yourself personally: “what am I doing to show God’s love in Christ for people? ” And then as a church together: “what are we doing together to show God’s love in Christ for people?” This is a true revolution: living a holy sinless life, standing up against the injustice of sin in its manifold expressions of greed, power, bullying, poverty and racism, in all its many forms. Thus the testimony of Christ will be confirmed among us, not just in the Creed we say, but by the lives we live. We will be a Letter from Christ to all people. And we will show my friend – and not tell her – who Jesus is and why his Church matters.
To Conclude: the daily struggle
Let us conclude. This is a hard daily struggle, but Jesus himself, as Paul says, is present to sustain us. This he does here in the Eucharist today. We see and celebrate the love of God in Jesus seen in his sacrificial death. And we partake of him so that the testimony about Christ will be confirmed in us and among us. And we go out to do our part in his mission.
And beyond today we look forward to the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, we look forward to it. We eagerly await it. He is preparing us for it, and he himself will come to complete the Revolution, and show forth the steadfast love of God by putting to right all evil in the world. For that is what his day of judgment is about. Amen.