I may have told you before that the church I served before coming to Greensboro, in Northern Virginia, looked a lot like this one. I don’t mean the people – you all look like yourselves. I mean, the church building was almost exactly the same. It was built about the same time, early 1950s, at a time when people were building churches all over the place, just a little ways out from city centers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these two buildings used the same basic plan. They had the same footprint – kind of an adapted L-shape, with the sanctuary in one leg of the L and classrooms in the other. And the same red brick outside, the same front door that faced the street that nobody used anymore because the main entrance was built off the parking lot.
There was one significant difference, though, and that was the sign out front. We have a nice sign out front that has the name of the church; that’s all well and good. The church in Virginia had a sign too, but it was one of those with interchangeable letters, so you can change your message often.
And after having been your pastor for nearly eight years, I love a lot of things about this church – but pretty high on the list is still the fact that you don’t have one of those signs.
This sounds like a small thing, I know, but let me tell you. I hated that sign. The task of changing the sign – which we tried to do once a week or so, just to keep it fresh – usually fell to me or the other minister, or sometimes a good-natured volunteer, but it was always such an onerous task. There were three lines, so you had to figure out something to say that could fit on the sign, and then you had to count out the letters, and you couldn’t say anything with too many “Es” because there weren’t that many and some had gotten lost over the years. And then you had to go out front and pry open the cover – which never quite worked very well – and stand there with your backside to the busy street, and take the old words down, then reorganize the letters into your new message, and then slide them just right, all while your hands were freezing in the cold weather – you couldn’t slide the letters in with gloves on – or your neck was getting sunburned in the heat.
And that wasn’t even the hard part. The hard part was deciding what to put on the sign. What message – we wondered this every week – what message would be catchy enough to peak people’s interest as they drove by on their way home from work?
Would it be something cheesy, like this: “Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil – no point.”
Or slightly convicting, like this:
“Do you cling to your Bible as closely as to your cell phone?”
Or maybe kind of straight to the point, like this one:
“Blah Blah Blah, Just come to church.”
And believe me, I was always a little bit tempted to do something like this:
“They asked me to change the sign so I did.”
The thing is, it’s really hard to capture the essence of a church community in a few words on a sign. It’s really hard to boil down a religious tradition that’s a couple of millennia old to a pithy statement that fits on three lines with 42 characters or less and only five “Es”.
Not that we don’t try. We love our church-sign theology, our bumper-sticker lessons, our roadside billboard Bible.
This one made me laugh:
“Well, you did ask for a sign” – God
And then there’s this one. I see this kind of a lot, do you? On bumper stickers, t-shirts, billboards:
“Jesus is the answer”
Or this variation:
“Jesus is the answer – any questions?
That one – with the “any questions?” at the end, makes me want to say – Yes! I have lots of questions! What is Jesus the answer to? In what way is Jesus the answer?
What does that even mean?
To say “Jesus is the answer” sounds awfully nice – but it takes a whole lot of unpacking.
And you know, we Disciples are a little guilty of this sometimes. In our tradition, we like to say we have no “creed but Christ” – that is, we don’t use the ancient creeds of the church, or really any other statement of faith as a pre-requisite for being part of our faith community. We like to say that we have no “tests of fellowship” – we just ask if people want to be followers of Jesus.
No creed but Christ: Jesus is the answer.
But Jesus isn’t some magic secret password that unlocks the secrets of the universe or even the doors of the church.
To say that Jesus is the answer, to say that our creed is Christ, really demands that we ask a different question:
Who is Jesus?
Which also takes some unpacking. Who is this Jesus? What do we mean when we say Jesus is the Christ? When we call Jesus savior, what is he saving us from? Who is Jesus?
Well, as with last week’s question about God, we won’t get this totally answered today. But we can start with some things we do know about Jesus.
We know some of the things that happened to Jesus, and we know some of the things that Jesus said. And we know what some of the things the early church said about Jesus, and we know some of the things that church tradition through the years have said about Jesus.
We know some of the stories he told, and some of the stories told about him. We know – based on the work of scholars and historians – that he probably was a real person, a teacher and preacher and healer who drew some attention in the early part of the first century and was executed by the Roman government. We know that something happened after that that made people keep telling his stories and writing down things he said and things that happened to him.
You know this probably, but most of what we know about Jesus comes from the part of our Bible called the New Testament – that’s at the back of the Bible. There are the four gospels that tell the stories about Jesus, and then there’s the book of Acts, that tells some of what happened, kind of like a history book, after Jesus was alive, and then there are all these letters, to and from the early church communities, that also tell stories and record sayings, and begin to sort out what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
All of the writers of the New Testament were wrestling with the question: Who is Jesus?
Very few of them, it seems to me, were saying: “Jesus is the answer.”
So, about those four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John… There’s a lot of similarities in these four books, but there are a lot of differences, too. I find this fascinating. And they were written over the course of a generation or so – Mark was the earliest, probably a little after the year 70, so still some 40 years after Jesus died, John was maybe written as late as 120. So these are all different takes on the story – it’s kind of like when you go on a family trip and you come home and you all have a slightly different version of what happened, about what the most important part of the trip was, about what you want to remember and tell your friends. That’s kind of the gospels.
And there are four of them – plus Acts and the letters – that tell us about Jesus. And you really have to consider the whole thing the whole picture, and consider the context in which they were written.
So we know something about Jesus from the Bible. But we also know something about Jesus from experience and tradition beyond the Bible. For most of us, our experience of Jesus is not confined to these few pages of ancient text. Most of us have some experience of Jesus beyond that.
Let me see if I can unpack that a little, too. Marcus Borg, in Heart of Christianity, talks about the “pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.” I find this really helpful, so let me see if I can summarize this quickly.
For Borg, the pre-Easter Jesus is the man who lived in the first century. Who walked around, talked to people, told stories, healed people, had friends, ate meals. The actual man who lived until he was killed. The pre-Easter Jesus.
And then there’s the post-Easter Jesus. The Jesus we know through experience – our own and other people’s – and tradition, the tradition of the church that has carried these stories and experiences down through the centuries.
And Borg says, we need both of these – the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus – to really understand the fullness of who Jesus is. We need to understand Jesus both as a man who walked around on earth, and also, we need to understand Jesus as the living Christ who we experience in the here and now.
I guess here’s the thing. The question “Who is Jesus?” isn’t quite the right one. It’s more like “Who is Jesus for us?” For me? For you? Who is Jesus for you?
Another way to say this comes from Jesus himself, in the gospel of Matthew, when the disciples come to him with their own big questions, trying to figure out who Jesus is…
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
That’s the question, right? Who do you say that I am?
Not, who does the Bible say Jesus is. Not, who does my church say Jesus is. Not, who does my grandmother or my minister say Jesus is. Who do you say that I am?
And there isn’t just one answer. The gospels themselves give us all kinds of options.
Eugene Peterson – who wrote the Message paraphrase of the Bible – wrote this:
“Jesus apparently did not leave his followers with a fixed set of doctrines but rather with an experience that changed their lives, which they then tried to articulate in their own ways. As a result, what we find in the New Testament is not one standard theology of baptism or systematized explanation of what it means to become a Christian, but a variety of ways of speaking about the experience, quite different images and metaphors being employed by different writers in their attempts to communicate it to others.” (Christian Century 11/29/2003)
So: Again, I think the question to be asking is this one: Who do you say that I am?
I gave you a few images for Jesus there in your bulletin, a few metaphors to get you thinking. Maybe one of those is speaking to you today: Maybe, today, you say that Jesus is the Light of the World, because for you today the world is feeling dark and it’s hopeful to you to find the light of Christ.
Maybe, today, you say that Jesus is the Bread of Life, because you are feeling a little empty today and need to be filled up.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is Messiah, Savior, the one who saves – because you feel like you’re drowning, that you need someone to throw out a line to you and save you.
Maybe today, you say that Jesus is the one who suffers on the cross, who knows what suffering is, because you have suffered and it’s a comfort to you to know that God has been there too.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is the one who died for our sins, because maybe today you’re carrying some sins that you need to confess or hand over or move past.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is a shepherd because you are feeling lost and need someone to guide you home.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is the prince of Peace because our world needs God’s peace.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is a healer and a caregiver because you or someone you love needs healing.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is the one who could see the image of God in each person he encountered, each hungry person he fed.
Maybe today you say that Jesus is God with us, the divine, incarnate in human body. Borg says: “Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life.”
When it comes down to it, seems to me that’s as good an answer as any. Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life.
Who do you say that I am?
Maybe today you have seen Christ in the greeting of a neighbor.
Maybe today you have seen Christ in the face of a stranger.
Maybe today you have seen Christ in the questions or the answers.
Maybe today you will see Christ in the breaking of the bread, in the pouring of the cup.
For it is at this table where we bring our questions
Where we find Christ’s presence. Where we taste God’s grace. Where we share the feast.
Come, beloved people of God. Let us come to the table of our Lord.