July 21, 2019 - Sermon - Rev. Judy Bagley-Bonner

“Who do You Say That I Am?”     


Isaiah 25:6-8Matthew 16:13-16


     This week and next, I'll be doing a brief, two part sermon series on Jesus and the cross. This week we will consider the question of Jesus: Son of God or Son of Man  or something in between? The ten dollar word for this is christology. Next week, we'll consider the Cross, how it did or didn't work our salvation, the ten dollar word for that is atonement.  But for, today  I’ll begin with one of my favorite poems by Roland Flint, who asks the same question we will be asking , which is, “who is Jesus?” Who is this humble carpenter that turned the world upside down, and about whom we are still talking some 2000 plus years later? To get at the nature of Jesus, Flint tells about the call of the first disciples, beginning with Peter, the fisherman.  And it is Peter who is the subject of our poem-


Now here is this man mending his nets
after a long day, his fingers
nicked, here and there, by ropes and hooks,
pain like tomorrow in the small of his back,
his feet blue and stinking of baits,
his mind on a pint and supper – nothing else –
a man who describes the settled shape
of his life every time his hands
make and snug a perfect knot.

I want to understand, if only for the story,
how a man like this,
a man like my father in harvest,
or a fisherman in the stench of lobstering,
or a teamster, a steelworker,
how an ordinary working stiff,
even a high tempered one,
could just be called away.

It’s only in one account
he first brings in a netful –
in all the others, he just calls,
they return the look or stare and then
they “straightaway” leave their nets to follow.
That’s all there is. You have to figure
what was in that call, that look.

(And I wouldn’t try it on a tired working man
unless I was God’s son –
he’d kick your tail right off the pier.)

If they had been vagrants,
poets or minstrels, I’d understand that,
men who follow a different dog.
But how does a man whose movement,
day after day after day,
absolutely trusts the shape it fills
put everything down and walk away?

I’d pass up all the fancy stunting
with Lazarus and the lepers
to see that one.


     A second piece written by Dr. James Allen Frances entitled “One Solitary Life”

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.

He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself...


While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race…

I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of  humans upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.


     So we are left with the question that has haunted people over these now twenty plus centuries: Who was this Jesus who has so affected the life of humans?  Who was this Jesus such that those first disciples would just put down their nets and walk away after him?


     Well, theology has been trying to answer that question ever since Pilate first asked it of Jesus in his trial. Jesus, if you remember, like all good spiritual teachers and therapists, turned the tables back on Pilate and said, “who do you say that I am?” And Pilate is said to have answered, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” …But, you know, in one way, that’s not really a whole lot of help either, because the word “Christ” just means “anointed one” and could apply to any significant prophet of that time. Further, in a way, we are all sons and daughters of the living God, and Jesus is variously called “Son of God” AND “Son of Man,” so there is ambiguity in that answer as well. Not to mention the fact that Jesus’ additional statement was, “It is you who has said it.” Talk about ambiguity! So, with this interchange, the barely budding Church was off and running with a basic theological question- was Jesus, as the fourth century Council of Nicea would later make the official position, “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father?” (In other words, was he uniquely divine, a position held by a guy named Athenasius) or was he, as the losing side of the debate, Arius’ side would suggest, the clearest manifestation of God, to be sure, but still son of God as we are all sons and daughters of God, just to way more an evolved extreme. In terms of history and orthodoxy, the Council of Nicea ultimately came down on the side of Athanasius, and it has been the official position ever since.  But since neither the UCC nor I have ever been accused of being hamstrung by orthodoxy, I'll tell you where I come down on this question.


     First, let me say that these are the sorts of questions that keep us theologically bent people up at night. And here is the thing. After anguishing over the question, and at various points in my life coming down on both sides, I now have a whole new take. The resolution came to me in one of the most dramatic, experiential interventions from God I have ever experienced. When I was on staff  here from 2004-2008, we used to do “Lectio Divina” or prayerful reading of scripture to open our staff meetings. One day, we were discussing the passage I referred to earlier, about Pilate asking Jesus who he was. About half that large staff came down on the side of Athanasius, the more orthodox position of believing Jesus to be the one and only complete incarnation of God, born of a virgin, begotten, not made…and about half the staff came down on Arius’ side, believing Jesus to be a human who more clearly than any other, incarnated God, but who was not different in substance or essence from the rest of humanity. By the way, both of these positions could claim the solution that the church finally came up with: that Jesus was somehow both fully human AND fully divine, and its a mystery. But, in answer to the critic who said that when we get into an insoluable theological quagmire, the church always hides behind mystery, lets pursue the question anyway, and to do so, I'll return to the story of the Federated staff grappling with it.


     After that discussion, where, if memory serves, we agreed to disagree, then we celebrated the fact that theologically, Federated is a really big tent with room for people of both positions on this and many questions. After the meeting, I was walking back to my office, still really sort of distressed about this question that had off and on haunted me over the years. And you know what, it was suddenly as if I heard a voice. (I remember exactly where  I was standing, the moment was so significant.) It wasn’t an audible voice, but was fully formed words in my mind that felt like they had come from an outside source, and the voice said, “Judy, it’s OK. It works either way.” …And even though I still cannot ferret out the nuances of the question in a way that would express my belief with crystal theological clarity, since that time, I have been at peace with the mystery. Because it seems to me that what really matters is that we, as Christians, are to FOLLOW this Jesus: The one who inverted power structures and insistently included the outcasts, and preached love and compassion, especially, for one’s enemies. The one, in fact who defeated death, and who showed us what we, brothers and sisters, have in store after death. The one who preached first and always, not so much himself, but the realm of God, the kingdom of God, which we are to start creating here and now and which will come with fullness later.


     So, first, I believe we need to take to heart His number one topic, HIS first call, to embody, in increasing amounts as we grow spiritually, the reality of that Kingdom, or Realm of God: the subject which Jesus talked about more often and more extensively than any other. The Kingdom of God is the vision of life where love and wholeness reign both interpersonally and collectively.  It bespeaks a world, first of all, where unjust structures are righted, and there are no more “isms” like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, genderism, etcera, A world where there is no more sex trafficking and no more children separated from their parents at the border or anywhere, because justice has rolled down like mighty waters, that veil that held the world hostage from Isaiah 25 has been lifted, and everyone has access to power and resources and corporate peace finally comes as a result of love. Some of you have seen the poster which says, “at the table of peace will be bread and justice.” Indeed, that is the corporate vision of the Realm of God, and Jesus said we are to be creating glimpses of it here and now!  He inaugurated it, and we are to work toward its fulfillment, which will only come in fullness at the close of history, or upon our individual deaths.


     And in my humble, theological opinion, THIS is the Gospel! The good news of the Realm of God, initiated but not yet fulfilled, in every dimension of life, but coming, bit by bit, as we, his body on earth now, get about the business of building it.  This is the Gospel. Not some formula about how his death somehow paid off an angry God so we can find pie in the sky when we die.  The Gospel is the good news of the new reality that Jesus talked about more than any other subject, and about which he was passionately concerned. And the vision of the Realm of God is enormous,  It's corporate as well as personal.  In other words, Jesus came not just to be a personal savior, a personal friend who helps us with our personal problems, although he certainly is that. But he also came to preach the inverse of those usual power structures, the inclusion of the poor and disenfranchised and sick and broken ones. He came to teach love which is really the  essence of the Realm of God. And he came to invite us all to follow him, the fully evolved one, so that we too, can evolve up to our higher selves  to more effectively work for and help embody that corporate kingdom of love and justice here and now.


     But just as he came to fix the big picture, so too did he come to change our individual lives, to model what it looks like when one is intimately rooted in the Spirit and in the love of God minute by minute every day. When one eventually gains a glimpse of, and grows into, a spiritual way of being in the world, and can offer God’s love instead of ego based defensiveness in arguments, and can stop all the judging, and looking for things to be self righteous about, and can let things go and see with compassion, to name a few of the personal manifestations.

     In preaching the Gospel, the good news of the Realm of God as his first concern, Jesus offered a vision both of a healed world, and of healed, individual lives. We create glimpses of it now, and slowly live our way toward it until someday, somehow, at the close of history, we believe it will come in its totality.


          So this is the gospel, the good news He didn't come to proclaim himself or some formula about his death. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. And it's what he calls us to just as surely as he called those first disciples. Whether we believe Athanasius’ position or Arius’s as to his nature, the call is the same: to follow him in sharing the good news of the Kingdom of love and justice and  compassion for all people, to work on building it in both our world and our personal lives, and consciously to choose love, the essence of the Kingdom, in every moment.


     The real question is not “who was right, Arius or Athanasius?” The real question is will you follow the humble carpenter? the one so fully alive and so full of God that he turned the world upside down with his radically inclusive love? Will you follow him in growing up more and more into your higher self so that you too, and your life, can be a glimpse now of the coming realm of God?


I close with a portion of  the poem “The Gap” by Sheldon Van Auken:

Did Jesus live? And did he really say The burning words that banish mortal fear? And are they true? Just this is central. Here The Church must stand or fall. It’s Christ we weigh.

All else is off the point: the Flood, the Day Of Eden, or the Virgin Birth – Have done!

The Question is, did God send us the Son Incarnate crying Love! Love is the Way!


     I have a bumper sticker on my car which pretty much sums up my entire statement of faith.  In seminary, that statement took me thirty pages; now, nearly forty years later, I can more or less say it in eight words: "Life is the school. Love is the lesson."


     Perhaps, just perhaps, we are all growing up into our own sort of divinity, the seeds of which were planted at creation when we were made "in the image and likeness of God."  Perhaps that's the whole purpose of life: through our trials and our joys, to grow into the fulness of who God created us to be, and thus, in love, to help create the realm of God on earth as it is in heaven. This is who Jesus was and what he did. And he invites you now to follow.