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Who Was Jesus?

from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

August 14, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Hymn 605

The Jesus Christ whom we encounter in our worship and hymns, in our formal theology and stories, even in the Bible, is someone who has lived in the minds and hearts of Christians through the ages, including ourselves; we have Jesus present to us through people’s memories and interpretations. We do not encounter the subjective person Jesus, any more than we encounter today George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Some people would say therefore that we do not encounter the real Jesus, that we engage merely the Jesus of other people’s memories. But the real identity of Jesus includes how he is understood and remembered by others. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have identities that include a lot more than their personal experience: they really live in the memories of others and in the consequences of their actions long after their deaths. Everyone’s identity is not merely their personal subjective experience but also how they are perceived by others and how they affect things around them, perhaps for hundreds of years. This larger sense of identity is that for which we are responsible before God, although, of course, we are not entirely responsible for how people understand us.

Jesus’ identity was not limited to his subjective experience even when he was alive in the ordinary sense, teaching the disciples. They tried hard to understand him, forming tentative images and ideas of him and his teachings in their own imaginations. Jesus was often critical of how they understood him: witness his impatience with their lack of understanding of his parable in the Gospel today. The disciples received rather quick feedback from him when their imaginative interpretations of his identity were off the mark.

We have the same situation. You know how it is when you want friends to understand you: you can tell from what they do and say what their images of you are, and you try to correct them so that they conform to your image of yourself. Of course, sometimes we do not understand our own identity, and a friend’s image might be closer to the mark. We pay psychotherapists big bucks to form images of us that reveal more deeply who we really are. Our true identity might include things we never would have thought about. For instance, we often find that we play important roles for other people of which we had not been aware, leading them astray, perhaps, involving them in a dysfunctional family situation, or serving as a healthy model, leading them to greater virtue and independence. Anyone who has a public role in life, and we all do in small if not large ways, has an identity that is more than the way we subjectively experience ourselves. Sometimes we can control and be responsible for elements in that public role. Other times our public life gives us an identity over which we have no control. When that is good, we rejoice in good fortune and, when that extended public identity is bad, we complain about fate.

So Jesus’ identity was not limited to his subjective personal experience. Nor was it limited to his identity for his disciples who could easily check out their understanding. Jesus personally thought of himself as a Jewish reformer, not the founder of a new religion; yet the early Christians extended his identity to be the founder of a movement named after his title as Christ. Jesus personally thought of himself as chosen by God to head a kingdom of justice dominated by the twelve tribes of Israel; that’s why he chose twelve special apostles, one to represent each tribe; yet St. Paul extended his identity to be a divine agent in a cosmic narrative for conquering Satan and the forces of evil, a conception wholly alien to Jesus’ personal way of thinking. Jesus in no way, personally speaking, thought of himself as divine—that would have been idolatry to any faithful Jew of his time; yet the conviction that he was divine, on the part of his followers in the early centuries, led to calling him the Second Person of the Trinity constituting God’s nature. Jesus personally knew nothing about worship of himself, especially led by people in priestly garb taken from the costumes of Roman senators, which would have astonished him. He knew nothing of his role in the worship life of monks and nuns in monasteries, or in the prayer life of Protestants, or in the setting of policies in mainline Churches today for charity in Africa. Yet in a very real sense, the Jesus who lives in all those movements that have taken place in his name has the identity given him by all those living roles. That is his public identity.

Of course, not every interpretation of Jesus in contexts beyond those he knew personally is valid, any more than his immediate disciples always understood him rightly. Jesus’ name has been taken for causes that he would abhor. We need to remember that the ovens in the Nazi prison camps were turned off only for Christmas and Easter, a perverse embodiment of Christianity. The problem of the validity of an extension of Jesus’ identity is particularly acute when the extension is to some kind of role that a human person cannot play, as when Jesus is identified with the symbol of the cosmic Christ, or the Second Person of the Trinity. Not every extension of Jesus’ identity by Christian communities is valid.

The doctrine of the Church in this regard is that these extensions need to be supported by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that interprets for us what is Jesus Christ’s true and new identity. Of course, we then need to identify the true Holy Spirit when our world is filled with so many spirits that seem to tell us what is divine. The tests of the Holy Spirit lie in its fruits, as you know: do interpretations of Jesus, and practices based on them, lead to joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love? Or do they lead to sourness, agitation, belligerence, self-righteousness, selfishness, denial, despair, or hate?

The feedback-testing our long extensions of Jesus’ identity is more indirect and takes a lot longer than the feedback Jesus gave to his immediate disciples. Yet the feedback is exceedingly fine. We are beginning to see now, for instance, that the belief that Jesus is God’s divine agent in a great cosmic drama of struggle with the forces of evil, leading to Armageddon, is a very dangerous image of Jesus. So many Christians who believe that fail to distinguish between their putative role in fighting God’s battles and God’s approval of their battles. When their own battles, which they assume have God’s blessing, are frustrated, they fall into deep resentment of ways of life other than their own, bitter defensiveness, readiness to go to war, arrogance about their own causes, greed for power, denial of evidence that they might be in the wrong, spiteful despair of reconciliation with enemies they are supposed to love, and delight in the hate of those they brand as God’s enemies. The fruits of the Spirit test out against the Christianity that takes Jesus to be God’s avenger, even when that image is in the Bible, as it is in the Book of Revelation.

One of the principle anchors for our understanding of the identity of Jesus is our grasp of who he was historically. Of course, we know that our knowledge of his historical identity is limited, and always filtered through sources such as the Bible and our traditions. But our gospel text today gives us an interesting insight.

When approached by the Canaanite woman, Jesus at first declined to help her, saying that his mission was only to the lost sheep of Israel. This reflected his understanding of himself as a Jewish reformer, somewhat in the mold of the prophets. He knew about other ethnic peoples, of course. He was raised in Nazareth, which was about five miles from a new city that was being built by the Romans; since his family was in the building trades he had much connection with the Romans; the gospels tell several stories of his interactions with them as an adult. He preached in Greek towns, and probably spoke a version of Greek. Many Semitic peoples besides Jews lived in Palestine at his time, and in our particular story he was in Syria where he met the Canaanite woman. Yet at first he identified himself as a prophet for the children of Israel alone, to the exclusion of others.

As we learned, the Canaanite woman changed his mind. So far as I know, this is the only incident in the gospels in which Jesus is shown admitting he was wrong and learning something new. Those of you who look to highlight the accomplishments of women can point with pride to this story. Not only was she a woman, she was a Canaanite, belonging to a people whom the Israelites were supposed to have dispossessed from the land. Some of you saw the advertisement last Friday in the New York Times and perhaps other papers in the form of an open letter to President Bush from seven Lubavitcher rabbis and a lay person claiming that God owns everything and gave the whole Land of Israel to the Jews; they claimed that the eviction of Jewish settlers from occupied territories is a violation of God’s will and that President Bush had been appointed by God to bring peace and triumph over evil by protecting God’s people, by whom they meant the Jews, and their Holy Land. People today still believe that those other than Jews should be dispossessed from Palestine. Yet even in Jesus’ time, it was recognized as a land for many people. Because of the Canaanite woman, Jesus came to see that his mission was not only to Israel, but to all who come seeking faith. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as sending his friends to make disciples of all nations, a direct turnabout from his earlier preoccupation with Israel alone.

From the beginning, so far as we can gather, Jesus had a revolutionary table fellowship. That is, he talked, ate, and drank with women as well as men, with poor people and rich people, with prostitutes, tax collectors, and various other sinners. He not only said that we should not judge others—judgment belongs to God—but that we should love them, even our enemies. In all of this, he was running against the customs and morality of his Jewish community, at least as he conceived it. Yet that inclusiveness might have been limited to people within that community. His lesson from the Canaanite woman opened the door to an inclusiveness that went well beyond the limits of the kosher. This lesson was confirmed by St. Peter, as recorded in Acts 10-11, when he had a vision of unclean things that were permissible to eat and accepted the dinner invitation of a Roman.

The extension of Christianity beyond the Jewish world to the many worlds of the Gentiles was not an easy thing for early Christianity. St. Paul argued strongly for it, and eventually won out. But the extension is still not complete today. In this day of religious as well as economic globalization, we have mastered the art of indigenizing Christianity to many cultures, even those very far from the traditional cultures of European Christianity. But we have not mastered the art of letting Christianity serve all cultures, regardless of whether people in those cultures want to become Christians. Too often, we have taken Jesus’ commandment to “make disciples of all nations” to mean to recruit Christians in all nations. This interpretation is fine so far as it goes, but is too narrow. Our Christian discipleship is to offer God’s hospitality to everyone. God’s creative love can bring renewal and blessing to anyone, and it is offered universally. Our job as disciples is to invite people into that divine love so that they can be renewed and blessed. Jesus did not ask the Canaanite woman to sign up as his follower. He simply healed her daughter.

The first principle of offering God’s hospitality is to respect people for who they are. This means accepting them in their own religions, in their own social cultures, and in their own political interests, even when they oppose our own. Of course we are not without moral standards. These standards include those values I mentioned a moment ago: joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love, and all the institutions of life that support these things and oppose sourness of spirit, agitation, belligerence, self-righteousness, selfishness, denial, despair, and hate. These virtues and vices are universal to all religions, and to the great philosophies of secular culture. We Christians should guide our own behavior by them. But under no circumstances can we use them to judge others. Judgment of others belongs to God alone. Our role as Christians is to host other people as they come to God, and to host God’s creative love in the lives of those other people. True Christian discipleship is to give away the privileges of membership in Christian culture and to cultivate a Christian culture of conveying God’s love to others, in whatever language and religious forms do the job. As Jesus came to see, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, the radical openness of God’s love embraces even those whom our religion has taught us to exclude. What a radical transformation for world history!

Just how did the Canaanite woman teach this momentous lesson? She did two things. First, she demanded access to God’s healing power that she saw in Jesus. Who among the world’s suffering masses has not called out for relief in some language or other? Second, she used the power of humility to undermine the icy refusal of privilege. Jesus said that only the people of Israel were privileged to receive his holy meal of the healing grace of God. She said that even the dogs eat the crumbs under the table. If the people of Israel, or we self-proclaimed Christians, sit at the table of privilege regarding God’s grace, she and the other outsiders will crawl to the floor to eat the crumbs. Immediately the claims of privilege dissolved in embarrassment at the arbitrary restriction of grace. Of course he healed her daughter!

What do we learn of Jesus’ contemporary identity from this story from his ancient personal life? Our Lord leads us today to examine our religion to ask whether we are working to serve our religious community to the exclusion of others, or are we forming our Christian community to host others in the presence of God. How do we serve the Muslims and Jews, the Hindus and the Buddhists, the Confucians and Daoists, the secular people and the wretched of the Earth who lack even any religion whatsoever? Do we ask first whether they might become Christians? Shame! Let us ask first how God can bless them. Our Lord also leads us to look for great faith in others, any longing for connection with God that might bring joy, peace, patience, righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love. Even when we do not have that faith ourselves, we need to seek it out in others and bring it into the presence of God as we can. As for ourselves, what we learn from this critical point in Jesus’ evolving identity is that the hero in the story is not the disciples, not even Jesus: it is the outsider woman whose faith led her to such humble self-abasement that Jesus’ inherited sense of privilege for his own people was emptied. If only we had the power of her faith, think of what we could do!

Who was Jesus? He was a man of God who learned the universal showering of God’s love despite himself, when confronted by a faith whose humility undermined his sense of privilege. Who is Jesus today? He continues to be the mediator of God and the soul of the Church who, among other things, teaches us to empty even our Christianity’s sense of privilege for the sake of those who call upon God. This is Jesus’ identity as our present and risen Lord.


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