For Ascension Sunday 2019
Text: Ephesians: 1:15-23
Tomorrow marks the last night of my most recent seminar: “The Challenge of the Historical Jesus.” It’s been well attended, the questions have been good, and it’s timely that it comes to an end right around the time where as Christians we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus in the days leading up to Pentecost. One of the big challenges that we’ve explored through this course is trying to see if it is possible to distinguish the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith. In other words, is can we get a clearer picture of the earthly humanity of Jesus, alongside how we understand him as Divine. The title of the seminar should remind us that it is a challenge, but it is one we should take up, because if we don’t then other voices will move to fill in the void.
Some of you may remember the hype around the book, the DaVinci Code more than a decade ago, where what really was a pulpy airport novel was taken for a serious theological treatise, and made into a major motion picture.
Yet the massive public response to this novel and the film shows that there is a genuine hunger to know more about Jesus… and yet a huge distrust of the institutional church…. that somehow we’re not getting the whole story… that they are not telling us the whole story. As such, conspiracy theories find a great deal of traction these days. That may have even been some of the draw for my most recent seminar. I have to admit that there’s an inherent difficulty of me even talking about the book from the pulpit, dressed in this robe… Because there’s an “institutional” quality about what I do from here, I represent in some way, shape or form the “traditional” church. I am they. If that’s the case, then I must be delinquent in attending my conspiracy meetings!
Since I don’t want to spoil an adventure yarn, my point is not to give away the plot of the film or the book. It is a work of fantasy fiction that starts out with the word “Fact:” It’s presented well enough that much of it sounds “plausible,” but any degree of in-depth real-life study into any of the assertions that the author makes… be they about art, codes or religion, shows us that the author doesn’t let real scholarship get in the way of a good story… but to his credit, Dan Brown writes very convincingly… so much so that to untrained ears… it sounds real enough. It’s not the first time in history it’s been done, and it likely won’t be the last, but since today’s society as a whole is largely illiterate when it comes to matters of religious history and theology, it catches people’s attention.
As I said, I don’t want to give away the plot of the story, just in case there are people out there who either haven’t read the book or seen the movie even after all of these years. Yet one of the assertions that comes out of both the film and the book that tells us that in the early church, Jesus was considered to be great human teacher but with no divine qualities about him. The scholar in the story argues that it wasn’t until the time of Emperor Constantine, some three hundred years after the crucifixion that Jesus was effectively equated with God. The historical evidence, on the other hand, shows that the opposite was true… by the time of the Council of Nicaea, Jesus Christ as a figure was in serious danger of being stripped of any human nature at all… We know that right from the first Easter, the divinity of Jesus was never in doubt amongst early Christians… The reading from Ephesians that we heard earlier goes like this:
20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
This is clearly an image of Jesus as Divine, sitting at the right hand of God long before Emperor Constantine or the Council of Nicaea. Early Christians certainly understood Jesus as divine… it was not a later invention, as the book and movie would have us believe.
But we also know that Paul, as well as other early Christians sought a balance of this divine experience with what they also understood to be the real humanity of Jesus. It was clear that the early Christians saw something divine in the person of Jesus of Nazareth… but because there were many who had met and experienced Jesus as a human being… it didn’t seem as important because they knew it to be a given. Yet as time went on, and fewer and fewer people had a living memory of Jesus as a living, breathing human being. The scales began to tip towards seeing Jesus as a purely divine figure. They began losing sight of his human nature… Along the way other movements began to adopt Christ into their own mythology, incorporating their own ideas, and the competing messages threatened to kill the early Christian movement in its cradle.
It was in response to this crisis that early Christians developed the Apostles and Nicene Creeds: statements of faith. They sought to strike a balance between the fully human and fully divine nature of Christ. If anything they had to re-emphasize Jesus as being truly human to compensate against those that would argue that he only ever was a spirit or an apparition. The Christian Scriptures that the early church began to agree upon were the ones that effectively balanced the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Ironically, the Gospel of Phillip that was quoted in the film and the book was rejected precisely because it denied the humanity of Christ… in spite of what the film says. If you’re curious, the full text of it is on the internet… just doing a search on Google will easily find it.
It seems kind of odd to be focusing on the humanity of Jesus on a day that we mark and celebrate the Ascension…but it is precisely the balance between the divinity and humanity of Jesus that gives power to the Christian message. It has been the message all along, and yet one would think from the kinds of responses to conspiracy theories that we have been obscuring the truth for centuries!
I don’t think it’s because we’ve been obscuring the truth, at least not deliberately… but we have not done a terribly good job of teaching the faith… particularly in recent years. We live in a culture where we have assumed that the world around us is going to teach the Christian story to our children. While that may have been true even as recently as thirty years ago, it is certainly no longer the case. We live in a multicultural multi-faith society that has taken a hands-off if not downright hostile approach when it comes to matters of faith. Yet there is still this hunger for meaning and purpose that is out there, a spiritual hunger that is so ravenous that it’s willing to devour pulp fantasy fiction books as truth.
We need to foster a climate where all of us want to learn more about our faith, where we feel safe that we can truly ask questions without fear of either ridicule or reprisal… so that we are able to teach our children and our grandchildren… but also not be afraid of the questions that they are going to ask. After all, faith naturally has questions that come with it… theology is often called faith seeking understanding.
What I do know from the response to the seminars that I’ve led here at St. Matthews, there’s a hunger out there. People are seeking understanding. Our challenge is to be willing to talk about and share our faith, but also be willing to listen to the questions that people have; whether they are about God, about Christ, about the meaning of life… It means trying to address our own questions, to acknowledge the things that we ourselves don’t understand… and to not be afraid of not having the answer. Maybe then we can grow in ways we never thought possible.