Revd Rex A E Hunt
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A printed edition of some of my sermons can be obtained in
Against the Stream: Progressive Christianity Between Pulpit and Pew
(2013) Morning Star Publishing.
Advent 3C, 2015
Luke 3: 7-18
A Liturgy is also available
JOHN AND JESUS: NOT BEING IN A DIFFERENT WORLD, BUT
BEING IN THIS WORLD DIFFERENTLY…
One of the long-term debates within biblical scholarship
is between scholars who argue ‘for’ or ‘against’
Jesus of Nazareth shared a similar vision
of the expected ‘kingdom of God’
with that of John the Baptiser.
Generally speaking, what was John’s vision or worldview?
Tradition has it, it was a vision shaped by the themes of
personal crisis, judgment, and renewal,
coupled with the belief of an imminent divine intervention.
Thinking which seems to be in line with the tradition of Israel’s prophets,
such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah.
On the other side of this debate are those who claim
Jesus’ worldview concentrated not on the future,
whether near or distant,
but on “God’s present but collaborative kingdom”
here and now (Crossan 2010:93).
Opinion continues to be divided. Sometimes even heatedly divided!
The ‘orthodox’ view, taught in theological colleges and from most pulpits,
is the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus is the real Jesus. Period.
When John Smith and I were putting together
our handbook on progressive Christianity—Why Weren’t We Told?
I got to write the short cameo on ‘John and Jesus’.
I do not accept that the apocalyptic Jesus is the real Jesus.
But those who did or do include Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman.
So who was John the Baptiser or ‘dipper’?
From all that we know and do not know,
scholars suggest John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero
“whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus” (Smith 2002:109).
He seems to have spent most of his youth living in the desert wilderness, along the Jordan River.
He offered baptism as a cleansing from sin in that river location,
which, according to Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan,
“[b]aptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before [God’s] fire storm came” (Crossan 1991:235).
Or, put another way, this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family,
was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed,
the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade
had come to an end.
Storytellers and poets, both modern and biblical,
have always presented him in colourful terms.
It is poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well
in his poem ‘The Man Who Was a Lamp’:
“John expected an ax[e] to the root of the tree
and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.
He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench” (Shea 1993:177).
So we are left with two different worldviews.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent.
Advent comes before the celebration we call Christmas.
Indeed, Advent has become “a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas” (Gomes 2007:214).
In traditional Christian language, Christmas is about
the birth of a baby we call Jesus/Yeshua.
As historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago:
“The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished…” (Miles 1912/76:157).
As such Christmas is the most human, and easily the most popular
festival of the year, involving nearly all the population.
And the baby is the most loveable!
But much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity
did not come from the human Jesus.
It came from Greek thinking centred on a divine Christ
as defined by the emperor and various church councils.
So what happens when the human Jesus meets Christianity?
According to many of those who call themselves ‘progressive’—
and they don’t mince their words—there is a crisis!
A crisis that has identified several barriers that prevent
an honest understanding of Jesus. Barriers such as:
Popular images of Jesus
The gospels as inerrant and infallible
A self-serving church and clergy
Spirituality as self-indulgence (Funk 1996:47).
Perhaps for a few moments then, let me offer very briefly
two suggestions on what I reckon might be signposts
in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision
which the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’ highlights.
I hope you won’t find it preaching’s equivalent to eating broccoli!
The first signpost is credibility.
Whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus,
“it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one” (Galston 2012).
Jesus was human like anyone.
He was a homeland Jew not a Christian.
He never rejected his Jewish roots.
So a possible Jesus
“is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time” (Galston 2012).
Yep, there is still some unresolved issues associated with all this. That’s for sure.
As David Galston, a Canadian scholar, says:
“It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit” (Galston 2012).
Still, we can be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible.
“This simple foundation is the honest[y…] involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).
The second signpost is methodology.
That is, what makes the best sense of the available data.
And those of you who have been engaging in
progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences,
will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for
the historical or human Jesus.
Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and Rhetorical Criticism.
Such tools enable us to realise, for instance, that the gospel writers
were a few generations removed from the human Jesus.
They inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview.
So put simply, an honest progressive methodology is:
“check out things for yourself, make sure you interpret things correctly, and learn for yourself. Instead of jumping to conclusions about a subject or about other people, first ensure you are reading the situation correctly” (Galston 2012).
Attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus
means developing a mature, critical mind that no longer employs
the methodology of believing
“the biblical narratives literally—narratives that… were not intended ‘literally’ in the first place” (Galston 2012).
And this is in spite of former Pope Benedict xvi ramblings in his latest book,
Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
After all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes,
how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped?
Again, David Galston’s comments are helpful, I reckon:
“Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity” (Galston 2012).
Carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement…
Or as another has said:
“…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather then to worship the journey of Jesus” (Wink 2000:177).
From what we can make out the human John is not pretty.
He is not always reassuring.
His is a voice of challenge and protest.
Yet it does seem John offered the people who
“lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation, a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).
His great invention if you like, was to introduce
“a new, inexpensive, generally available, divinely authorized rite [of baptism] effective for the remissions of sins” (Crossan 1991:231).
Now for baptism you only need water.
Any water. Anywhere. But…
“a desert location and a baptism in the Jordan, precisely the Jordan, had overtones… of political subversion. …Desert and Jordan, prophet and crowds, were always a volatile mix calling for immediate preventive strikes” (Crossan 1991:235).
Although the historian Josephus would have us believe
both John and Jesus were put to death by a ‘reluctant’ civil authority!
So taking the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously,
how might we capture the spirit of both his particular interpretation
of John and by comparison, his take on Jesus?
In the case of John’s thinking:
It will require a truly creative change or transformation,
in both our thinking as well as in our doing.
And hearing his voice as one of hope rather than fear.
In the case of Jesus’ thinking:
While he originally accepted and even defended John’s vision
“of awaiting the apocalyptic God… as a repentant sinner” (Crossan 1991: 237)
that vision was deemed inadequate.
For Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom
to being in the kingdom.
Not to be in a different world, but being
in this world differently.
Living out the implications of the Jesus vision in our own time,
with our own creativity, is still before us.
It is still our challenge despite 2 000 years.
I am firmly of the belief that the old-religion story, shaped
by the ‘divine’ Jesus or Christ, has lost its appeal or authority
to shape present-day human lives.
The thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship,
provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority
by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.
One thing’s for sure.
The world in these early years of the twenty-first century, requires
that we think differently about the questions of
what it means to be Christian, about
what Christianity is, and
If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus
it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take,
or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision.
Not some supernatural authority or extra-human power.
Crossan, J. D. The Greatest Prayer. Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
---------------- The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for the New Millennium. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Kindle Edition. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom. How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1912/76..
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracles All Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Smith, M. H. “Israel’s Prodigal Son. Reflections on Re-imagining Jesus” in Hoover, R. W. ed., Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Wink, W. “The Son of Man. The Stone that builders rejected” in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.