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We are in the midst of our current sermon series, Ecclesia: What It Means To Be The Church, and we cannot talk about Ecclesia without talking about Jesus. Jesus is the central figure in our faith as Christians, but when I think about the history of the Church, I think about how the name of Jesus has at times been used and exploited for human beings’ own ends to justify exclusion and injustice. This is still true today and we are sometimes guilty of using the name of Jesus to prop up our own preferences and agendas.
*Question 1 (Open)
How has the name of Jesus been used to justify exclusion and injustice?
We know with all our hearts that Jesus was for the opposite of exclusion and injustice. Jesus always stood up for inclusion and justice. In the Gospels, his radical ways of loving and lifting up the human dignity of all sorts of persons is proof of that. As a community of Jesus followers, we need to re-encounter Christ in personal and transformative ways. That’s the only way for us to truly be Church — Ecclesia.
To re-encounter Christ, let’s first take stock of what our image of Jesus currently is.
*Question 2 (Multiple Choice)
Which of these images of Jesus is the most familiar to you?
Jesus is one of the most commonly painted figures in Western art. Because of how the Church has portrayed Jesus throughout history, in most of our minds, the image of the historical Jesus tends to be more like 1, 2 or 4. For centuries, the most common image of Jesus Christ, at least in Western cultures, has been that of a bearded, fair-skinned man with long, wavy, light brown or blond hair and often blue eyes. In fact, very few of us would find image 3 familiar.
*In 2001, forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, working on the basis of an actual skull found in the region. He did not claim it was Jesus’s face. It was simply meant to prompt people to consider Jesus as being a man of his time and place, since we are never told he looked distinctive.
*What we have been told is that when the conception of Jesus was announced to Joseph, the angel told him the baby to be born will be called Immanuel, God with us. Immanuel is Jesus’ middle name. Jesus came so that we would know we are not alone. Not only is God present with us, Jesus also showed us what it means to have God standing in solidarity with us — God with us.
So I’m glad that in recent years, new artwork depicting Jesus as native to one’s culture started emerging as we grow to understand more deeply how Jesus is truly God with us.
*When the FCC group was in Israel a few years ago, we visited a church called the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. They have a collection of mosaic paintings contributed by many nations with their local characteristics. As I looked at the plethora of depictions of Mary and Jesus, it hit me how profound Immanuel, God with us, truly is.
*You see, Jesus Christ is both the historical Jesus and the universal Christ – both human and divine. Many books have been written about Jesus. The historical Jesus – rabbi, prophet, teacher, miracle worker, political rebel, Jewish peasant. And the universal Christ — the Jesus who resurrected and ascended into heaven, whose Spirit is present with us today. And this Jesus is often depicted as surrounded by angels at the altar in many churches.
So this historical Jesus and universal Christ is who we seek to know in a deeper way as we allow the Spirit of God to transform us into the likeness of Christ.
But who is Jesus, really?
*In Mark 8, Jesus asked his disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is an important spiritual question for all of us even today. Because who we say Jesus is influences our understanding of God and how we live out our lives as Ecclesia.
“Who do you say that I am?” is a central question of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, as he helps the disciples clarify their relationship to and with him. It is also a crucial question for Jesus in clarifying his own identity. We see the progression of questions: first, who do people say that I am, and then, who do you say that I am? These questions penetrate the heart of every Christian’s longing for connection with God, with their deepest self, and with the world we live in.
*Question 3 (Word Cloud)
Who do you say Jesus is?
When Jesus asked this question: “Who do you say that I am?” he is emphasizing that despite what the crowd might be saying about him, it is imperative that the disciples know who he is. This awareness becomes the foundation upon which our spirituality and relationship with God is built.
Jesus is many things – Savior, Lord, Friend, Teacher, Way, Presence.
In her book, Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence, Diana Butler Bass says that one of the best ways for us to know who Jesus is, is the Jesus of experience. We have all experienced Jesus in one way or another. And we can grow to experience Jesus even more.
*Let’s start with Jesus as friend.
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you…You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).
*Question 4 (Multiple Choice)
Does “you are my friends if…” sound conditional to you?
I used to think it sounded so conditional. What kind of friendship is that?
But I realized that what Jesus means by “if” is not about being conditional. He was stating what the outcome would be if we choose to follow.
“Friendship is contingent on love – real love: compassion, empathy, reaching out, going beyond what we imagine is possible. That is the command: love. And if we reach out in love, friendship is the result, even friendship with God. Friendship is mutual, a hand extended and another reaching back.”
Diana Butler Bass, Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence
Jesus brought the disciples to the very heart of God and then revealed that God’s heart longed for friendship. In that world, that was radical. Caesar was considered a god. Everyone feared him. He had no friends. The Egyptians and Persians had gods. None of these gods were friends to regular people. They were to be satisfied, their wrath appeased by sacrifices.
With that as a background, Jesus calls us friends and shows us that God desires to reach out to us not as a fearsome master or judge, but as a friend. That is radical.
*The story of the New Testament shows us that the risk of friendship is the risk that reshapes our lives. Jesus befriends us, opens our hearts to genuine love and the capacity to forgive each other, welcome all, and act justly in the world.
Friendship makes us different from the person we would be if we were alone.
The radical, inclusive friendship of God is highlighted in the Gospels where Jesus is accused of being a friend of sinners and tax collectors, and where many of his closest friends were outcasts and the marginalized. It was an odd group of friends, and the most amazing thing is seeing how Jesus invites his friends to dinner — all of them, respectable and not. The earliest followers of Jesus gathered at the table, making the meal the focus for the new community because Jesus turned the social order of table relations on its head.
Like Jesus, we are called to be a friend to others, especially those who are outcasts and the marginalized, and to invite all to the table, regardless of who they are.
Recently, there has been some debate regarding who should or shouldn’t be denied Holy Communion. This debate started because of a plan being put forward by American bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, in particular, President Joe Biden. In response, Pope Francis cautioned the Catholic bishops against using Communion as a political tool. Here in Singapore, there are many churches who have conditions around who gets to be invited to the table and who doesn’t.
I wonder how many of us have been denied Communion at some point in our lives for one reason or another, including being LGBTQ. The reason why FCC practices an open table is because we take the radical, inclusive friendship of Jesus very seriously. At every Communion, Jesus is the host and we are all merely servers and partakers. Jesus did not deny or discriminate against anyone when it came to the Table. Who are we to deny anyone? At the Last Supper, which is arguably the very first Communion, Jesus broke bread and gave it to every person there, including those he knew would end up betraying or denying him. What greater friendship is there?
Although Christians call Jesus by many names, those who knew him best mostly called him “teacher”. Of the ninety or so times Jesus is addressed directly in the New Testament, roughly sixty refer to him as “teacher” or “rabbi”. And Jesus is often described as teaching people — his disciples, large crowds, small groups, his friends and his foes.
The word translated as “teacher” was the title “rabbi” or “rabbouni” and it was a fairly new and even revolutionary term in the first century. The word “rabbi” did not mean a Jewish clergyperson, as it does today. During Jesus’ time, it started being used to address someone whose teaching bore spiritual authority – a storyteller, an insightful interpreter of the Law, or a particularly wise elder. To be a rabbi in the first century was to be a teacher who was crafting a new approach to Hebrew texts, traditions, and interpretations. That’s how innovative and challenging Jesus was as a rabbi.
Jesus is our rabbi. Even as we navigate what it means to be the Church — Ecclesia, let us understand and follow Jesus’ teachings closely. It’s important for us to be able to distinguish between what Jesus taught and the human-made rules created within the Church. Different churches and denominations have different rules. And it’s important for us to know if the underlying motivation is love.
Jesus not only taught love; he embodied love. Jesus did not give rules to be ticked off a list; Jesus embodied the rule of love, a way of life to be followed, and taught us how to be fully, completely human. Marcus Borg said, “Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation.”
*“Before religion made it all about what we believe, Jesus was all about how we love.”
Susan Cottrell, Freedhearts.org
As the Church and with Jesus as our Teacher, we should be known by how we love.
“Savior” is probably the most frequent term Christians use to describe Jesus.
*Question 5 (Multiple Choice)
How many times does the word “Saviour” appear in the Gospels?
Yet interestingly, “Saviour” appears only twice in the gospels to describe Jesus. One is the beginning of the gospel of Luke, and the other is in John 4:42, where neighbours of the Samaritan woman proclaim, “This truly is the Saviour of the world.” Other titles like “teacher” and “rabbi” appear far more frequently.
*We often think of being “saved” as being rescued, and in the case of Jesus as Saviour, the popular concept is that of Jesus snatching believers from the perils of hell, and save us by taking us to heaven. But that is not what the word “salvation” means. The word “salvation” comes from the Latin salvus, which originally referred to being made whole, uninjured, safe or in good health. Salvus was not about being taken out of this life; it was about this life being healed. In this sense, salvus perfectly describes the biblical vision of God’s Shalom where there is the fulfilment of God’s justice and mercy, peace and well-being, comfort and wholeness. This is the dream of a saved earth – one where oppression ends, mercy reigns, violence and exploitation ceases to exist, and all live safely and peacefully.
Jesus saves us in all these ways and more. For some of us, the need is forgiveness. For others, the need is liberation. For still others, the need is homecoming or acceptance. No matter our experience or our deepest needs, Jesus saves.
*Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This starts off so beautifully. Then the next sentence: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Wait a minute. Have you ever felt like this verse sounds quite exclusionary? Some Christians use this verse to clobber others by clinging on to the exclusionary interpretation of this verse.
*Diana Butler Bass emphasized that “way”, “truth”, and “life” are relational words, all things that Jesus says he is. “Way” is not a technique or map, “truth” is not about philosophy or dogma, and “life” is not about going to heaven. “In the mystical poetry of John, Jesus uses these terms to explain how he embodies a way of being in this world so close to the heart of God that God can be known in and through Jesus.” The disciples were afraid because Jesus was talking about separation and leaving them. So Jesus told them “I am the way and not one of you, my fearful friends, knows God apart from what I have embodied for you; stay close, keep faith.” This is not a threat; it is a promise.
There would be no way except that the love of God has made a way. It was an invitation to God’s way of love, not exclusion.
“Following Jesus is moving away from fear and toward love.” -Henri Nouwen
Sometimes in our sermons, we may not mention Jesus and in the past, we have received comments such as “I’ve not heard you say one word about Jesus. Where is Jesus?” I think we don’t need to mention the name of Jesus for Jesus to be present here with us. I trust that wherever two or three are gathered, Jesus is in our midst. Where love is, Jesus is there. Jesus is known as the presence of God, made alive to us through the Spirit. We can’t separate Jesus from the Spirit because as Jesus told his disciples, “I am leaving this world but I will send you the Comforter, the Companion. This Spirit of truth will testify about me.”
To speak of Jesus as presence is to remind us of what it means to dwell in God’s presence together. The Hebrew word “shekinah” comes from the word “to dwell” and it means the majestic presence of God. Jesus dwells with us. Jesus is the home for which we have longed. As Ecclesia, we need to grow in the way we dwell in God’s presence together.
This pandemic has challenged us to reflect more deeply about what it means to dwell in God’s presence together, even when we are physically apart. And I am thankful for the opportunity to think deeper with you and be creative about what it means to be Ecclesia.
As ecclesia (a gathering of believers), we exist to share stories of Jesus: telling our stories and listening to others’ stories.
*“Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our culture, bigger even than our imaginations, and yet we get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of our particular moment and place in time. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect the gift of that. May we never lose our love for telling the tale.”
Rachel Held Evans, Inspired
*Question 6 (Open)
What is one thing you learnt about Jesus today?
As Ecclesia, this connection is a reality because we are in Christ, which means Christ is present in our congregations. *Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
Christian community (or Ecclesia) means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years, Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.
May we as a community be rooted in Christ and allow the Spirit to transform us daily as we grow to experience Jesus more – as Friend, Teacher, Saviour, Way and Presence. Amen.