April 2 – Steve Jungkeit

Texts: Mark 1: 9-11;
John 3: 1-10

Your God Is Too Big, Part II: The Human Jesus[1]

            So where were we?  Two weeks ago I initiated a Lenten journey intended to shake the dust off our understandings of God.  It was a way of helping us to discover Jesus once again, in all of his complicated humanity.  It was a way of prying the narratives of Jesus and God away from projects associated with nationalism, or systems of moral control.  It was a way of helping us to rethink from the ground up what that word “God” might be about, if it’s about anything at all.  God is one of the heaviest words in any human language, one that comes burdened with baggage and misunderstanding, even for those of us who find our way to church.  The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber spoke to that concern when he wrote that “God is the most heavy laden of all human words.  None has become so soiled, so mutilated.”  Another author, the novelist David James Duncan, wonders: “How to unsay the ponderousness we humans attribute to this word, ‘God’?”[2] 

            Many of us carry a version of God within our hearts that, with a little examination and reflection, comes to seem like a fraudulent and emotionally manipulative construction.  Borrowing the language of a friend named Doug Frank, I’ve come to characterize that God as the Big Powerful Sky Father, who sees you even if you don’t see him, who claims to love you even as he has very specific instructions for you to follow.  If you fail to live out those instructions, the Sky Father will withhold that love, or perhaps abandon you altogether.  And so you’d better get right with God, as the saying goes, or else.  It’s hard to feel anything resembling love when that sort of emotional blackmail is in play.  One might feel a sense of duty.  One might feel a sense of obligation.  One might even feel gratitude at certain moments, the way you might toward a stern teacher who helped you understand algebra, say, but love, love isn’t something that most of us tend to feel.  Not deep down.  I was well into my twenties before I found the courage to admit that I did not love that God. 

            But there is a buried and hidden counter-tradition that people of faith have glimpsed here and there.  It amounts to taking the central claim of Christian faith very seriously, that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter God.  Today I’d like to clear some of the brush associated with Jesus, because that word too comes heavy laden with a lot of baggage.  I’d like to do so as a way of moving us toward an alternative understanding of God.  It’s the story of Jesus’s baptism that provides the best glimpse into an alternative understanding of Jesus, a moment of awakening from the grip of the Big Powerful Sky Father, where Jesus is initiated into a process of becoming fully human, a journey he invites us to take as well.

            Theology and the churches haven’t been kind to Jesus.  There are so many categories and codes that have been placed upon him that it’s nearly impossible to encounter him with a sense of openness.  Theological conservatives and liberals both turn Jesus into a mechanism, something far less than human.  Conservatives and liberals both use Jesus as a way of maintaining the control of the Big Powerful Sky Father.  It’s a pattern that goes back centuries.  The conservative impulse can be seen in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, from the 11th century, especially a text called Cur Deus Homo, “Why God Became Man.”  The liberal impulse can be traced to the writings of Peter Abelard, writing a generation later.  Both are careful and nuanced thinkers, and I don’t intend to walk you through a precise outline of their work.  But they each tell a story that churches and preachers have been telling ever since.  I wish to tell a different story.

            For Anselm, Jesus becomes a cosmic mechanism by which God deals with the problem of sin.  You probably know a version of the story Anselm tells.  Theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer depend upon versions of this story, as does a huge portion of popular theologies in America.  It goes like this: human beings are created good, but they yield to temptation in the Garden, which results in the Fall.  Humans become so tarnished by sin that God’s moral purity and righteousness is offended.  And God is so big and majestic that the offense is infinite, meaning that no human can actually set it right.  And so God invents a form of recompense whereby Jesus, his Son, will pay the ultimate price for all of us, suffering on the cross for the sins of the world.  In other words, human beings owe God an infinite debt that they cannot pay.  Jesus pays the debt, which sets human beings right with God the Father.  The problem, of course, is that Anselm’s version of God doesn’t look and feel very loving.  It’s a medieval version of the Big Powerful Sky Father.  But the bigger problem with Anselm’s story, and with all of the more conservative theologies that have depended upon that story ever since, is that it doesn’t take the flesh and blood person of Jesus seriously at all.  Jesus is simply a mechanism, a form of exchange in the conflict between God and humans.  While churches and theologies that depend upon this story claim to elevate the work of Jesus and the cross, I would claim that the opposite is far more the case.  In truth, they virtually ignore Jesus, failing to take him seriously at all.  In that story, Jesus is simply a pawn who goes to the woodshed to take the beating that all of us deserve.  In short, it’s a terrifying God and a lifeless Jesus that we inherit in that theological stream. 

            Peter Abelard tells a slightly different story, one which is, in my estimation, a better story, for it doesn’t suffer from the same emotional dead ends as that found in Anselm.  Kant, Schleiermacher, Troeltsch and Tillich all depend upon versions of this story.  But this story too renders Jesus somehow lifeless and bland.  It too converts the flesh and blood person of Jesus into a theological mechanism.  The story goes like this.  Yes, human beings have yielded to temptation, and yes, there was a Fall, resulting in sin, now understood as human imperfections and struggles.  But we’re still created by God, and so not entirely corrupted by sin.  Something of our original divinity still peeks through, if only we could realize it and act upon it.  We need a boost, an extra helping hand in order to be all that we were created to be, and so God sends Jesus to help show us the way.  In this story, Jesus is important not because he pays an ultimate price for sin.  He’s important because of his persuasive power.  He’s important as a moral exemplar, showing us all how best to live, how best to behave, how best to reorient our lives toward God.  For Abelard, Jesus could just as easily have died an old man than a bloody death, but the cross and resurrection do wind up showing how costly it can be to live a life oriented toward the good, and toward God.  It’s a better story, but even here, Jesus winds up becoming a mechanism, a tool to set humanity right.  Jesus becomes a moral exemplar to aspire to.  Behind those aspirations, however, is yet another version of the Big Powerful Sky Father, urging us all to get right, and chiding us when we don’t.  It’s a less threatening version of the Sky Father, but no less alienating, and no less burdensome.  Here too, Jesus becomes a useful tool in reinforcing the power of the Sky Father.

            Recall now the words from Martin Luther that we heard two weeks ago.  Luther too struggled with visions of a punitive God, feeling tormented by his own inadequacies before such a deity.  Luther eventually found a way to reread the Bible with different eyes, even if he didn’t always follow through on his best insights.  He wrote: “You must not climb up to God, but rather begin where God began – in his mother’s womb.  If you wish to be certain in your conscience…then you must know no God at all apart from this human Jesus, and depend upon this, his humanity.”[3]                   

            And so consider Jesus with me for a moment.  Consider him, stripped of all the theological niceties, stripped of all the dogmatic baggage that have been imposed on him for two millennia.  Consider him as he actually appears in the Gospels.  He has a magnetic personality.  People are mysteriously drawn to him, hanging on his words, following him around the countryside.  He has a distaste for authority, and he seems to take pleasure in flouting local customs.  The ne’er do wells of the world like him, and he’s most at home in their company.  Prostitutes, thugs (tax collectors are the term the Bible assigns them), day laborers, street people, the diseased, those without money…these are the ones he treats as intimates.  He reserves his strongest moral judgment for the good, the respectable, and the decent.  He’s comfortable expressing strong emotions like anger.  He weeps in public.  He gets into arguments frequently, most often with religious people.  He causes divisions, and then travels by cover of night into Samaritan territory.  He says things about his mother and his siblings that make some of us wince.  He sometimes expresses incredible tenderness.  He’s drawn to children, and he frequently talks about becoming a child.  He seems utterly at home with himself, often slipping away in order to be alone.  He speaks of a special intimacy with a reality he describes in personal terms, most often describing it as a parent.  Instead of offering direct answers to questions, he speaks in riddles and stories.  He doesn’t maintain a home, and lives a nomadic existence.  He seems remarkably free, remarkably open, remarkably hospitable, both to himself and to others.  In other words, he seems as though he is who he really wants to be, freed of the burdens imposed on him by others.  And it makes him remarkably attractive to others.  At least, it makes him remarkably attractive to me.

            What if instead of treating Jesus as a cosmic mechanism, we actually took the deepest affirmation of Christian faith seriously, that in this strange and shabby man, we discover not some version of the Big Powerful Sky Father, but a God who looks remarkably akin to the Jesus who appears in the Gospel texts?  And what if the entire ministry of Jesus was a way of freeing us from the power of the Sky Father, in order to live into the fullness of our own humanity?  That intuition lies behind the best insights of the Christian tradition.  For many, however, it became too unsettling to follow through on that intuition.  And so while many writers gesture in the direction of the humanity of Jesus, they fail to follow those intuitions all the way through, leaving the Sky Father more or less intact.

            Jesus comes to free human beings from the punitive gaze of the Sky Father.[4]  But perhaps he himself had to be freed of that punitive gaze at the beginning of his ministry, an event that he sometimes refers to as a second birth, or, as some have it, becoming born again.  The Gospel of Mark is the earliest story of Jesus, and it offers a privileged vantage of that event.  At the beginning, it depicts Jesus finding his way to the river Jordan, where he encounters John the Baptist.  John is a fiery figure.  He’s powerful.  He’s authoritative.  And so is his God.  John advocates a strict ethical code.  He warns of a wrath to come.  We can wonder if something within Jesus is attracted to that kind of power, the part of him that longs for an authoritative presence to say what’s what and to set things straight.  We can wonder if something within Jesus is drawn to the ethical codes of the godly, as a way of managing his own interior chaos.  And we can wonder if that might have something to do with the absence of Jesus’s own father from his life, for after the childhood episodes that some of the Gospels report, Joseph isn’t mentioned again, leading us to imagine that he died.  Maybe, like many humans, Jesus comes to believe that ethical perfection is the way to achieve love and acceptance, especially from God.  Perhaps this is what draws Jesus down to the river to confess his sins and to make a fresh start.  Perhaps that’s a burden that Jesus is carrying. 

            But something happens to him at the river.  Something shifts in Jesus’s inner world in an overwhelming instant, an Event that reorganizes everything within his life.  Mark tells us, in richly symbolic language, that “just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  And he hears a voice, saying, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

            Jesus is thirty, schooled in the law and the prophets, and carrying around God only knows what burdens, what “oughts,” what “shoulds.”  What he somehow learns in that moment is the opposite of what religion so often teaches, then as now, things like: “Now that you’ve undergone this transformation, you’re qualified to receive my attention and love; or, now that you’ve cleaned yourself up, continue along this path and I’ll continue to love you.”  But that’s not what he hears.  What he hears is an unqualified affirmation of acceptance that seems to shatter the hold of the Sky Father on his imagination.  As I imagine it, what he hears is something like: “I love you exactly as you are.  Nothing you can do, or fail to do, can change that love.  So you can drop the act that goes with constantly trying to please me, and please others.  You’re now free to live from within that sense of affirmation, that sense of embrace, that sense of freedom.” 

            Mark tells us that after this overwhelming event, Jesus enters the wilderness, where he continues to struggle with the hold of the Sky Father on his imagination.  But when he returns, something decisive has shifted.  He seems convinced that the experience he had at the river was not only for him, but for everyone.  After John is arrested, Jesus begins preaching in his own way, saying “Now is the time.  The reign of God is right here.  Repent!  Believe the good news!”

            Doug Frank, a friend whose insights I have been following here, suggests that to repentance as Jesus now means it isn’t about shaping up or getting your act together.  Instead, he suggests, Jesus intends something like the following: “‘You need to turn your picture of God around.  You’ve got God wrong.  God isn’t the demanding taskmaster who will love you and fix your life if you obey his commands.  God is the still small voice, speaking deep inside you, naming you God’s beloved.  God isn’t out there on a throne controlling world events.  God is in here, right now…whispering love to you.  God isn’t your enemy, and God doesn’t want you to be your own enemy.  God likes you just the way you are…Isn’t this good news?  Can you feel it, somewhere deep inside you?  Can you believe it?  Can you see how it puts you in a brand new world?  Don’t you want to go in this altogether new direction?’”[5]

            I do.  But it’s also true that I don’t.  Because there’s something reassuring about the good old God, the Sky Father and his expectations.  There’s something comforting about having a set of tasks to carry forth, and then doing them.  There’s something stabilizing about a God who will tell us to go this way or that, who will intervene in this moment or that, who will guide world events in this way or that.  There’s something seductive about harnessing, and participating, in that kind of power.  But Jesus beckons in a different direction, one that I find far more uncomfortable, but also far more exhilarating.  Jesus beckons us into the messiness of the human story, of your human story and mine, where we lose our mastery of the world, where we lose our control, where we become as awkward as little children once again, but also receptive in a way that age and experience can often cancel out.

            There’s more to say, so much more, and I want to share it with you.  But it’s time to close for this week.  What I’d like to leave you with isn’t a tidy sermonic ending.  That would betray my message.  Instead, what I have is an image, one I’ve shared before, but one that bears repeating, and often.  It’s from the novelist Flannery O’Connor, who captured the messy and slightly chaotic Jesus well in her novel Wise Blood.  The protagonist is a haunted man named Hazel Motes, a ragtag preacher burdened by his grandfather’s fire and brimstone religion.  Like a lot of people I’ve met, Jesus is a promise he’s never managed to break, but has never managed to keep either.  At the beginning of the novel, Hazel falls asleep on a train, and he dreams of a wild and ragged figure, moving from tree to tree in some dark corner of his mind, beckoning him deeper and deeper into the darkness, where he does not know the way.  When he wakes, he’s shaken by the image, and he spends the rest of the novel in a pitched battle between the harsh Sky Father raging within him, and the wild and ragged figure beckoning him toward freedom.  It’s the same quest that I believe Jesus himself faced in those early pages of Mark, the same journey that each of us is invited to embark upon. 

            And so I ask: what would it mean to leave the Sky Father behind?  What would it mean to read the stories of Jesus as a struggle to free himself, and all of us, from the oversight of the Almighty, in favor of something far smaller?  What would it mean to follow that wild and ragged Jesus into the darkness, where you no longer know the way? 






[1] As with the previous sermon in this series, I am depending heavily on insights I learned from Doug Frank, in conversations, emails, lectures, essays, but especially his book A Gentler God (Albatross Press, 2010).

[2] A Gentler God, pgs. 190-191.

[3] Quoted in Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pgs. 234-235.  As quoted in A Gentler God, pgs. 196-197.

[4] In the coming paragraphs, I am following Doug Frank’s interpretation of Jesus’s baptism.  See A Gentler God, pgs. 232-236.

[5] Ibid, pg. 236.

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