Part 2: Start with ‘Why’ Series
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, May 22, 2022
Reading: John 6:25-40
So, just who is this simple carpenter who came to be known throughout the world as “Jesus, the Messiah; the Son of God; the Christ?” One pastor tells a story of the chance he had to ask a woman named Ingrid that very question. They got into a spiritual conversation, and she said she had rarely gone to church growing up except at Christmas and Easter, and it had been many years since she had been inside of any church at all.
He asked her, “Ingrid, suppose that I had grown up on a deserted island and I had never been exposed to church, or any religion, or spirituality of any kind; and I come to Canada, and I keep hearing about this man called ‘Jesus.’ So, I come to you and ask this question, ‘Who is Jesus?’ How would you answer that question?”
Ingrid thought for a moment and said, “To me, Jesus is a religious figure that some people believe in, and some people don’t. To be honest with you, I don’t know what I think about Jesus.”
Ingrid is certainly not the first person who has responded in that fashion, and she won’t be the last. There may be some of you here today who would respond the same way. But, given the scope of Jesus’ impact on world history, that response leaves me a bit curious. In the history of the world, only one individual has ever been given the title “Saviour of the world;” only one is believed to have lived a perfectly sinless life, to have died for the sins of all of humanity, and to have been raised from the dead by God.
I would think that curiosity alone – let alone the implications for us if these claims are actually true – would drive people to explore the question, “Who is this Jesus?” and more specifically, “Who is Jesus to me, and is there any reason why I would want to believe in him?”
Distinguished British theologian, Alistair McGrath wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth plays a central role in Christian theology. As even a cursory survey of the history of theology makes clear, Christians have always insisted that there is something special, something qualitatively different about Jesus that sets him apart from other religious teachers or thinkers. But what is special about him?
“The early church wrestled long and hard with the biblical texts to try and work out the best way of making sense of the identity and significance of Jesus. Various approaches were explored, often to be rejected as inadequate. By the fourth century a consensus can be seen emerging, based on the concept of incarnation. This term, based on Latin terms meaning ‘in the flesh,’ refers to the idea that, in Christ, God took human nature on himself, in order to redeem it.”
One of the most important early writings on the incarnation was an article by the devout and faithful Church Father, Athanasius of Alexandria, who argued in his early 4th century writing that humanity is in need of redemption – we’re practically a hopeless lot, really – but because all humans are subject to the Fall and are imperfect no human being is able to bring about perfect redemption; God alone can do that because God alone is perfect. No creature can save another creature, he says.
Athanasius observed that the New Testament writings and the earliest Christian communities acknowledged Jesus as the Saviour, but since God alone can save creatures then the only possible solution is to accept that Jesus is God incarnate. If Jesus were merely a human being, then his death cannot redeem humanity. Jesus Christ makes God known on a personal level and is able to do for us what God alone can do.
But Jesus’ humanity is equally important, because our salvation comes through God taking on our ultimate enemy – death – and conquering it. But God is eternal and cannot die, so by taking on human flesh in Jesus, God allows himself to become mortal and experience our limitations and our suffering. Jesus is the bridge between a perfect God and a fallen humanity. As much as we can know God personally in Jesus, in Jesus God also knows and empathizes with our deepest needs and pain. This has been the definitive understanding of who Jesus is in the centuries ever since the earliest church, starting with the people who knew Jesus “in the flesh.”
Now, this is all very heady stuff, but as with last week, I want to take a bit of a personal turn and tell you a little about Why I follow Jesus! Why do I believe he is who he says he is? There are so many reasons, but I’m just going to give you a couple. I told you last week why I have faith in God, but why specifically Jesus?
First, I follow Jesus because the witness of the first apostles and the earliest Christians is extremely convincing to me. These men and women who became the first Christian martyrs were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry and were willing to die for the sake of what they knew they had seen and experienced while traveling with Jesus. They knew who he was without a doubt, and they were willing to stand by that to their death, and their martyrdom is attested in many historical writings outside of the Bible.
I think of St. Stephen, who you can read about in the Bible – in the book of Acts – who was prayerfully chosen to serve as the first deacon in the early church because he was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” A group of Jewish leaders looking to silence the growing group of Christians seized Stephen because they were threatened by his humility and wisdom. He gave a powerful speech to the leaders, which further inflamed their anger, because they knew it proved that Jesus was the Messiah and that they were rejecting him the way their ancestors had rejected all the prophets before him. As they dragged him out and stoned him to death, he lifted his heart to the Lord Jesus and said “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” I just find it impossible to believe that anyone would do that unless they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what they believed was absolutely the truth!
Stephen was not the only one: Ten out of twelve of Jesus’ original disciples (not counting Judas and John), as well as Matthias, the disciple chosen to replace Judas because he had been an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection, and many other eyewitnesses died violent deaths because they could not with integrity recant what they had told others about who Jesus was and what he had done.
Peter was crucified upside down; Andrew was scourged and then tied to a cross, rather than nailed, so that he would suffer a longer time; James (son of Zebedee) and Bartholomew were beheaded; Thomas was run through with a spear; James (son of Alphaeus) was hit over the head with a club; many other followers were crucified, burned, tortured to death, or fed to lions. Who would be willing to do that unless they were absolutely confident in what Jesus had done and promised?
Second, I trust that Jesus was who he said he was because there was no personal glory for him in any of this. If someone were going to make up a story about a Saviour, this is not the story they would make up! There was nothing in this for him…he knew that all of it was leading to his death, yet he was fully prepared to give his life for the sake of the world.
No other religious belief system in the world finds its ultimate meaning in the suffering and death of its leader. Buddha, Mohammed, Moses and Abraham, died at ripe old ages, most of them with big families and substantial riches, and their followers find meaning in their lives and in their teachings, and believed that their prosperity was a sign of being blessed by God. Jesus, on the other hand, amassed no fortunes, and claimed no comforts; he died young, penniless, abandoned by all his friends, and mocked by strangers.
That is convincing to me; but it is also compelling, because I know that no matter what we go through, Jesus understands, because he’s been through it, and so much more intensely – physical pain? Betrayal? Rejection? Abandonment? Fear? Temptation? Grief? Failure? Injustice? Poverty? Because he experienced everything that we could experience to the nth degree, Jesus understands us better than we understand ourselves. Jesus understands temptation; he knows your fears. He knows the desires of your heart. He understands the restlessness of your soul.
In this morning’s reading from the gospel of John we find a statement found nowhere else in the entire scriptures: “I am the bread of life.” That statement would have been like an explosion in the ears of the people who heard it that day. What Jesus basically said was this: “What food is to your body I am to your soul.”
A lot of people will say that Jesus didn’t really live as a historical figure, that he was a myth, but that’s just not credible. First, thousands of followers wouldn’t die for a myth; and second, his life is attested by Josephus, a first century Jewish historian who was not a follower and therefore had no personal bias.
A lot of people will say that he was a good man, a prophet, a teacher, but that he was not the Son of God. That brings to mind the famous C.S. Lewis quote that I’m sure you have all heard before writes:
I am trying to prevent the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else would be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
We have so much access to information – so much opportunity – to explore for ourselves, ‘who did Jesus say he was? Who have others throughout history said that he was? And why would I want to follow him, model my life after his, to be like him?’ I’ve told you why I believe, but don’t take my word for it…I encourage you to explore those questions for yourself – you can pick up the Bible and read the New Testament (if you don’t have one, feel free to take the copy in the pew in front of you); there are books that I can recommend for you if you ask me. But the magnitude and implications of this question are so great, that you don’t want to just ignore it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, p. 52.