Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
February 12, 2006
JESUS: THE WRITING DOWN OF A LIFE
The Apostle Paul called it “my
gospel” - - his rendering of the Gospel of God in Christ (Romans
2:16; 16:25). Novelist Reynolds Price has taught a course at Duke
where they study the four New Testament Gospels, especially Mark and
John, and read some of the apocryphal Gospels floating around in the
early Christian period. Then each student writes his/her own gospel.1
Sounds like fun.
What would your gospel look
like? I’ll show you my gospel if you show me yours.
Today I’ll offer a sketch of one. It began a few weeks ago when I
was invited by Temple Beth-El to present a “biography of Jesus.”
It’s a little risky talking
about Jesus to a community which has suffered such harm over the
years at the hands of followers of Jesus - - not as risky as being
asked to draw a picture of the Prophet Mohammed. But I said yes. If
we do not risk telling our most important stories to one another,
reconciliation among religions - - no small need today - - cannot
I describe biography as “the writing down of a life. “The writing
down of a life includes whatever historical data we can scrounge
from the period two thousand years ago. It includes also what I’d
call historical memories, which reach farther than the data can to
capture the essence and meaning of this man. A gospel is more
portraiture than photograph. These historical memories of Jesus came
from eyewitnesses and those who knew eyewitnesses, passed along in
oral and written tradition for seventy years after Jesus’ death.
How close can we get to the historical Jesus? We always assume we
can know more than we do. L. P. Hartley writes in his novel, The
The past is a foreign
They do things differently there.
New Testament scholarship is
now in its third “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” It is important
to get as close as we can, but we can get back only so far. And for
two thousand years what we do know of him has been enough to
transform lives and history.
My writing down of his life also includes my own personal response
to Jesus Christ, who he is to me, the shape I give the story of his
life as a result of his life and teachings sifting through my own
mind, heart and life.2
All biography is part autobiography. It is inevitably “my gospel.”
In our text for today, people are meeting Jesus for the first time.
In it we get credible historical detail, and we get people’s
personal response to him in the form of names and titles they gave
He comes to John for baptism and John says, “Behold the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world.” Two of John’s disciples call
Jesus “Rabbi” or Teacher, and ask him, “Where do you dwell?” - - a
many-layered question. Jesus answers inviting, elusively, “Come and
Jesus calls some disciples of his own with the words “Follow me.”
They name him “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” and “the one of whom
Moses...and also the prophets wrote.” He is identified as “Jesus of
Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael, hearing this says, “Can
anything good come out of New Jersey – I mean – Nazareth?” Philip
reiterates the delicious invitation, “Come and see.”
So here is my sketch of Jesus’ life, the rough outline of “my
gospel.” All these words can do is to point to him. Come and see for
Jesus or Yeshua lived from
about 4 BCE to 33 CE. “Yeshua” means “God saves.” He was born to a
Jewish maiden named Miriam or Mary and to her husband, Joseph, who
tradition says was considerably older. God was in the birth as God
was in his life. He had brothers and sisters - - which means he
learned how to quarrel!
He was raised in Nazareth in the northern region of Galilee, a good
two days, journey by foot from Jerusalem. The size of offering Mary
and Joseph offered in the temple at his dedication - - two
turtledoves, a special provision for the poor - - indicate they were
people of modest means.
Tradition says Joseph was a carpenter and that Jesus learned his
earthly father’s trade. New archeological excavation has uncovered,
four miles from Nazareth, a large thriving Roman/Hellenistic city
named Sepphoris. Jesus, therefore, may well have been exposed to a
quite sophisticated culture of arts and learning, as well as given a
close look on how the Roman Empire did things. His family may have
been poor - - John Dominic Crossan calls him a “Galilean peasant” –
but he was far from a country bumpkin.
Luke’s Gospel gives us the only glimpse of Jesus as a boy: A
precocious twelve-year-old astounding the teachers in the temple and
displaying an early awareness of a special calling and relationship
to God. “Do you not know, I must be about my Father’s business?” he
said to his frantic and exasperated parents, who thought they had
All four Gospels agree that Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism
around the age of thirty. He was baptized by John, a wilderness
prophet who baptized for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for
the coming reign of God. John seems much influenced by the Qumran,
or Essene, community who collected and preserved for us the Dead Sea
At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit of God descended upon him and he heard
God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well
pleased.” Then the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for a time
of testing as to what it meant for him to be the son of God. He
passed the test and set forth on his ministry. The tests would be
there every following day.
The message he preached is summarized in Mark, four arresting
The time is ripe,
the kingdom of God is at hand;
and believe in the good news.
Mark 1:15(adopted NRSV)
The good news was, as he
himself said, “good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to
the blind, and liberty to the oppressed.” Luke 4:18-19
The Spirit that anointed him empowered his life as a prophet,
healer, mystic, teacher and founder of a movement-community.
“Prophet,” in the Hebrew
nabi, means one who is called. The Hebrew prophet was given a
vision of God and what God wanted and sought to apply that vision to
the realm of “plain history, real politics and human
was time for the Hebrew people to turn back to God, implement God’s
vision and be saved. Jesus was a nabi, a prophet.
Was he an “apocalyptic prophet”? Scholars debate it. In the dark
period of history between the Babylonian exile and the time of Jesus
prophecy turned apocalyptic. These apocalyptic prophets were given a
vision from God too, but this vision could not be implemented in
“plain history, real politics and human instrumentality.” It was too
late for that. Only God in a radical in-breaking of his kingdom
could save them. Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet? Well, it was
clear he did not think any of the present political or religious
arrangements could save. He did not join any of the groups available
to him: Sadducees sidling up to Rome, Pharisees preaching holiness,
Essenees out in the desert, or Zealots plotting revolt against Rome.
Only God’s kingdom could save us. But his teaching of the kingdom
cannot be easily pinned down. It had political ramifications, but it
was not a political kingdom. It had social implications, but it was
more than a social program. It was something so huge it would
overtake the world, as inescapable as a great flood. But it was also
something that dwelt within us as a seed growing secretly. “The
kingdom of God is within you,” he said, entos you, meaning
near, as near as your own breath, nearer. He preached the kingdom
not as some distant hope but as a compelling, urgent, gracious
possibility. And this kingdom was meant for Earth: “Thy kingdom
come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven,” he taught us to pray
every day. The early church said we should pray it three times a
Jesus was also a healer. Full of God’s Spirit, he healed disease,
cast out evil spirits and forgave sins. When people touched him or
he them, they felt whole. Something wrong inside was made right.
Jesus was also a mystic. A mystic is someone who experiences a union
with God that is deeper than words. Silence gets closer to
The core of his spirituality was what we could call his
“Abba-experience” - - like at his baptism when he knew he was the
beloved of God and that God delighted in him.
Jesus had an intimate, trusting, joyful, obedient relationship to
God, whom he called Abba, the Aramaic word children used for Daddy
or Poppa. It was exceedingly rare for Abba to be used in reference
to God, but in every prayer Jesus prayed in the Gospels – all nine
of them, except the one in which he quoted Psalm 22 – Jesus began
the prayer Abba.
Jesus wanted us to have that same intimate and trusting relationship
with God. “Our Abba,” he taught us to pray. In John’s Gospel he
prayed for us that we may be one with God just as he was one with
God. “The Father and I are one,” he said, and he prayed that it
might be so for us as well (John 10:30; 17:20-21)?
Jesus was also a master teacher, a rabbi. He taught the Torah of God
and helped us interpret it for our lives. In his genius he fused Law
and Love. This is the whole Torah, he said: “You shall love the Lord
your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your
neighbor as yourself.” It sounds nice, sweet, easy - - until you see
how he defined “neighbor.” Your neighbor is anyone who has need of
you. Sometimes your neighbor is your enemy.
His favorite way of teaching was in parables. These stories drew us
in, then forced us to make a choice: Enter the kingdom or go back to
business as usual. Two of his most famous parables display his
spiritual genius. Go home and read them slowly, as if for the first
time; they are cameos of the gospel. Luke 10:29-37: “A man was going
down from Jerusalem to Jericho” - - we mess it up by calling it “The
Good Samaritan” because that blows the punch line. And Luke
15:11-32: “A certain man had two sons.” Again we mess it up by
calling it “The Prodigal Son.” There were two lost boys in that
story: The one lost in the far country and the one lost in the
At times Jesus’ teaching seems impossibly hard: “Love your enemy:
Sell all you have and give to the poor. Forgive and you will be
forgiven.” (If that’s the condition will we ever be forgiven?) But
Jesus also said these words:
Come to me you, who are
weary and heavy-
laden and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and
learn of me [learn me];
for I’m gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your
souls. For my yoke is easy,
and my burden is light.
Sometimes it feels to me the
opposite of easy and light. Could it be, I ask myself, the more we
follow, the more we learn of him, the easier the yoke becomes, the
lighter the burden? Could it be the longer we follow, the more we
let him carry what we carry?
Jesus was also the founder of a movement - community. I do not think
he meant to found a new religion, though God may have decided later
to move us that way. We plan; things happen; God plans-it-over.4
Jesus did have in mind the founding of a new community, those
dedicated to living the way of the kingdom of God, a movement of
justice, joy, mercy and peace, a nonviolent movement meant to change
This community was outrageously inclusive: Women as well as men,
young, old, righteous and sinners, prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich
and poor, Jews and non-Jews, traditional and radical. We are still
trying to figure it out, to emulate it.
It appears that Jesus’ early
Galilean ministry had much success. His teaching and mighty works of
healing created quite a following. (Though he distrusted those who
followed for miracles alone e.g. John 2:23-25). But the tide began
to turn. Opposition began to build, especially among the religious
and political powers-that-be. At some point he realized that if he
kept to his present course he would be killed. The integrity of his
life and mission and his unswerving obedience to what he sensed God
wanted from him would not let him turn back. He also began to
believe that God might use his faithful death to bring about the
redemption of the world. The prophet from the Exile had written of
God’s servant: “By his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
He “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and took his message into the
heart of the opposition. He entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the
cheers of the crowds. He went to the temple and overturned the
tables. It was Passover. Political and religious passions were at
fever pitch. The end was now inescapable.
Jesus had a last meal with his disciples, a Passover meal, and as he
blessed the bread and wine he said these were emblems of his own
life and death.
He was betrayed by one of his own, arrested, put on trial and
sentenced to death. The charge: “King of the Jews,” the leader of an
insurrection. No charge could be more false or more true. A king,
yes, but not like other kings. Leader of a revolution? Yes, but
unlike any we’ve seen, one deeper and more pervasive than we yet
Pliny, the Younger, Roman historian, wrote of the death of Jesus:
Christus, from whom the
[of the Christian sect] had its origin,
suffered the extreme penalty
during the reign of Tiberius
at the hands of the procurator,
He was nailed to a cross
outside Jerusalem, suffered the most excruciating, humiliating and
painful of deaths, died and was buried in a borrowed tomb. Someone
heard him say on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not
what they do.”
That is the end of all the story secular history can tell. But the
Gospels do not end there - - nor does “my gospel.” They describe a
series of appearings of Jesus risen from death to his disciples,
starting on the third day, what we call Easter Sunday, first to Mary
Magdalene and then to Peter, then to the other disciples, then to
These appearances are of a mysterious, uncanny character. They are
elusive, different from one person to the next. One New Testament
scholar calls them “historical but not provable.” Had they not
happened as historical experiences, Christianity would never have
begun. But they are not the kind of phenomena that are provable,
But rarely are the most important experiences that change our lives
provable, measurable, repeatable.
At the end of a series of appearings over forty days, Jesus said to
his disciples, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
The church has lived for two thousand years by that promise and that
sometime experience: Gone in body, present in Spirit.
Who is Jesus? That question finally becomes, Who is Jesus to me?
And the answer comes, if it
comes, only as we take up our mats, take up our crosses, take up our
lives, and walk after him, with him.
It is what Albert Schweitzer concluded at the end of his monumental
The Quest of the Historical Jesus: Only as we follow him do we
“learn in our own experience who he is.”5
And Schweitzer followed him to Africa to set up his medical clinic
Who is he? Come and see. I love how Walt Whitman ends his poem “Song
of Myself.” You will miss who I am and what I mean, he writes then
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.6
“I stop somewhere,” Jesus
says, “waiting for you.” Praise him.
1 Reynolds Price, Three Gospels (New York: Scribners, 1996).
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center (New York: Kasper
and Row, A60) The supreme religious question is “who”: Who is Jesus
Christ to me?
3 These are the phrases of Paul D. Hanson in his work, The Dawn
of Apolcalyptic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 11-12.
4See Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis 50:20: “You planned ill
against me [but] God planned-it-over for good.” The Five Books of
Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995).
5(London: A & C Black, 1922), p. 401.
6Whitman, “A Song of Myself,” The American Tradition in
Literature, Third Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967), p. 84.