A man told a friend about taking his wife to dinner for Valentine’s. He described how the food was made in front of them. The friend said, “I’ve heard of places like that, what is the name of the restaurant?” The man replied, “Subway.”
If you could meet any historical person, who would you meet? You know, the go back in time machine deal. Who would it be?
For me, it’s two people. Abraham Lincoln and of course Jesus of Nazareth. With Abraham, I would love to be there that night at Ford’s Theater and somehow stop Booth from killing him. How that would change American history of what happened after the Civil War was ended. It would be amazing to hear him at his second inauguration give his famous address and it’s ending lines especially: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
But to meet the real Jesus. Oh my. To hear him and watch him, knowing his untold impact on untold billions of people. Can you imagine? His sermon on the mount. Hear him tell his parable of the sower and the parable of the good Samaritan, as his response to the question what should I do to inherit eternal life. Healing a blind man, bringing life back into a dead girl, Lazarus. How about being at the Last Supper? And then of course there’s his passion and resurrection. Oh my gosh, to be there to see and hear the real Jesus of Nazareth, Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior—can you imagine?
For the next five weeks, we’re going to explore who the real Jesus was. I want us to take on the task of learning as much as we can about who Jesus was, what he did, and why he did it. Why? Because it should matter. What he wanted done should guide us, right? It’s not like we can disregard what Christ did in his lifetime and say it doesn’t matter.
This is about being true to who Jesus Christ was. It’s about having a real Christian faith.
It sounds simple, right? But there’s a catch. The Gospels, and the Jesus they show us, aren’t exactly history books. They were all written decades
later for the people the authors wanted to reveal Christ to. They’re not history books as much as we perhaps would want because the risen Christ and the church were more important than the historical Jesus of Nazareth. What I mean is that reporting precisely what was said and done in his life back then wasn’t the most important thing on the author’s mind. They weren’t historians, after all. They had to bring the historical Jesus and the risen Christ to people who were now Christians in different cities and in different locations and encountering different issues. These people had faith in Christ and it was starting to cost them a lot. They were being persecuted, or at least seriously misunderstood, for example. They were bringing a Galilean prophet, his words and actions into the present day and into the present lives of the people they were writing their gospel for.
You know what I mean? Not history exactly but historical, you could say. About Jesus of Nazareth but also about Christians who were trying to live out Christ Jesus’ risen life. This both-and, this complementary aspect, of the Gospels is super important. Some have called it a relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Christ or between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
So here’s the thing: No matter how much they wanted to make the risen Christ, the Christ of faith, work for these new people living in places far away from Galilee and Jerusalem, people who weren’t even Jewish, they never separated the Nazarene, the man, from the Risen one, the Savior. They did everything they could to make sure the two stayed together.
So, what I’m saying is this: The real Jesus of our Christian faith must be maintained. You can’t have the risen Christ without the historical Jesus of Nazareth. As Acts says, “…listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you….” Christian faith is built on the shoulders, the spirit and heart, words and actions of Jesus, the real Jesus. The first Christian faith started with Jesus because God affirmed this person’s ministry as God’s own ministry. In John’s Gospel, Jesus on his last night tells his disciples that since they have seen him, they have seen God.
I can’t help but to see things like this. It’s built into how I became a Christian. I was already going to church, but I didn’t want to be like Jesus or find Christ to be the major pull in my life and heart until I watched him in the famous TV movie Jesus of Nazareth. I was eleven years old and I watched it all five nights, I think, that it was on TV. Now don’t get me wrong, I know
now that the real Jesus probably didn’t have blue eyes and a British accent; nor was he a thin, pale, northern European with a head of beautiful chestnut brown hair that fell straight with a slight curl to his shoulders. What moved me, what I saw, was someone who was doing things and saying things that changed those people’s lives. Jesus met a young man who was possessed by a demon, and the father who was desperate, and like it says in scripture, he freed the boy from it. A girl laid dead on her bed, he took her hand and she sat up. Her anguished parents rejoiced. Jesus told his famous parable of the prodigal son in a context in the movie that made it so much more powerful than I had understood it in Sunday school to that point.
I know! The power of TV and movies. I knew it was TV, but Jesus never seemed more real to me than ever. It worked, for me. Seeing that changed my life forever.
If you’re going be a Christian, you have to know who Jesus was—as best we are able—it’s as simple as that. It’s like what the first letter of John states, “Whoever doesn’t love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” You can’t love the Lord if you don’t know what you love or why he’s lovable or what he was about. It’s too easy to make up a Jesus to fit our own liking and image. It’s convenient to empty Christ of his historical life, the one that actually ended with crucifixion, and fill it with whatever we want.
Honoring Jesus is honoring God, since it was God who honored Jesus in his raising him in his resurrection. It wasn’t just any old person God decided to do this to. It’s because of what Christ said, did, didn’t say, and didn’t do that God raised this particular person, and not another.
Turn to scripture not just to build your faith but to see Jesus. Be willing to listen again to his words as someone who would do anything for others, anything for his Father in heaven. When we see the real Jesus, our faith will grow in the direction that Christ can bless. When we follow the real Jesus, then the Spirit can teach us and lead us. When we make Christ’s purpose our purpose to the best of our faith and passion, then we make Christ Jesus alive again in our day.
The truth is our Christian lives aren’t all about the risen Christ and how blessed we are in to have such a powerful God looking out for us personally. It’s also about doing the work, building the kingdom, helping and serving. It’s being as real as Jesus was real. It’s about being as human as Jesus of Nazareth was human.
In our scripture reading, Jesus’ antagonizers set the trap. They bring up the Emperor’s tax. Devout Jews believe they are subject to God alone. The silver denarius they use to pay taxes not only bears Emperor Tiberius’ image but the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Deified Augustus.” That’s blasphemy to Jews. It is a constant reminder of their yoke and humiliation.
So, Jesus can say either yes pay Rome and incur the hatred and wrath of Zealots and hard line Pharisees, of which there were many; or say no, don’t pay the Emperor’s tax, and thereby commit treason, a penalty the Herodians would gladly make him pay for. The trap is set.
It’s a very real trap. It’s an incredibly dangerous, all-too-real game of life and death. Jesus is in a fight for his life. They’re trying to outthink him in hopes of destroying him. He must think and maneuver and reason better than his opponents.
And he does. Jesus’ answer has always struck me as one of the most truly and unquestionably historical, honest, and human of moments in the gospels, probably because it doesn’t teach anything about the kingdom, or heaven, or God. It only teaches us about Jesus of Nazareth, someone who tried to survive for as long as it was given him against incredible odds in the hopes of teaching and showing the world the kingdom’s power, goodness, and nearness.
The truth is the real Jesus wasn’t so different from us. He’s not yet the risen Christ, not the one sitting at the right hand of God the father almighty in heaven, ready to judge the living and the dead. Here he’s living off his faith and connection to God, his prayers and sense of purpose, his smarts and wisdom, his willpower and strength, and above all his desire to do whatever he can to bring God’s love and might to the poor, the hurting, the lost. Jesus is someone willing to sacrifice so much, everything in fact, for the sake of God and others. He wants his life to make a difference, to change the world, to be remembered.
Jesus’ humanity is what makes him real. The guy had a beard, after all! How cool was he?! Actually, we don’t know if he had a beard. Our Christian faith must be rooted in the real, in where people are, in touching and changing people’s lives, in reducing suffering and spreading hope, in believing in caring.
No matter how exalted and heavenly our faith gets, we don’t ever want to lose the one who is the heart of it: Jesus of Nazareth. May you get to know this Christ and how important he is to you.