The Historical Jesus

While I was a graduate student at Wake Forest, (GO DEACS!), I was greatly influenced by legendary Church historian Bill Leonard.  Bill would later become a trusted mentor and close friend.  In the very first meeting of his course on the History of Christianity, he asked this haunting question: “Why does the death of a 1st century Palestinian Jew matter to someone living in the 21st century?” 

There were many Jews executed by the Roman Empire in Palestine during the 1st century, what makes this Jesus of Nazareth so special?  Who was this Jesus?  Did he even exist?  If so, what is that to me, all these years later?

Dr. Leonard asked that question at the beginning and the ending of both the fall and spring semesters, and he never answered that question definitively.  Instead, he left room for his eager seminary students to answer for themselves.  Years later, even as a pastor, I’m still working on my best answer…

During the next few weeks, that’s what we’re going to do together.  We’re going to ask questions and create spaces where we might answer our questions about Jesus for ourselves.  Now, I know I say this all the time, but the journey of faith is just that, a journey.  And we’re all in different places along that journey.  So, as we come together to ask questions and workout for ourselves just who this Jesus guy is to us, please know that everyone is welcome.  Every stage of the journey is welcome.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up in church and talked about Jesus your whole life or if this is your very first moment inside a church, talking about Jesus for the very first time.  All are welcome.  All questions are welcome.  This is no place for people with all the answers.  Please know that!

Today I want to teach you a word that will be new for many of you.  That word is Christology.  Whenever Christians or anyone for that matter ask and try to answer questions about Jesus, they are engaging in an academic discipline that theologians call Christology.  And people have done Christology for nearly 2000 years.  So, this week as you stand chatting with colleagues at the water cooler or find yourself in a conversation at a cocktail party, now you have something interesting to share that will make you sound really smart…  You’re welcome…  Christology, the study of Jesus…

In his book, Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome, yes, that is the real title of a published book…  In this book, Tripp Fuller, the founder of Homebrewed Christianity, says this:

“Christology is just plain crazy. It’s ridiculous. Most any spiritual person could have a conversation about the Spirit, and half the movies coming out of Hollywood are about some dystopian apocalyptic future, but when Christians start talking about Christology, people get nervous.  That’s because Jesus was a homeless, itinerant, first-century rabbi who talked about the end of the world, taught in parables even his disciples couldn’t follow, and ended up dying on a Roman cross as a failed political resistor.  That is the Jesus we call the Christ, the Son of the living God, the First Born of all creation, the Image of the invisible God, the eternal Logos, and all the other Christological titles packed into the New Testament.”

 You know, I think Tripp is right.  Trying to figure out who this guy named Jesus was and is a crazy endeavor.  No wonder most churches and Christians settle for easy to swallow answers and prepackaged doctrines.  Well friends, that’s not what we’re going to settle for these next few weeks.

Instead, and as best we can, we’re going to explore that question, and considering all of its challenging ambiguities, we’re going to attempt to answer just who Jesus was and is for us today, as individuals, and as a church.

As we all know, the Christian tradition has a lot of answers to that question, as does the bible, but before we get to all of that, today I would like for us to focus only on what most scholars say.  And if you don’t hear anything else I say today, hear this, almost all modern scholars of history, religion, and archaeology, those identifying as Christian and those not, agree that at the very least, Jesus of Nazareth was a real person.

Jesus existed.  He lived.  He died.  He lived a human life in the world just like we are living our own human lives in the world today.  We’ll begin our conversation there, and explore briefly the things those scholars claim he did.  Today we’re only looking at the historical, human Jesus, who lived in Palestine in the early 1st century.  So, if you aren’t ready to accept all the Christian stuff yet, that’s ok.  Today we’re just talking about the historical, human Jesus.  Is that cool?  Are you with me?

Since we’re talking in human terms, I think the scripture read a little while ago is a very human story about Jesus when he was 12 years old, that’s funny….

Jesus family had been visiting the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, which is still one of the more important festivals in the Jewish tradition.  When the festival was over, his parents assumed Jesus was with some of their friends, relatives, or other traveling companions, because people traveled in large groups to these festivals.

The story says they walked a day’s journey before they realized he was not with them…  A day’s journey…  Parents, what would be going through your mind right about now???

The first Sunday my parents took me to church as a baby, they left me there…  They were just going about their normal Sunday routine.  Leave church, chat with friends in the parking lot, pick up the KFC.  I’m sure they were halfway home to spent a lazy afternoon watching NASCAR before they realize, oh yeah, we have a baby now…  True story…  I’m still working through it…

Jesus’ parents go back to look for him.  After 3 days.  3 days!  They find him in the Temple among the teachers, listening and asking questions.  The grownups there were amazed by the understanding of this young man.  When his mother sees him, she says, “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety!”

How would you feel, parents?  It had been 3 days!  Happy, relived, angry.  Tears would most certainly be shed, right?  This is a human moment!

And then Jesus gives a very 12 year old human answer: “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Pre-teen boys are the worst.  Have any of you here today ever had to raise a pre-teen boy?  Let me ask you one question: after 3 days, would that answer have been good enough for you?  I didn’t think so…  I’m sure Mary and Joseph laughed about it later, but that day, I don’t think Jesus was laughing on his way back to Nazareth…  Human stuff.  Real stuff.  Sometimes we miss the simple beauty of the gospel story by over-spirtualizing things that are crying out to us from the stories of our own, human lives…

Jesus was a teenager, and went through that whole teenage thing.  Raising the teenage Jesus would have stretched his parents just as it stretches parents today…

But take heart, the story ends with these beautiful words: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in divine and human favor.”

There are two places to get wisdom in life, from experiences, and by spending time around wise people.  Jesus had life experiences just as we do.  And Jesus experienced times when life did not go as he would have liked.  But, for Jesus to have grown in wisdom means he learned from those experiences, just as we can learn from the experiences of our lives.  Jesus also likely spent time around wise people.  Perhaps his parents or family friends.  We know Jesus was a Rabbi, maybe he was mentored by a Rabbi he respected.  The one called the Son of God grew in wisdom because he experienced life in its fullness, and was gently led by mere mortals.

Jesus’ wisdom led him find divine and human favor.  Jesus knew who he was spiritually and among others.  He was well liked.  All of this reflects the kind of life that can be ours as well.

We could spend years discussing all the things it is believed Jesus did during his life, but today I just want to very quickly point out the two that almost all scholars universally agree took place, Jesus’ baptism and his death.  Two stages of the faith journey through which we too are called to walk.

The gospel stories share of a moment in Jesus’ life when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and that moment of oneness with God launched his ministry of preaching and healing.  Following Jesus’ baptism, he emerges as a strong spiritual leader committed to a message of peace, justice, and love for all people.  The message Jesus lived and preached challenged the political authority and oppression of the Jewish people by the Roman Empire, as well as the hypocrisy and and corruption of the religious establishment.  And this message, this ministry, eventually lead to Jesus’ death as an enemy of the state.

Two things I want us to learn, from what is universally held by scholars to have happened in Jesus’ life.  1) Jesus believed in something that shaped his entire life.  He believed that God’s concern for people was so great and radical, he devoted his life to preaching a message of peace, justice, and love, that was for everyone.  His baptism was the moment in which Jesus publicly symbolized that message and shifted the entire trajectory of his life for it.  2) Jesus believed in something so strongly, he was willing to die for it, thus inspiring an even greater movement that, now 2000 years later, continues in the life of his church.

Jesus possessed wisdom that came from experience and mentors.  He was spiritually centered, and he had a social network of meaningful relationships.  And out of that human experience, he was convicted that God’s presence and movement towards people is that of peace, justice, and love.  And he spent his life modeling that peace, justice, and love.  And wasn’t afraid to die for it.  In short, that was the historical Jesus.

Now, I just want to ask one question as we close.  Take away all the religious, churchy, Christian stuff about Jesus.  For just one day, let’s stay with the human-historical stuff.  The stuff even non-religious scholars believe happened.  The person we’ve described, the wise, experienced, committed, relational, passionate, peaceful, loving Jesus we just talked about, isn’t that the kind of person we all would like to know?  Isn’t that the type of person we want to be around?  Aren’t those the people we seek out in our lives to learn from?  We can.  You can.  No matter where you are on the journey.  Even if you aren’t ready for the super spiritual stuff.  Even if you are skeptical of all of this.  We can all learn from the life of the Jesus we’ve encountered today.  And I hope, more than you will ever know, you will come back next week, as we seek to learn even more.