Reading: John 7:37-49
In today’s reading, we people arguing about who Jesus is. Some of the people say that Jesus surely the prophet, others say He is the messiah, and others observe that He comes from Galilee — and, thus he must be a nobody. There were arguments in the crowd; was Jesus the messiah, or was he a nobody who came from a province filled with nobodies.
The crowds were not the only people having this argument, but the elites were having the same argument among themselves — although, for the most part, they spoke with the voice that protected their position. The thing is Jesus was the talk of the nation. Everybody had an idea about who he was, and what his mission was. One thing that I find remarkable is that Jesus has continued to hold this place in discussion.
I know some of you have read C.S. Lewis. There were a series of radio lectures that were later turned into a book, and in one of these Lewis posed a famous trilemma, which is summarized that Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or God, as He claims to be. Lewis elaborated on who Jesus claimed to be, and acted as, in that he claimed the authority to forgive sin, he claimed to have always been, and he claimed that he would come back to judge the world.
I really enjoy C.S. Lewis; even though he was a teacher of literature and not Theology — I consider him to be one of the great 20th century Theologians. Usually when I read modern theology, it is either fails to say anything worth saying or it says what it is trying to say in such a complex way that even other theologians struggle to make out what was just said. I like Lewis because he is able to speak clearly, even when expressing complex and challenging ideas. It requires a unique kind of genius to make complex ideas understandable without “dumbing” these ideas down.
Of course, I find one problem with Lewis’ statement about Jesus — it is used to be the final word in a discussion, but it makes a base assumption that everybody in the conversation agree on what Jesus said about Himself. More specifically, this makes an assumption that Scripture accurately records what Jesus said and taught. For those of us who say, yes of course, Lewis makes an utterly convincing argument. The problem comes when we argue with people who believe something different.
You might be aware that many people search for the historical Jesus — that is, they hope to separate the man from the myth. They study various sources, not just scripture but various ancient sources that quote Jesus, or make a statement about who he is. This attempt has been made many times, but there is no consensus in what sort of man Jesus is when you strip away everything that is miraculous. My opinion is that this task will always be fruitless; but that is because I believe Jesus is miraculous.
This idea, also, as you might know isn’t anything new. Most discussion is limited to books written within our lifetimes, but one of the most famous attempts to distill the teachings of the good teacher, who was in no way divine, was Thomas Jefferson’s “Life and Morals of Jesus Christ.” Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence believed that Jesus was not divine, but merely a good teacher. Using a razor and some glue, he cut up a Bible and made a book that had Jesus’ teachings, some story, and an account of the crucifixion. Jefferson’s narrative ends with the stone rolled over the tomb; in Jefferson’s Bible, there is no Easter.
If you have the idea that you can strip away the miraculous, then you can also strip away the inconsistent. The brilliant thing that Lewis told us explaining the Jesus of scripture breaks down if you no longer assume that scripture accurately reports who Jesus is. Apologetics are tricky because too often the most convincing arguments are only convincing for ourselves — the arguments start with an assumption of certain shared beliefs. Jefferson’s Bible is different from my own; those who follow his ideas have a different idea of Christ than I do.
The crowds have always been divided, and they still are. I had a Theology teacher named Chris Kettler at Friends University who told us that none of us can prove God — all our best arguments cannot convince anybody. Only God can prove God. Of course, many very important works of Theology start out trying to prove that God exists — then they try to harmonize the god they proved with the God of scripture and the Christian Faith. I understand the problem with this, because many times the God postulated through philosophy is very different than the God we know by knowing Jesus. The God we try to prove falls far short of the God of our Faith.
A good example is the disciples; even if they believed that Jesus was a prophet, or the messiah, they were not convinced that Christ was divine until they encountered the risen Christ. Paul was convinced he was right to persecute the Christians until he met Christ on the road to Damascus. Over time, Christianity became the dominant faith because people saw the ways Faith helped people learn to love one another — and people saw the courage and comfort that came from faith. We can argue all we want, but nothing can come of arguing. What people need to meet the risen Christ, and to see how Jesus has changed us for the better.