Friday, November 19, 2010

Jesus of Nazareth..? Jesus the Christ..?

Jesus is probably the central figure of Christian belief. We believe that two thousand years ago a man called Jesus, who had an extraordinary relationship with God, challenged the religion of his time and culture to broaden their understanding of God’s love. He was killed… but many individuals and communities since that time have had a deep sense of his presence and spirit. So the Jesus we are thinking about this week is considered by many to be not only a historical figure of the past, but a spiritual reality who transcends time.

There are many books that have been written about Jesus and each offer different perspectives and emphasis. In the notes last week we recognised that even the four Gospels reflect a developing sense of wonder among early Christian communities about who this man was and what he did.

Unpacking ‘the story’ of Jesus according to St Luke
The ‘homework’ last week was to read the Gospel of Luke so the group that met last Sunday evening worked together and outlined on a whiteboard the story of Jesus’ life according to Luke. We started with the extraordinary story of John the Baptist’s mum getting pregnant with an angel telling Zechariah that his barren wife would become pregnant with a son who would be called John. Then we continued the much more extraordinary story of Jesus’ Mum getting pregnant with the archangel Gabriel visiting Mary to say that God would make her pregnant with a son and he was to be called Jesus… and he would be a king. Amazingly… Mary accepted!

Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and went to Bethlehem and it was here that Jesus was born in a place where animals were kept. A great crowd of angels went to tell some shepherds what had happened and the shepherds went to visit. Like all good Jewish boys Jesus was then circumcised and named. Then in the temple the baby Jesus was acknowledged as someone special by a wise man called Simeon and a wise woman called Anna.

Twelve years went by and Joseph and Mary took the boy Jesus from Nazareth to the Temple in Jerusalem where he again made a big impression. A further eighteen years went by before Jesus decided to get baptized by John the Baptist. At the baptism Jesus was described as hearing a voice from heaven saying ‘You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.’ Jesus then went to the wilderness for a time of reflection and temptation before starting an extraordinary three years of teaching, and healing. He called some disciples and taught them, healed many people who were sick, and reassured people who had been rejected by the Jewish religion that God loved them as well!

After three years of ministry Jesus had quite a following and many of people believed that he was the Messiah – a leader who would make Israel great again, that Jewish prophets had promised for centuries. According to each of the Gospel writers the crowds in Jerusalem went wild when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey which was the same kind of animal that Israel’s greatest king, David, had ridden whenever he returned to Jerusalem in peace. As the crowds went wild there was possibly an expectation that Jesus would go to Pontius Pilate the Roman administrator and tell him to pack his bags?

However, Jesus didn’t go and see Pilate he went, like all good Jewish men going to Jerusalem to celebrate a religious festival, to the Temple. At the Temple he became so angry at the lack of reverence for God he drove out the business people and the animals being sold for at massively inflated prices. To justify his action he shouted to the authorities that the Temple was supposed to be a place of prayer… but they had turned it into a market place. It would seem that this action was a turning point in his relationship with the Jewish religious authorities who subsequently arranged for him to be killed.

Jesus is described washing the feet of his disciples and reinterpreting the traditional bread and wine symbols used in the Jewish Passover. From that time on bread and wine shared at a special meal have helped Christians remember Jesus. Jesus was then betrayed by Judas, arrested, condemned to death, crucified and buried in a tomb. Three days later Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem, and on the road to Emmaus, before ascending to heaven.

Looking at some parables
One of the ways that Jesus taught was using stories that had special meaning. These stories are called parables and they are particularly effective teaching tools because stories are easier to remember than statements. Luke’s Gospel has some important parables and last Sunday evening we looked at two of them. In the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) there is the powerful affirmation that according to Jesus no matter what you’ve done, and no matter where you go, God never stops loving you. This would have been challenging and even offensive to the Jewish belief of that time which taught that God’s approval was conditional on keeping the rules of the Jewish religion. Then in the parable known as The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) Jesus suggests that anyone who has need can be considered your neighbour – particularly if you have the capacity to respond to that need.

Looking at some encounters with Jesus
Jesus was clearly someone who walked the talk, or practiced what he preached! He did not say love those people who are on the edge of society… and then ignore them in day to day living. Time and again we read in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus meeting people who the Jewish religious authorities had written off and these included tax collectors and lepers.

• It is important to remember that Jesus lived in a land occupied by the Roman army. Tax collectors were local people appointed by the Roman to collect money from their own people but tax collectors were not regulated so could set their own levy on top of the tax… which they kept. Consequently they were regarded as collaborators and excluded from Jewish community activities. So when Jesus invited himself for dinner at the house of a tax collector called Zachaeus not surprisingly people complained (Luke 19:2-10). Yet for Zachaeus this willingness to share time together was clearly life giving. Zachaeus promised to repay what he’d stolen and give half of his possessions to the poor.

• Lepers were excluded from community life and were forced to live outside the walls of towns and villages in caves and shelters. This was largely because Jewish people thought that the leprosy was God’s judgement on those people for something that they’d done. Remember there was no understanding of bacteria and virus’ in that time. Jesus met with lepers, talked with lepers, and brought about healing for lepers (Luke 17:12-19) which was a radically inclusive thing.

Looking at some teaching
By the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had unpacked the ten commandments into 613 rules/laws. When Jesus was challenged to name which of these was the most important he suggested that we are to love God with all that we are and love our neighbours as ourself (Luke 10:25-38; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40). Because there are many people in our time who don’t like or love themselves I think it’s possible to summarise by thinking we are to love God, love our neighbour, and love ourselves.

Some of the names of Jesus
Jesus is called many names and each name has a different implication: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Son of God’, ‘Jesus the Christ’… ‘Christ’. Which of these names resonate with you?

As well as the names we have seven clear metaphors in John’s Gospel which are described as the ‘I am’ sayings: I am the bread of life (John 6:35); I am the light of the world (John 8:12); I am the gate (John 10:9); I am the good shepherd (John 10:11); I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25); I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); I am the true vine (John 15:1). At different times of our life one metaphor may make more sense to us then the others. I particularly like the metaphor of ‘light’ because when it light I can find my way around. Which metaphor connects with you at this time?

Some visual Images of Jesus
Last Sunday evening we looked at some different t pictures of Jesus and these included a blond haired, blue eyed Jesus wearing a crown and the robes of a Bishop, a laughing Palestinian man, and a South American sculpture of a man screaming in agony on a cross. We passed around a European carving of Jesus on a cross, and a Papua New Guinean carving of Jesus on a cross. In Christian art around the world Jesus has been pictured as an African, a European, a Chinese, an Indian, an Indonesian… and in some ways it can be helpful to think of this Christ figure as an ‘everyman’… providing we do not forget that the original Jesus was most likely a Jewish man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, and lived in an occupied Roman territory known as Palestine.

How would you describe Jesus?
At the end of last week’s session I asked people to describe what Jesus meant to them in one or two words. The responses included: friend, healer, teacher, forgiver, kind, accepting, guide, redeemer, hope giver, source of energy. What word or words would you use to describe Jesus?

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