Over the last several weeks of Lent we have focused on the question, “Who is Jesus for us today?” We’ve talked about the humanity of Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth along with his extraordinary ability to call us to a life with God.
One of you, when leaving church last Sunday said to me, “Well, I hope you’re going to talk about how Jesus is God. After I recovered from the comment, I decided to undertake that challenge. I may actually fail at this sermon this morning, because you’re asking me to explain a theological question that is at once the most mysterious within the Christian faith: how is Jesus fully man and fully God.
In portraying Jesus as an ordinary man—and I believe that Jesus viewed his life as an ordinary man—I haven’t meant to imply that he didn’t make a superb impression on those who became his disciples. Because his disciples and followers saw in him a depth of faith and hope and love they had never known in any other person. In his gospel they found the power to be forgiven for the shortcomings in their lives and, just as importantly, to believe—to deeply believe—in the coming Kingdom of God. They didn’t understand what the Kingdom of God meant, but they knew somehow that it was the fulfillment of what every faithful Jew was seeking.
Jesus’ followers were prepared to commit their lives to him—even to his death. His arrest was a shock that destroyed everything they had come to believe and hope. And their panic at that moment of death was inevitable, but it didn’t prevent them from ultimately devoting their lives to him and, for many, their own deaths for the cause of Jesus.
So, in affirming that Jesus was fully a man, we must also know that he was the supreme instance of a human being. He was not superman, or semi-divine. And it’s essential that we understand this fact, not just because we must claim Jesus as being human—one like us—but so that God could become truly incarnate in him.
Christian theology acknowledges that as we emphasize the humanness of Jesus, we also have to be careful not to go to the opposite extreme and deny or make it impossible to acknowledge the fact that Jesus was also God. The basis of Christian faith and hope is found in this very mystery. It’s not enough that Jesus was just a good man-=-or even a perfect man—united to God like every one of the rest of us, but our faith and hope is grounded in the fact that Jesus responsiveness to God—the fulfilling of God’s will and the manifesting of God’s love was in Jesus as it existed in no other human being—before or since. That kind of response would be enough for most of us—in fact it is what many of are committed to believing—Jesus as a man acting for God; but the stumbling block for a great many people is God living as a man.
To understand what our faith actually teaches, we somehow need to find a way of relating God to Jesus without i9nterfering with Jesus’ being a complete and whole human being.
Just as it is with you and me, Jesus’ earthly life must have been a series of occasions for his becoming—for his growth in spirit and maturity. He incorporated the faith in which he had been raised—Judaism—and he learned from the world around him. He was a country man—he learned to read the signs of nature and to see the visible expressions of God in creation. And like you and me—he was drawn to respond to all of these occasions as God lured him closer and closer to God’s self.
As Jesus knew more and more about God, his life moved toward a particular kind of unity. We see him in the Gospels as being inaugurated and empowered and motivated toward God in an ever-deepening understanding of the Kingdom. In fact, I think we can say that the special relationship that Jesus had and the movement of Jesus toward being the incarnation of God was initiated by the Spirit of God. It was God, the Spirit, who took personal responsibility for the development of Jesus, for the life of the human person that developed in the life of Jesus. In other words, it was God who initiated God’s own life in the person of Jesus.
Now there is a subtle point here: what I am not saying is that God controlled Jesus’ life in such a way that Jesus was not really being himself or being human. Jesus was free to determine how he would fulfill his life—how his life would move towards God—not unlike how you and I determine our lives movement, growth and commitment to God. But I believe it’s far to say that God initiated the process: God was personally involved in and with Jesus from the very start. And God could experience the becoming of Jesus as God’s own human life. What was needed for God’s life in Jesus was not that God could control Jesus, but that God was committed to his life in Jesus. It was God’s human experience and God took the full risk of being a man. He moved from one occasion of maturing in life to the next with ho advance knowledge of whether there would be another occasion or what influences their might be on that life. He was at the mercy of other people in his relationships. Above all, he was constantly open to temptation to reject even his own highest potential—because Jesus might have chosen a different alternative—something between the issues of love and the alternative of self-gratification. And God was committed to this choice in advance. What a huge risk for God to take!
Added to this risk that God took, Jesus, in his human mind, could not be aware of his special relationship to God. If God was to experience a truly human life, Jesus couldn’t have thought of himself as a man whom God was living inside of. That would be a failure of God’s living as a human being. The very purpose of the incarnation insisted that Jesus see himself as not more than a human son of God the Father. And only if the man Jesus did not have the slightest suspicion that he was in any way unique, or that he was superhuman, could he be for God an experience of the human life.
God had to run the risk of failing to love in the face of temptation. God had to run the risk of compromising with evil when it seemed to demand more than could be borne in the way of resistance. God had to bear the consequences of evil that became more and more violent in its attack. God had to accept, endure and forgive the response of hate that the spiritual leaders of the Jews and the Roman soldiers increasingly made to God’s own love.
God had to see the hopes for the coming of the Kingdom postponed and finally fade into despair. God had to acknowledge the total failure of a mission and see the most faithful followers flee in bewilderment, panic and defeat. God had to be arrested, condemned as a criminal and be exposed to the most shameful-- as well as painful-- death. And in the end, the crucified God had to suffer desertion by God—by himself—without an understanding of why it happened and without expecting to live on in any way.
Had Jesus failed in his love of God, God could not have forgotten him and tried again with another human life. God’s own human nature would have failed.
We should stop right here—this is a lot to absorb and to think about and to understand. But I want to say one more thing that I hope puts into perspective our role or commitment to our faith at this point: think for a moment more of how little Jesus had and what he accomplished in God. He had almost nothing and he increased it until it became “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” He had less than a dozen faithful disciples and a few more followers—and not always perfect ones by any stretch—he made them into millions of saints and martyrs. He had less terrain to travel on and to preach to than the smallest of our New England states, and he stretched it until it covered the whole world. He had less than three years to do his work and he made them into the equivalent of eternity. He had less than one boy’s lunch to feed five thousand people, and he made it enough to fill the needs of everyone, with some to spare.
The power of this fully man and fully God, is more power than anything you and I can imagine—and it will go on forever!
This is the miracle of Jesus. He can take our lives and what little faith we have and make it strong and full, and loving in every way.
You and I are not Jesus, and we are not God. But we have a promise—and the promise is this: if we take what we have and all of what we are—that is if we will let Love have its way in our lives—we will come to know the transforming power of God within us. The power of the man who was human, and the God who is eternal. What a risk God takes with us—and what a hope we are promised.