Saving Jesus From the Church

a sermon by Rev. J Mark Worth



  1. From Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus From The Church, HarperCollins, New York, 2009:
    I have never believed in the virgin birth as a biological fact, the infallibility of scripture as a test of faith, [or] the miracles as past suspension of natural law… and I am a pastor in a church that does not define Christianity this way either. Naturally people ask, “So what do you believe?” They seem puzzled by the answer. I say we are not “believers” at all… Rather, we are doing our best to avoid the worship of Christ and trying to get back to something much more fulfilling and transformative: following Jesus.
  2. From John Haynes Holmes, “Jesus A Theologian?” (1932), in A Summons Unto Men, Carl Herman Voss ed., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1970: Jesus knew nothing of the dogmas of the Christian creeds – the fall of man, the inheritance of sin, damnation as a punishment for sin, the incarnation, the atonement, salvation, and redemption – and would not have understood their meaning or even recognized their words. … It cannot be emphasized too often that Jesus was not a theologian. He interpreted religion as something not primarily to be believed but to be lived.


Today is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring. Happy Spring!
Today is also Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is celebrated by Christians as the day of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem during the festival of Passover. This is the beginning of Holy Week for Christians, with the Last Supper observed on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion of Jesus observed on Good Friday, and the Resurrection celebrated on Easter Sunday.

Palm Sunday is a good time to talk about Jesus. If we want to know who the historical Jesus was, we begin with the Bible. “The Bible is both inspired and covered with human fingerprints,” writes United Church of Christ pastor Robin Meyers (in his book, Saving Jesus From the Church, from which I’ve taken my title and some of my ideas today).

How did we get the Bible? Humans wrote the books, humans decided which books to include, and humans decided which books to reject. Catholic Church leaders gradually assembled the Bible during the first few centuries after the death of Jesus. And the Bible would have been very different if a different Christian denomination – such as the Ebionites, the Marcionites, or the Gnostics – had won the struggle to control the early Church.

The Bible is the great religious classic of Western Civilization, the foundational document of Judaism and Christianity. But the Bible isn’t perfect. Meyers calls the Bible “a conversation inspired by God, but not infallible.” Like any book, we must use our reason when we approach it. To turn the Bible into an infallible book – a “paper Pope” – is to make it into thing of magic – an idol that we worship, rather than a Scripture that we study.

Our sources: the Gospels ~

So, if we see the Bible as an inspired conversation, not an magical instruction manual, how do we discover what the historical Jesus said, what he taught, how he lived? The most complete information we have of Jesus, the Gospels, were written in Greek, even though Jesus and his Disciples spoke Aramaic. So the original words of Jesus in Aramaic are lost forever. Everything we have is a translation, and in English we have a translation of a translation!

Biblical scholars tell us that the Gospels were written anonymously, and the traditional names, “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,” were added later. We really don’t know who wrote the four Gospels! The author of Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, refers to Matthew as “he” and “him” – and refers to the Disciples as “they” and “them.” If he had been there, if he was Matthew the Disciple, hewould say “I” and “me” and “we” and “us.” He talks about when Jesus met Matthew; but he never says “I met Jesus,” or “I was there.” Rather, he refers to Matthew in the third person.

The author of Luke starts out by telling us that he did thorough research – in other words, “Luke” was not an eyewitness. In fact, none of the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. They were written 40 to 65 years after Jesus’s death, not by Jesus’ first Jewish followers, but later by Greekspeaking Christians.

The Fourth Gospel is attributed to John, one of the Twelve Disciples. According to Acts 4:13, John the Disciple was “unschooled” or “illiterate,” and depending on the translation, “ordinary” or “ignorant.” Could John read his own language, Aramaic? Probably not. Could he read a foreign language, Greek? Almost certainly not. Could he write in that foreign language – writing is more difficult than reading – and in fact write the good Greek of the Gospel attributed to him? We can be confident the answer is “No.”

The Gospel we call “John” describes a Jesus who doesn’t heal lepers, doesn’t tell any parables, and doesn’t seem to suffer on the cross. John’s Jesus is long-winded, and doesn’t use any of the short pithy aphorisms that are commonly used by Jesus in the first three Gospels.

In Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14), but in John’s Gospel he says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). That’s a very different theology! In fact, all of the famous “I am” statements (“I am the good shepherd; I am the true vine; I am the way, the truth, and the life”) are found only in the Fourth Gospel. This reflects, not the teaching of Jesus himself, but the theology of the author of that particular Gospel.

And so, to find the historical Jesus, we look not to John, but to the first three Gospels, Matthew,Mark, and Luke, which together are called “the Synoptic Gospels.”

How to live, not what to believe ~

The Gospels are not biographies; they are testimonies of faith. Still, the three Synoptic Gospels tell us a great deal: Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee. He was working-class; Jesus was a tekton, which means a builder, probably a carpenter, and possibly a stone-mason (Mark 6:3). He apparently began his career as a disciple of John the Baptist. It was John who baptized Jesus (Mark 1:9, Luke 3:21). After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting, meditating, and praying. Then he began his own ministry.

Jesus was a Jewish teacher of wisdom – in fact, Jesus may be the first person in history to be referred to in writing as “rabbi,” which means teacher (Mark 9:5, Mt. 26:49, etc.). He taught by telling stories (parables) – and short pithy aphorisms, such as, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” or “Can the blind lead the blind? Won’t they both fall into the ditch?”

He was in the prophetic tradition of Israel. To say Jesus was a prophet does not necessarily mean he foretold the future. It means he spoke truth to power. He was announcing that God’s kingdom was at hand: a realm in which the poor are favored by God, where the first will be last and the last will be first. His prophetic teaching was seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, and that eventually got him in trouble with the Roman authorities.

He was also a faith-healer. The Gospels attribute many miracles to Jesus, which may seem odd in this scientific era, but made sense in the Greco-Roman world. Alexander the Great was the son of the god Zeus. Julius Caesar could control the wind and the sea. Pythagoras calmed a wild bear by teaching it philosophy and mathematics. What made Jesus unusual was that he was a lower-class person, a mere carpenter, who had miracles attributed to him. He also associated with people who proper society regarded as nobodies or outsiders: fishermen, women, lepers, even tax collectors. He ate and drank with them, and welcomed everyone to his table.

His religion was about compassion, not condemnation; and about how to live, not what to believe. In Lk. 10:25 we read, “There was a lawyer who, to test him, stood up and said, ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ The lawyer replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered
right,’ said Jesus, ‘Do this and life is yours.’”

In Mark 10:17-22 a man came to him and asked, “‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Do not kill; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bring false witness; Do not cheat; Honor your father and mother.’ The man said to him, ‘Teacher, I’ve kept all these commandments from my earliest days.’ Jesus looked closely at him, and said, ‘There is still one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’”

And in Mt. 25:31-46, he says that on the Final Day we will be judged on whether we fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, comforted the sick, and visited the prisoner. So – the issue is not about whether you held the correct beliefs, joined the right church, or have a particular sexual orientation. He doesn’t say, “Ask Christ to come into your heart. Get Baptized. Take communion. Pray to me. Believe in the Resurrection and the Second Coming.” Infact, that’s not even similar to what he says!

And, as far as we know, Jesus had nothing at all to say about contraception, abortion, or samesex marriage. He did say, “Judge not, so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37).

And he told us, “Take the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck from your neighbor’s eye”(Mt. 7:5 and Lk. 6:42).
So, when Jesus was asked about “salvation,” his answer was: Love God, love your neighbor; follow the Commandments; feed the hungry, welcome the refugee, and comfort the afflicted. That’s his program: It’s about how you treat others, not what you say you believe.

Yes, in the Gospel attributed to John, we are asked to “believe.” But for reasons I’ve already given, I don’t see that Gospel as a particularly good source about the historical Jesus.

The other place we hear about “faith” or “belief” is in the Epistles of Paul. But let’s be clear about Paul: Paul never actually met Jesus. He had a vision on the road to Damascus; that’s all. Paul was less interested in what the historical Jesus actually said and did, and much more interested in the theological idea of faith in the resurrected Christ. Contrary to Paul, I’m much more interested in the real human Jesus than the “Christ” of theological speculation.

Even in the Gospels, Jesus never refers to himself as the “Son of God.” And he probably never claimed to be the Messiah. As New Testament scholar Marcus Borg wrote, “If you think you are the messiah, you are not.” Over the next three centuries the Church gradually elevated Jesus’ status, but even then no “Church Father” ever said that Jesus was eternally equal to God until the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Before Nicaea some Christians thought he was a prophet, and many – maybe most – thought he was almost like God, yet not equal to God.

Don’t worship Christ; follow Jesus ~

Robin Meyers says that Christianity should not be about doctrines; it should be about discipleship. “Doctrines divide us,” he writes, “discipleship brings us together.” Meyers says it’s time to stop worshiping Christ and start following Jesus! So if Christianity isn’t about worshiping a Jewish socialist who lived 2,000 years ago, what is it about?

We begin with Jesus as a teacher, preacher, and healer; not a savior. To a mainly Jewish audience he announced God’s kingdom, a new age of justice and prosperity, and sought to demonstrate how God’s kingdom is both deeply personal and explicitly political. The core of Jesus’s teachings can be found in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew, and its counterpart in Luke, the “Sermon on the Plain.” When you read his parables and sermons, there is nothing at all in them about what we should
believe. It’s about a way of living.

What did Jesus say? He taught, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. … Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return … Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate” (Lk. 6:21-28, 35, 36). “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy … Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God” (Mt.
5:7, 5:9). “Judge not, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37).

In Matthew Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But in Luke he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled … But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation!” (Luke 6:20-24). “Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God” (Mt.
22:21). Roman taxes had been the source of riots in Judea. Jesus walked a fine line here, saying, yes, we should pay our taxes, but remember that the whole world belongs to God.

He was telling us that, if God is Lord, then Caesar, and those wealthy people who collaborate with the Empire, are not Lord. Jesus challenged the oppression and exploitation of the Empire through nonviolent resistance and prophetic acts. He said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). And when he prayed, “thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven,” he is calling on us to build the kind of fair and just society that ought to exist on Earth, rather than the current system of oppression.
My conservative friends say, “Yes, Jesus called on individuals to help the poor. But he did not ask the government to help poor people.” To that I reply, “The Roman Empire was a dictatorship.

Ordinary people had no say in the Roman Empire. But we live in a democratic republic. We have a vote, and I want my government to promote fairness and ethical values.” The political implications of Jesus’ message is what got him into trouble with the Romans.

When he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and then caused a disturbance – a near riot – at the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers, Pontius Pilate and the Romans recognized him as a troublemaker, and worse still, a troublemaker with followers. He didn’t set out to die on a cross, or to die for the sins of the world. He died the way he did because he believed that God called him to live and preach and teach in a certain way. Doing God’s will, living as he did, was more important than his own personal safety.

This is similar to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King did not die to save Americans from the sins of slavery and segregation. We could interpret his death that way, but the fact is he set out to live, not to die. He felt called by God – he was a Baptist pastor, and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – he felt called by God and by his religious faith to preach, teach, and work for justice, and that meant risking his life every day. And he was murdered because of the way he lived.

But Rev. King wasn’t trying to get killed. And, I’m certain, neither was Jesus. Jesus wasn’t suicidal. Jesus, like Rev. King, put his faith in God above his own personal safety. He risked his life in order to promote the Kingdom of God, a realm of peace and justice, where the poor will be blessed, where the first will be last and the last, first. And the Romans executed him on the political charge that
he was “King of the Jews.”

Today, the fundamentalists want something easy: “Just ask Christ to come into your heart, say his name, and He will bless you with wealth in this world, and eternal bliss in the world to come!” That’s the easy path; it’s sometimes called “cheap grace,” but it’s not what Jesus said. His path was a harder one. He felt called by God to live in such a way, and heal and preach and teach in such a way, that it got him crucified. His way has been misunderstood and ignored by conservatives and liberals alike. The way of Jesus is the way of compassion, a way of living, a type of eternal life that starts in the here and now.
… Amen.