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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Who Did Jesus Hang Out With?

Here is the text of the sermon I preached today.

Who Did Jesus Hang Out With?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
September 28, 2008

What would Jesus do? WWJD. About a decade ago, evangelical youth began sporting WWJD bracelets. They wore these bracelets so they would be reminded in their daily lives to think about their faith and the teachings of Jesus. It is not a bad idea to connect one’s faith to one’s actions.

Of course folks have had a lot fun with that slogan over the years. What would Jesus eat? What would Jesus drive? How would Jesus vote? At a peace rally, I saw a sign that said Who would Jesus bomb? And the latest I heard over the weekend in response to the woes of the housing lenders: Who would Jesus bailout?

What would Jesus do begs the question, what did Jesus do? Before we ask what we think he might do if he were here today, we should ask what he did when he lived in his time.

Scholars of Christian origins have been working on that for a couple of centuries. For some time scholars have tried to distinguish the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. They have tried to strip away the myth from the man. It hasn’t been easy. Some from a more confessional viewpoint think it is a blasphemous thing to do. For them, doing this kind of study is an attack on faith. We know what he did, they say. The Bible and the creeds tell us: he died on the cross to save us from sin. He rose on the third day and sits at the right hand of God the Father from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. Any more questions?

The master narrative of Christian origins that we learned in Sunday School says that Jesus knew this about himself even before his birth and was self-conscious about it throughout his ministry. This narrative asserts that Jesus gave this knowledge to the apostles who passed it down faithfully through the orthodox believers to the present time.

There is even a legend in regards to how the Apostle’s Creed was formed. One day after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the apostles were sitting around together. Peter spoke: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Then Andrew said, "And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord," one after another, the other apostles finished the creed, line by line.

Scholars of Christian origins approach things differently. They have shown us that creeds (including the Apostle’s Creed) developed over centuries, long after any apostles would be around. The creeds and the formation of the New Testament canon was a developing process with no small matter of disagreement and politicking.

This brings us back to Jesus and the Gospels. To what degree was he self-conscious of the mission that the creeds have attributed to him? Even the gospels vary in how they portray Jesus thinking about himself. None of them have Jesus say, “I am the second person of the Trinity.” The very notion of Trinity came at least a century after the New Testament.

Behind the gospels, which are theological proclamations about Jesus, what did Jesus think about himself? What did he say? What did he do? Those have been the guiding questions that scholars have asked in trying to find the person behind the creed.

Some scholars think the quest is rather fruitless. There simply isn’t enough evidence. All we know about Jesus is second hand at best and offered in ancient theological narrative. Thomas Thompson author of The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David, has suggested that searching for the historical Jesus is like searching for the historical King Arthur. In both cases, all we have to work with is legend.

Others are a bit more confident that there is a guy lurking there and we can know something about him. The Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk in 1985, set out to isolate sayings and deeds that might have gone back to at least an earlier tradition from which the various Gospels and Paul adopted.

The results of their efforts are found in two books, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? and The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? Both books are in our library. Over the several years of deliberations the scholars wrote papers, debated, and ultimately voted on what sayings and then what actions have the highest probability of connected with the historical figure of Jesus.

When these books were published, there was much sensation in the press and in the church. The scholars were accused of trashing the faith of the church and so forth. On the other hand, the scholars were accused of looking into a mirror and seeing themselves in the portrait of Jesus they discovered. Both critiques, in my opinion, are unfair.

The scholars did their best with integrity. Their work has provided a great service to the church, aside from their particular conclusions. They brought to the public the difference between historical critical study and confessional or pietistic study. They risked going public with their conclusions and deliberations and they wrote and published in language that non-professionals can understand.

They made the scholarly quest for Christian origins popular. Today, I go on the web and I find a whole generation of younger scholars of Christian origins with websites and blogs. They promote their ideas, argue back and forth, and write their books in a language that non-professionals can read. They disagree with and challenge the now “old guys” of the Jesus Seminar. That is good. But that legacy of producing critical scholarship in public and for a popular audience I credit to Bob Funk’s vision.

None of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar would say they found Jesus. History is a matter of probabilities and best guesses. They voted with a four color-coded system: red—most probable, pink—probable, gray—possible but unlikely, and black—unlikely. In the bulletin I included a handout of those sayings and deeds these scholars voted most probable. These are the red letter sayings and actions associated with Jesus from all the early literature about him.

With all of that preamble and disclaimer, the red-letter deeds are a good place to start, to ask the question what did Jesus do and perhaps then to ask what would Jesus do? Then, of course, the most important question: what are we to do?

Jesus associated with sinners. He was criticized for doing so. He made friends and hung out with the outcasts. Who were these folks? The Jesus Seminar suggests that they were the ones who were left behind by the empire’s progress. Whether due to poverty, class, or ethnicity, these people did not reap Empire’s rewards. Jesus shared a common table with them, the highest sign of acceptance and hospitality. You are who you invite for dinner.

What did Jesus do? He ministered to, with, and on behalf of those who were sinners. For the Jesus Seminar, ‘sinners’ was a term of social, not moral, status. Sinners were the outcasts, the non-belongers.

That should be enough for a sermon.

In my first congregation, I took the youth to New York City. We explored around a bit and visited some interesting places that you normally don’t visit when you go to New York. We went to the Bowery and spent time a soup kitchen. It was one of the older soup kitchens that had started during the Depression in the 1930s. It had a chapel. It operated under the same system in which it was founded. Before the homeless could get a meal, they needed to go to the chapel and earn their soup by listening to a sermon. It is not right to give out soup for free.

The idea here is that there is something wrong with these folks. Perhaps if they hear the gospel they’ll get a job. They were most certainly, the sinners. We were seated across the aisle, to protect the kids. We listened to the sermon with them. That day the sermon was given by another youth group. They were from New Jersey, I think. Theirs was an evangelical mission to pass out tracts that contained the plan of salvation. You know that plan, right? Jesus died for your sins and will come to judge the quick and the dead.

For the sermon, the kids acted out some kind of morality play. Here were these wealthy white kids offering the good news. In the pews were men—all men—90% African-American, most with obvious mental illness, many old. Many were crippled. They sat mostly with their heads down. Some looked around. Some muttered to themselves. Some gazed intently at the high school girls.

I thought to myself that a sermon is probably good for folks.

But who else might need to hear a sermon before they eat a meal? Maybe it would be a good idea that before every meal our representatives in congress get to hear a sermon. Nothing fancy or elaborate. Just go down the block from the Capitol in Washington D.C. and bring in a homeless guy to share a few words. He could tell them about what he is doing that day and where slept the night before. He could talk about his childhood and his education in the Washington D.C. school system. He could talk about, if he served, his experience in Vietnam or the Gulf, and how well he adapted to society upon his return. Maybe he could talk about his adolescence and the economic opportunities that are available for young men in the city outside of selling drugs.

Who else could use a sermon? Perhaps the executives at Fannie and Freddie could hear a sermon before we give them their/our 700 billion. That is some expensive soup. Before they eat their 700 billion dollar bowl of soup someone who will help pay for this soup could share her or his testimony. Maybe someone who has lost a home or a job--or someone who will lose their bowl of soup because we are paying for this one--could preach to these executives on greed and the lack of wisdom in making bad loans.

I am sure there are many folks who could use a sermon these days.

I wonder what kind of sermon our four-legged friends would preach to us if we could listen? Perhaps before we eat our next chef’s salad that has traveled 3000 miles to our table, we could hear a sermon from a polar bear. Maybe the polar bear could tell us a little bit about what life is like when her habitat breaks away into the Arctic Sea due to the human influence on our climate.

I am sure there are many folks (two-legged and four-legged) from whom we could hear a sermon these days.

James Crossley is a scholar of Christian origins. He is one of those new generation scholars I referred to earlier. He wrote a book, Why Christianity Happened: A Socio-Historical Account of Christian Origins. In his book, he offers another look at who the sinners are in the gospels. He observes the connection between “tax collectors and sinners” and suggests that the sinners were actually those who exploited the poor, like Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector we find in the gospel of Luke. They were the wickedly wealthy who nobody liked. They were the robber barons and the swindlers and the shysters. They worked for evil Rome. Jesus was criticized by his own people because he associated with them.

That puts a spin on things. That actually gives me a place at the table. Jesus ate meals with the wickedly wealthy. By global standards, neither I nor you are one of the dispossessed and poor on this planet. I would venture that most folks here today would not be considered poor or dispossessed in this country. I won’t make that judgment. I will speak for myself. By global standards, I am wealthy. I hope I am not wickedly wealthy, but just in case, I probably could use a sermon before I eat my next meal.

How should we live? What Would Jesus Do?

What did Jesus do? Well, he ate dinner with people. Apparently, he had no standards. He ate with anyone. He ate with sinners. Whether the sinners are the marginalized poor and social outcasts as the Jesus Seminar understands them, or the wickedly wealthy as James Crossley understands them, in either case, Jesus ate with them. He shared a common table with them all.

Rich or poor, sick or well, Jesus would eat with you. Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, even religious folks. No standards at all. I am sure he shared one of his parables while he was breaking bread with people. My hunch is that the parables were fairly well targeted for his audience. He had a sense of preaching what folks needed to hear whether they thought they needed it or not.

That is what Jesus did. There is nothing really miraculous about it. I don’t know if you can base a religion on it. But it is probably not a bad way to live. Eat with everybody.

One of my favorite preachers is Fred Craddock. He is from East Tennessee. He graduated from Johnston Bible College in Knoxville. He is the emeritus professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology. He is quite a storyteller. You might do yourself a favor and listen to some of his sermons. You can’t read them. You have to listen to them. His voice and inflection is part of the message. He can get a high pitch going. He referred to his own voice as wind whipping through a splinter on an East Tennessee fencepost.

In his sermons he tells stories of his experience as a pastor. This one is from memory on my part. I don’t know if I have all the details correct, but I think I got the point.

Dr. Craddock was invited to a prayer meeting and meal. These were folks who attended his congregation. This group met on a regular basis. Craddock said that they were all of the upwardly mobile crowd. After the meal, they invited him to stay for the prayer meeting. He obliged.

They told him, “We believe that what the Bible says is true. Anything we ask from the Lord in prayer will be given to us.”

They took this seriously. They were an organized group. They had a book that recorded all of the prayer requests they had made for themselves and for each other. They also had a place to record when and how each prayer was answered.

They reviewed the prayer minutes. There were the usual prayers for health and recovery. In addition were other prayers. Some had been answered.
Janie got accepted into Harvard.
Frank closed that successful real estate deal.
The Smith’s had their vacation home remodeled at a price lower than expected.

Some prayers were still awaiting response:
"May the Lord grant Tom wisdom in his stock market investments. Yes, Jesus."
'Help the Jones’s daughter, Susan, find that perfect place for her June wedding reception."
And so on.

When they were finished, they asked Dr. Craddock what he thought about their prayer meeting. It was based on the Bible, wasn’t it?

If it had been me, I would have said, “That’s really cool.” That’s what I would have said.

Dr. Craddock said something else. He said something like this:
  • In the last decade, nearly a billion people have died from malnutrition on Planet Earth.
  • Children lose their limbs and their lives each day stepping on land mines left from old wars...
  • Some people in our own county will spend this winter without heat for their homes.
  • About a mile from here, I know a woman who can’t afford her medications because she lost her job and her healthcare benefits.
The Bible does say, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” Matthew 21:22.

But when the Lord said that do you think he really had in mind your vacation homes, real estate deals, and wedding receptions?

Now, I wouldn’t have said that. Dr. Fred Craddock said that.

But Fred Craddock probably did what Jesus would have done. He ate dinner with sinners.

Welcoming Jesus for dinner is risky business.
We don’t know what kind of sermon we might hear before--or after--we eat.
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