A New Old View of Jesus and Sacraments
A sermon based on Matthew 3:13-17
given at Mount Vernon, OH January 8, 2017 *2013
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I haven’t told many people this, but in high school I had a few nick names. I haven’t told people because, as I’ve mentioned to you all before, I’ve been trying for years to get people to call me “Milord” . . . and I didn’t want to muddy the water.
My nicknames included the track team handle of “Fritz” because my hair was frizzy, I wish it had been “Blitz” because I was so quick. I was also called “Professor” probably because I only took history for all my electives, but, I like to think it was because of my profound ponderings under a tree in the quad. The last semester of my senior year I was called “John the Baptist,” not because some folks wanted my head to roll, but because I played the role of John in Godspell.
I was also called “Pinko” not because of the color of my skin. But because I was an advocate for peace and for the well being of all people. Folks that didn’t cotton to those ideas labeled guys like me a communist. This amused me to no end because the label usually came from church goers and my ideas came from Jesus– even though I was not a Christian at the time.
There’s a Facebook meme with a picture of Jesus and these words “The most effective activist in the history of the world was Yeshua of Nazareth.” “Yeshua” is what Jesus’ contemporaries knew him as. If anyone in his time were to have called Yeshua “Jesus” no one – including Jesus– would have recognize that name as being his. Yeshua was his name in Hebrew. The direct translation in English is Joshua. Both Yeshua and Joshua mean “Yahweh saves” which as it turns out is a very good birth name for Jesus. Through Yeshua of Nazareth Yahweh does indeed save! I’ve mentioned before that the name “Jesus” is actually a transliteration of “Yeshua” from the Greek and Latin versions of the word into English. You might say it’s sort of our English nick name for Yeshua of Nazareth.
And I’m happy to report that unlike my unsuccessful efforts to be known as Milord (M-i-l-o-r-d), Jesus has been successful in being called My Lord (M-Y-L-O-R-D), and rightfully so. But I find it a shame that the Jesus whom many follow does not seem to be Yeshua of Nazareth, not only did he have a name that’s different than we know him by, but he also had a different face than the ones we recognize him by as well. Jesus did not really look like the picture up on the communion table. More importantly Jesus has a whole different Way that he created and led, than the way many today claim he created and led. Jesus’ Way was not about judgement, or exclusion, elitism, condemnation or hate. Jesus’ Way was (and is) about non-judgement, inclusivity, egalitarianism and most of all, love– a love with no strings attached.
Here’s a portrait of what anthropologists suggest Yeshua of Nazareth would have much more looked like. * It’s at best an estimate since there are no photos or renderings of the real Jesus, and the Bible doesn’t tell us much about his looks. What the anthropologists did was make a composite of what a male Jewish peasant in Jesus day and location was likely to look like. Notice that Jesus doesn’t have blue eyes. He doesn’t look Caucasian like the other Jesus on the table. He looks like a man of color from the Mid-East, which IS what Jesus was. That “color-full” rendition hangs on a wall in my office and stares out at me as I work; and I pass by him every time I walk in or out of my office. It is there to remind me that Jesus is not who we’ve been typically led to believe he is. Jesus is altogether someone not of OUR making, but of God’s making.
Jesus – Yeshua– wasn’t about judging, condemning or excluding. He wasn’t about working to deny rights to those who are different. Nor was he about supporting the powerful who ignore or abuse the stranger, the weak or the poor. The real Jesus taught (and teaches) gave (and gives) unconditional love. The real Jesus of the Gospels thought and taught that people should be treated equally and that we must aim for peace though non-violence. He taught that we must relate to one another with love, the desire for the well being of everyone. Now folks that didn’t cotton to Jesus ideas back in his day didn’t call him a “pinko,” what they called him was a “rebel,” and they arrested and tried and convicted and executed Jesus for being a rebel.
We don’t like to think of Jesus as a rebellious criminal– it’s scandalous. We may not want to hear it, we may not like it– but there’s no getting around it. We can try and spin the story, but scholars are convinced Jesus committed crimes (1). Jesus broke laws. John Dear in his book The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience puts it like this:
Jesus was a peacemaker who time and time again broke the laws that oppressed people and kept them like slaves to injustice. Jesus was not just provocative; his actions were illegal, civilly disobedient and divinely obedient. (2)
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that “Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. This was nonviolence par excellence” (3). I suspect that quote from Gandhi inspired the Facebook meme that reads “The most effective activist in the history of the world was Yeshua of Nazareth.”
Jesus was a rebel. He really was. He was a gung-ho radical about love and peace, which sadly is not how we typically are taught to picture him on his Way. So I like seeing the picture of the way Jesus more likely would have looked. It visually reminds me to keep in mind that Jesus’ origins are very different than what we tend to think.
Our sacraments have different origins than we tend to think as well. In our church and in most Protestant denominations we have two sacraments, communion and baptism. Sacraments are outward signs (things we do publically) that we believe were instituted by God and convey an inward spiritual grace.
Because Jesus was baptized and because Jesus celebrated a last supper as marks of God’s Grace . . . WE do. When I first got into church as an adult in my 30s, I studied up on the sacraments and thought and prayed a lot about them. What could be so sacred about a symbolic meal and a symbolic bit of water? What could they mean?
As you might imagine I’ve studied both even more in seminary and as a pastor. And my conclusion has long been that like our modern image of Jesus that masks what he really looked like, tradition has also placed masks over the Sacraments origins. I’ve noted before that Communion originated out of a custom of meal gatherings. Banquets, were an important social event throughout the Roman Empire. They were hosted by the elite in order to maintain networks and loyalty with their underlings. 4 Except at weddings, the banquets ordinarily were restricted to adult male guests who were important enough to fall within the sphere of influence of someone sufficiently wealthy to afford to host a meal 5. So they were fairly exclusive.
Rome was a culture of exclusion on a massive scale. Many people were considered expendable; the sick, the poor, prisoners, slaves, strangers, women, children. Jesus’ message of love all and treat all equally countered that on a massive scale – preaching in the very opposite direction. Instead of many being nobodies, ALL are were somebodies. And one of the coolest things Jesus did was challenge the inequities of the Roman Empire by flipping the exclusive Roman meal tradition on its head.
Jesus knocked down all barriers, everyone gets to come to his table. All are invited. Consequently all manner of people get fed and brought into the community. There are no expendables on Jesus’ Way. All are loved and matter much. It’s a beautiful, God-soaked concept.
Our communion table of bread and juice is a re-enactment of Jesus’ open table. And we also hold up and recall that he gave his flesh and blood leading a revolution and rebellion of love in great part with that table. His body WAS broken for us and his blood WAS spilled because he dared to bring and champion a new sort of love into our lives, into the world, a love for all with no strings attached. And that love has never stopped vibrating and communion is a very visible sign and tactile remembrance of Jesus, his radical rebellion against inequity and his message of God’s radical love for all.
All of this is background for reflection on “Baptism of Christ Sunday” which is today! Jesus was baptized and we are too. Jesus’ baptism, as we heard in the reading today, was done by John the Baptist who was baptizing as a way to protest Rome’s occupation of Palestine, its abuse of power, its unjust class system, and unfair and inhumane treatment of the majority of its population. John was rebelliously calling Jews to the desert wilderness to re-enact Joshua’s crossing of the River Jordan to symbolically take the Promise Land back– and on the way across the Jordan they were to stop to confess sins and be immersed by John as a baptism of repentance, to be cleansed and initiated into John’s rebellious following. John’s offer and practice of forgiveness by baptism side-stepped the Roman controlled temple, its rites and its expensive temple fees. 6 Consequently, “[a]s John grew in popularity, he would probably have been perceived as a real threat to those whose authority was grounded in the temple.”7 His movement would have been understood as a protest against the temple, and also against Roman occupation of Palestine. 8
As we heard in the reading today JESUS was baptized. He took part in these protests and John’s movement. As I mentioned, in first century Palestine there was drastic inequality between the haves and have-nots. The wealthy ruthlessly exploited the poor. This ruthlessness caused peasants to resist – and resistence movements like John’s arose. The Christian baptism ritual has its very roots in John the Baptist’s God centered resistence movement.
Early in his ministry Jesus first followed John and then broke a away and led his own resistence movement toward peace through love. Jesus’ stand and actions that followed his baptism – stands against inequality – included transformation of a common meal practice in a way that shattered cultural exclusive boundaries and called into question the inequalities of the Roman system. It uplifted God’s way to peace through unconditional love.
Jesus’ Baptism publically signaled his involvement in John’s earlier resistence movement when Jesus first set out on a ministry and mission. A ministry and mission that eventually evolved into his own Way about transforming the world from earthly powers’ unloving reigns, into a world where heavenly power’s love reigns!
Communion and Baptism have roots in two God centered resistence movements, they were–and are– about resisting oppression and calling forth God’s justice. They are about believing in love and being love. Christians have continued to publically re-enact and participate for two-thousand years in the Sacraments – communion and baptism– and Christians on the Way that Jesus led, and leads, try to continue to proclaim Jesus’ teachings in both word and deed. Like the truer image of Jesus on the baptismal, our image of baptism (and of communion) should not be of our making, but of God’s making.
And it would serve us and the church and the world well to remember the radical nature of both. We are called to be rebels like Jesus against the sins of inequality and injustice, and embrace love THE means to peace on earth.
Simply put, our sacraments need to express through ritual not only our love of God but our faith and commitment to trying to live a life of love for others. Communion should lead to radical . . . transformative . . . acts of love. Baptism should lead to radical . . . transformative . . . acts of love. That is what both Baptism and the Last Supper were about for Jesus, for Yeshua of Nazareth. May our baptism and communion inspire the same radical . . . transformative acts of love.
* Picture of Jesus is from a 2002 Popular Mechanic’s article, “The Real Face of Jesus,” reproduced at this link: ).
1. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1998), 201.
2. Dear, John The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience, chapter excerpt on “Jesus and Civil Disobedience” found at: fatherjohndear.org/pdfs/jesus_and_civil_disobedience.pdf.4.
3. Merton, Thomas. Gandhi on Nonviolence, (New York, New Directions, 1964), 40.
4. Hanson, K.C., and Oakman, Douglas, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, (1998), 74.
5 Smith, Dennis, The Greco-Roman Banquet: Defining a Common Meal Tradition, Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int’l, (1990), 21, 35, 40, 42 .
6. Crossan, John, The Historical Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFranciso, (1992), 231. Crossan also notes that this end run around the temple was probably John’s unique invention.
7. Webb, John, John the Baptizer and Prophet, Sheffield:JSOT Press, (1991), 204.
8. Tatum, Barnes, John The Baptist and Jesus: a Report of the Jesus Seminar, Sonoma: Polebridge Press, (1994), 124.