Being Like Jesus

A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 12, 2020 *
By Rev. Scott Elliott

In Advent we thoroughly considered the Nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Last week we looked at John’s beginning story with enfleshment of the Word of God in Jesus. So today I thought since we looked at the other three Gospels, why not consider Jesus’ beginning in the Gospel we did not t cover. Mark the earliest gospel, and unlike the other Gospels, Mark does not begin with a before-Jesus-was-a-man story.
Mark’s begins with a fully grown Jesus going out to John the Baptist. ed. Each gospel has Jesus baptized, Mark starts with it. While Jesus was likely born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth during the final years of Herod’s reign, much of the rest of infant stories are difficult to validate in an academic historical sense. A part of the problem is that Luke and Matthew tell differing stories, and the earlier writers, Paul and the author of Mark, have no infant story.
As we heard, Mark begins with Jesus’ adult baptism. Which can seem odd since the baptisms John did involved confession and repentance. Why would Jesus need to confess or repent sins? What the heck is he doing getting baptized? Those types of questions actually evidence to historians that Jesus must have been baptized by John because it does seem odd, so must have been an inconvenient truth. Consequently we can add to the historic likelihood that before his following and public life, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth during Herod’s reign and was baptized and mark suggests confessed sins, repented and followed John for awhile.
Since this is Baptism of Christ Sunday on the church calendar I thought I’d present one way to understand why Jesus was baptized, and how it can have meaning for us today. First, it is important to note that Jesus has long been understood in Church tradition to have been experienced as having human and divine natures. Church doctrine long ago declared Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We tend to hear about the fully divine part a lot and many understand Jesus as a unique supernatural being. That is probably the way most of us grew up understanding him and it may be the way many of us still do.
Please don’t let anything in this sermon take that understanding away if it works for you. Experiencing Jesus as uniquely God is fine, but it is only half the equation in the “fully human, fully divine” doctrine of the Church. See it is fair to also consider and understand Jesus as fully human. And his full humans can present the Good News that Jesus’ capabilities are our capabilities, all of humankind’s. See, if Jesus as a human could live a transformative life . . . we can too. It’s within our reach, within the spectrum of possibility.
We can incarnate Christ! The idea that we can enflesh the Word of God was discussed a bit last week and it is not a new out-there idea. As early as the second and third centuries some Christian leaders “believed their own spiritual essence to be the inner presence of God.” 1 Jesus’ incarnation of God and his way of living and teaching show us the way to such perfection ourselves. Intentionally so. In Jesus story we can learn that “human nature was not only perfectible, it seems, but positively deifiable.” 2
Jesus invited us to follow his way. We are instructed in the New Testament to walk as Jesus walked. Why would such instructions be given if they could not be followed? Jesus’ life was about love and selflessness. The core of his teaching is to love God, and others. Why can’t we do those things? Well, we can if Christ is God incarnate not just in a baby that first Christmas, not just in Jesus who lived and died two thousand years ago, but also on earth now.
The Word of God has always been and is in human lives. Like Jesus we can be The Word of God, Christ, through our actions and our Way of being. Jesus, and the Gospel writers, were trying to teach that. It is no accident that the first Easter morning Christ is reported to appear in a garden, and on a road and on a beach in human forms not recognizable at first as Jesus. We can choose to hear those stories as indicting Christ lives on in others, others who are like Jesus; selfless and compassionate, hospitable and loving; people with Christ-filled actions. We can hear the Gospel stories to be about the Good News that we can become Christ’s physical presence in the world today doing good, caring and love-filled acts. This way of thinking is to hear the word “Christ” to not just refer to only Jesus as he roamed the earth in human form in the first century. It is to hear the word “Christ” to mean that God is with us now, Emmanuel. In this Way “Christ” means God’s incarnation in all creation!
In his book The Process Perspective 3 theologian John Cobb asks what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ? He begins his answer with an explanation that “Christ” is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, “a title given to one who performs a particular role in human history” (35). The Messiah’s particular role was/is someone who brings about shalom, –peace throughout the world. This is a role that Jesus has not yet literally fulfilled, as shalom has not come about. From a Jewish perspective, then, the title of messiah does not fit Jesus (36). Cobb notes, however, that while Christians can understand Jesus does not fit the Jewish meaning of messiah, Jesus nonetheless can be seen as “‘effect[ing] at a deeper level the kind of salvation of the Messiah was supposed to bring.’ In this way Christians claim that the label ‘messiah’ is appropriate by transforming it” (36). “Christ” has a different meaning for Christians it’s been (to quote Dr. Cobb)
transform[ed] into a cosmic notion instead of simply using it as a title given to one who performs a particular function in history. The universal principle of life and light, creation and redemption, which is the presence of God in all things, is what we call Christ. The redemptive, creative activity of God everywhere is what the Christian discerns as Christ (37).
In Christianity this universal principle of Christ is connected to, and part of, language about Jesus because it is Jesus who serves to connect Christians to the universe “under God as a creative, redemptive power working everywhere at all times”(Ibid.). In other words, whether we emphasize Jesus as divine or human, the bottom line is the nature of reality for Christians is that in Jesus we know Christ –God’s presence. Christ is the name for God’s incarnation in our lives and Jesus for us is the decisive revelation of that incarnation.
So “What is the meaning of incarnation . . .?” (37). The answer Cobb gives is that incarnation is a “nature of reality that one actual entity is present in subsequent actual entities, participating in their very constitution”(39) . . . Umm what does that esoteric answer mean? It’s unfortunate, but, academics sometimes end up saying things in seemingly incomprehensible ways. Boiled down Cobb is saying that the entity of God is in all entities. Or to be even plainer God exists in all beings. Cobb’s point is that God is present in all of life and all of humanity, and more to the point, that the ability to incarnate God need not be understood as wholly unique.
Although Jesus is not the only person through whom God can be experienced Cobb points out Jesus is very different in that
the idea of incarnation developed around Jesus and has provided a different way of thinking about God and the world.
See it is through Jesus that Christian’s learn and experience that God is incarnate in existence (39). Jesus’ story evidences that God is in us, calling us to enflesh God in moments of our existence. When we respond to that call we more fully embody God as Jesus did.
While God is in each of us, Jesus differed in that his “response to God had world-historic importance . . .”(40). Jesus’ existence was so powerful he created as I have mention before something Cobb calls a “field of force.” A Way into which people can enter and realize Christ within, and experience transformation. (41, note 2). Such transformation allows us to experience God’s love and forgiveness, as well as to serve God (as Jesus did) (41). Consequently we can claim Jesus was fully human and that God was and is incarnate in him, so Jesus was also experienced as fully divine . This can help make sense “of the [Church’s] claim that Jesus is true God and true man?”
Dr. Cobb points to a verse from last week’s lesson, John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” and asserts that we can see Jesus as a revelation of the meaning of God’s presence, and also see that God is incarnate in all of creation not just in Jesus (41, 43). Last week’s sermon focused a bit on that. This notion does not make Jesus less Holy or less divine, but it is a way that sees Christ over the horizons of Jesus’ story and out in the world beyond First Century Palestine. God in humans is present and an integral part of, “the very self” through which we experience life’s moments.
Professor Cobb even goes so far as to wonder if perhaps the “self” or “I” we feel as separate from “others,” might actually be God incarnate within each of us. God as the organizing center of each moment of our experiences of self – making all of us part of a God-united-Oneness encompassing existence. Jesus found a way to wholly relate in unity with God’s presence– melding his human existence with the divine experience Christ within and without himself. That is Good News, Great News! It means we can do it too! That is what Jesus’ Way can lead us to! To walk as he walked.
Getting back to the initial question of why Jesus would need to be baptized: if Divine incarnation and human existence occur “moment by moment,” then human conceptions of unity with God – even for Jesus– may at times have felt broken or threatened. To be fully human is to ebb and flow with experiences of God. In this way embodiment, even at Jesus’ heightened level, would not be a constant, but could wax and wane whether we like it our not. Moments in the Jesus story can be heard to include such waxing and waning. Like when Jesus is tempted in the desert, tosses Temple tables or feels forsaken on the cross. This understanding suggests incarnation occurs in Jesus’ experiences. (44). As Professor Cobb puts it:
In this way we can distinguish the full and radical incarnation of God in Jesus from the way in which God is incarnate in the world in general. Plus we can speak of an incarnation that is not mythological, yet still allows for Jesus being ‘truly God and truly human’ (45).
So “[T]he Christ event,” includes incarnation throughout creation — and for those of us who are Christians who concentrate on Christ through Word and Sacrament, it “strengthens its efficacy in [our] lives.” We open ourselves up to “the present working of the Holy Spirit” which can make us “receptive to God’s empowering and directing presence”(46).
Christian practices like prayer and communion, sacred music and gatherings in love, and acting in love focus on God and create divine experiences. They put us in, and keep us in, the field of force Jesus created. Getting back to Jesus’ baptism, the idea that he was human, the proof that he was, can allows us to understand and to celebrate that he was like us. And to “get” that we can be like him and bring Christ into the world through our words and our deeds.
That’s Good News! That is Great News! Through the field of force Jesus created, may we continue to experience Christ within, and be experiences of Christ in others! AMEN
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2009.
1.Laughin, Paul Allan, Remedial Christianity, Polebridge Press (2000) p 155-160
2. Ibid., at 162.
3. Cobb, John, The Process Perspective, St Louis, Chalice Press (2003). The cites in parenthesis are in reference to page numbers in this book. From this point on in the sermon many of the ideas are derived in one way or another, directly or indirectly from Cobb’s work (which also influences much of my day-today theology). Other books by Dr. Cobb on the topic of process theology include Process Theology and Introductory Exposition and Christ in a Pluralistic Age. He also penned a chapter in the best introductory book I know of on the basics of process theology/thought: Process Theology: An Introduction by Robert Mesle.