Jesus: Fully Human, Fully On
A sermon based on Luke 23:33-43
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 24, 2013 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When my son Robin was a toddler he became obsessed with big machines. We’d drive along the rural roads of Oregon and every time he saw a tractor or a truck he’d say “Tractor on” if it was running and “Tractor not on “ if it was idle. It nearly drove us nuts. “Tractor on” “Tractor on” “Tractor not on.” One time Nancy and the kids drove to an out of town department store listening “Tractor on. Tractor not on.” When they got to the store and went in they walked by a mannequin. Two year old Robin pointed to it, shook his head and said “Person not on.”
If you look up the word “perfect” one of its meanings is to be without blemish, that’s usually how I think of the term. I grew up being taught that Jesus was that kind of perfect, and that humans could never be like Jesus– blemish-free perfect. But actually Jesus is supposed to have been fully human. How could a being without blemish be fully human? A human without blemish would seem to be (to borrow my son’s phrase) a “person not on,” a person not fully human. To be fully human is to err along the way, if not in the eyes of one’s self, then in the eyes of the world.
And sure enough, despite what I was taught, the Bible reports Jesus had what many in the world would call blemishes. Things like the reports in John and in Mark that Jesus’ family and others thought he was insane (Jn 10:20; Mk 3:21). Or Jesus’ reported reputation of being a glutton and a drunk (Matt 11:19). Or all those nerdowells Jesus hung around with– the prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, Samaritans, homeless people, and criminals.
Jesus, our sovereign, himself was, as the story makes clear, a criminal
Today any one of the “flaws” I just mentioned would keep the tabloids busy; and they ought to be enough to satisfy any skeptic that Jesus was far from being “a person not on.” That Jesus was clearly “on” living life fully – with critics pointing out perceived blemishes.
So make no mistake about it at the horrible place of crucifixion two thousand years ago there were real fully human beings on those crosses feeling pain and dying. All three were criminals.
Those criminals might be the most famous in history. We do not tend to consider Jesus, or for that matter other Bible heros, as criminals, but a lot of them committed what the world did, or does, call crimes. In the Old Testament:
Abraham abandons his wife and son Ishmael in the deadly desert, and later appears to plan to kill his other son Isaac.
Jacob fraudulently deceives his father and brother.
The founders of the tribes of Israel beat their brother Joseph, plan to murder him, sold him into slavery and covered up their crimes.
Joseph bears false witness against Benjamin and falsely imprisons him.
The midwives Shiporah and Puah, and Moses’ Mother and Pharaoh’s daughter all disobey edicts of Pharaoh.
Moses murdered an Egyptian.
Esther trespassed the King’s chamber and practiced an illegal religion.
Sampson committed arson, assault, battery and mass murder.
David committed adultery and premeditated murder.
Solomon enslaved thousands and threatened to cut a living baby in half.
In the New Testament:
The Magi disobeyed an edict of Herod.
Mary’s pregnant outside of betrothal, a capital offense.
John the Baptist seditiously challenged the authority of Rome and instigated others to do so.
Peter sliced off an officer’s ear.
Paul was convicted, jailed and executed.
These folks I’ve listed, these chosen by God Bible heroes, all committed criminal acts. One sort of has to conclude that while we may have trouble seeing good in those who commit crimes, God, does not have trouble finding their value, even their perfection for the task at hand.
Which brings us back to the criminals in today’s story. Those criminals are called “rebels” in the Gospels (1). The “rebel” label fits with what we know about Roman history. Lower class people convicted of sedition, that is rebellion, were the only ones crucified by Rome– we know that as a matter of history.
The two criminals crucified with Jesus were likely rebels caught trying to bring about peace to Palestine through violent means against Rome, attacking its people and properties. Palestine was rife with the violence of insurgents opposing Rome.
The surly criminal in the story is like the supposedly faceless criminals in our culture that we tend to loath. Luke notes his mean disposition as he derides Jesus “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” He is like the devil at the beginning of Luke who tells Jesus: “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down from here . . .[angels will protect you].” (Luke 4:9).
This first criminal has no chance in the story of winning us over. Like the portrait of criminals in our media he does not appear to be like us. He is devil-like. We don’t want to be like him.
But the second criminal? Oh man, he is so like we’d want be in his situation. He tells the bad guy to leave Jesus alone. He admits his crimes. He sees Jesus as having done nothing wrong and asks only to be remembered. The good criminal, what a guy! Criminal or not we feel we know him, we want to save him. And Jesus does just that saying “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” We have been raised to want to be like the good criminal. Flawed and blemished, but, remorseful. Of the criminals on the cross, at best we seem to set our aim to be like him.
But there is another choice, a much harder choice. Not the nice guy on the cross. Not the surly guy either, rather the third criminal on the cross, that extraordinary fully human being: Jesus.
Jesus was tried and convicted, sentenced and punished by law. We may not want to hear it, we may not like it– but Jesus died a criminal in his day. It is scandalous. Like the two men reported to be out there on the crosses with him, Jesus was a rebel. There is no getting around it, Rome only crucified those found guilty of rebellion. 2 The Gospels’ authors spin the story to suggest Jesus was framed, but scholars are convinced Jesus committed crimes. 3.
Indeed the Gospels suggest Jesus broke a number of laws, though they also make a strong case that Jesus’ crimes were of course done with divine purpose.
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. (4)
Mahatma Gandhi wrote that “Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. This was nonviolence par excellence” (5).
According to Luke 4 (17-19) Jesus began his ministry by reading these words from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
With these words Jesus provocatively began his revolution of love in the Roman Empire. These were not the days of free speech, and challenges to Rome brought trouble, troops and brutal violence.
No wonder the people of Nazareth threw Jesus out (and almost off a cliff) when they heard him deliver that first talk of revolution. They had to be afraid Rome would come crushing down on them, which was how Rome crushed rebellions!
After Jesus’ first revolutionary sermon he then starts acts to brings about his revolution– God’s call for love and justice and peace. As a part of his action broke laws. He touches lepers and breaks the laws of cleanliness. He unlawfully plucks grain and heals on the Sabbath. He heals a possessed man and causes the drowning of a herd of pigs, and is once again chased out of town. (Lk 8:26-39).
Jesus challenges the temple as the-go-between for God. He calls folks to God through meals where all are invited, all are equal. He calls folks to God through the caring treatment of all neighbors (even enemies). Jesus’ message is: you don’t have to get to God through the Roman controlled temple, you can get to God through love– love of God, love of self and love of others.
The Temple was the center of Rome’s corruption of Judaism. Jews – the vast majority of whom were extremely poor– had to visit the temple and exchange (for a fee) coins bearing graven images for coins suitable for offerings. The temple claimed a monopoly on mediating God; and Rome and its elite profited by it.
Jesus entered the temple and in a public act of civil disobedience turned over money changing tables and blocked access to the temple. Even today we’d call this a pretty serious act of criminal trespass and mischief. If we read about such conduct at a place of worship in the Mount Vernon News we’d expect the perpetrator to be fully prosecuted and punished.
But two thousand years after Jesus committed his crimes we look at what Rome considered criminal conduct, high treason and insurrection and we don’t see them as blemishes, but signs of God, signs of perfection.
Jesus’ non-violent acts to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor are laudable, exemplary, Grace-full, heroic and Godly. In a word they are perfect.
In addition to meaning blemish free, the word “perfection” also means “Lacking nothing essential to the whole; . . . Thoroughly skilled in a certain field [and] . . . Completely suited for a particular purpose . . .” Those three definitions describe Jesus to a tee. He lacked nothing; he was as skilled as you could ever hope to be; and he was completely suited for the purpose of bringing about God’s shalom through non-violence and love, not just in his generation, but for all generations to come.
Jesus’ understandings, experiences and connections with God, and his acts on earth, are so amazing and so powerful that he not only shook his world, he has continued to shake the world ever since. You can feel the vibrations in the Gospels stories. You can hear it in his voice in today’s story. There on the cross, tortured and dying – fully human, . Jesus’ words are full of love: “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”
Fully human Jesus nonetheless magnified God within his very being. Jesus was a person so much “on” in his living – and dying– that he created what theologian John Cobb calls a “field of force,” which continues to exist today (6). Stepping into Jesus’ field of force we can find a path to the Sacred, to God. The Gospels call it “The Way.” Jesus open a Way, a portal if you will, through which God can be, and is, experienced. That’s amazing and certainly good news!
But that good news has some tough edges to it. As Christians we are called not to just step into Jesus’ field of force, but to actually try to be like Jesus. 1 John puts it like this “Whoever says ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (2:6).
We may not walk exactly as Jesus walked, but, every step in that direction literally makes a world of difference. It changes the world and brings God’s way of peace and justice that much closer.
Gandhi and Rev. King walked many a non-violent step like Jesus did, each also had criminal arrest records and look how powerful their lives were. Those criminals legacies continue on decades after they passed away. They changed our world in our generations.
We don’t have to be arrested to walk like Jesus. The Amish who acted so forgivingly a few years ago when their school children were attacked certainly walked like Jesus, as did Mother Teresa and St. Francis and countless other saints who have lived in obscurity, many without arrest, but they loved others and God.
We too can take small steps and have powerful affects. The saints whose names we will read today and others in our lives that we will soon light a candle for are proof of this. Each one of them in their turn acted in kindness, cared for others and had powerful affects in the lives others touched even still by their love, compassion and care. That’s walking Jesus’ Way!
Proverbs (10:7) tells us that “the memory of a good person is a blessing . . .” It’s a blessing because that life continues to have positive meaning, to vibrate with Love even now.
Our lives may not create a field of force like Jesus’ did, but every step we take toward his Way, toward love can also change the world, can bring God’s shalom, Christ’s Reign of love and peace for all creation that much closer. We don’t need to be without blemish, all we need to be is a “person on” – and one who acts with love. We can be like Jesus, even if only for the moment and what a difference it makes.
For Christians, Jesus, (a man others saw as criminal), began that difference in a world-altering way some two thousand years ago by living life fully human, fully on, full of love, full of God. We can live full lives like that too! AMEN
* Based on a Reign of Christ sermon I originally wrote in 2008
1. Funk, Robert, The Acts of Jesus, p. 155.
2. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, 201.
4. 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.
Much of the specifics on Jesus’s crimes that I list were inspired by this excerpt
5. Merton, Thomas. Gandhi on Nonviolence, (New York, New Directions, 1964), 40.
6. E.g., Cobb, John The Process Perspective, p. 41
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2013 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED