Jesus the Super Hero
A sermon based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 10, 2016 *
By Rev. Scott Elliott
Many years ago in a new town I needed to see a doctor and my new boss recommended his physician friend. So I made an appointment and, you know how it is, I filled out all those new patient forms writing my name at the top dozens of time. When I got to the last page I saw the question “What name do you like to be called?” Having written my name a million times; annoyed (and figuring no one would really look at the answer . . .) I wrote “Milord.” Not “My Lord” but, “Milord,” M . . . I . . . L . . .O . . . R . . . D.
Milord is a term Europeans once addressed nobles and gentlemen by. It sounds very Shakespearean. “Will there be anything else Milord?” The small town doctor I’d never met before– the good friend of my new boss– came in carrying the forms I filled out, and as I stood up to shake his hand he said with a big grin “I see you like to be called “Milord!” . . . And he addressed me as “Milord” whenever I came to see him.
In the San Francisco Bay Area where I grew up, most everybody called each other either “Dude,” “Hey Man” or by their first name. It was very laid back. So, I actually like to be called “Scott.” People call me “Pastor” or “Reverend” or “Mister” or even “Doctor,” which is all fine but I like to be called “Scott.” . . . (Especially since “Milord” has never caught on anywhere else!)
Jesus appears to have also liked being called by his first name. But respect and tradition gave him exalted names like “Lord” and “Christ.” Those labels actually suggest Jesus had super-hero powers and super-hero-like status. This isn’t surprising. Tradition had it that the Messiah, The Christ, was to have super-powers. The Christ that people expected before Jesus arrived was a super warrior from God who would lead God’s chosen to the destruction of enemies and the formation of a new kingdom.
The Christ recorded in the New Testament four or more decades after Jesus lived and died, that Christ is said to have done very specific miracles through supernatural abilities, things like turning water into wine, calming storms, walking on seas, turning small amounts of food into plenty for all, casting our demons, healing the sick, and raising the dead.
The Christ that many people today expect to return is not primarily the Christ of those specific miracles, rather it’s basically gone back to the super-warrior from God who will lead God’s chosen to the destruction of enemies and the formation of a new kingdom.
Some of humankind, seems to believe only a superman with supernatural force will end what troubles the world, war and hate, and oppression and people not getting enough. It seems many of us think only magic can make it so there is peace and love and enough for everyone.
A few weeks ago I actually saw a car in Newark with an entire rear window taken up with the words “Jesus is My Super Hero. And the last ‘S” in Jesus was the superman “S.” In fairness, a Literalist could claim that although he did not have a colorful costume or comic book of his own – if the Bible is history– then Jesus is the equivalent of a super-hero, a man with super powers who did supernatural deeds. But that would also mean Jesus’ was able to do magic like no other human, and only his supernatural magic can render the world the place God wants it to be, a place of peace where all oppression is ended and all are loved and have enough.
In many churches and in many Christian writings we hear about this literalistic supernatural God-man. It is a way to understand and to experience the New Testament story about Jesus the Christ. Of course they don’t usually call Jesus a superman, but that’s in essence what is understood: a supernatural Christ defying the laws of nature to save the world as God’s right hand Divine person swooping in to the rescue. That is a way to understand the story, and many people do. But if we stop and think about it, it’s not the only way to understand it.
It may sound sacrilegious to some, but, one can listen to the Gospels and hear something else; the story of a man who did NOT have supernatural powers, but, who lived a human life so well that through him people experienced and still experience the God who is love incarnate.
It is only later that divine superpowers are superimposed upon Jesus’ stories to make them paraobolic– metaphor with meaning.
This isn’t a new idea, referencing the Gospel of John, Rev. Robin Meyers writes:
The word became flesh, and the flesh became wisdom, and the wisdom became radical freedom in order to transform the world. Not to correct it or put it to the test. The first word was an oral/aural event, between teacher and student, not a text or a theological argument, or a school of thought on the blood atonement. It was enfleshed in the body of a Jewish man whose brief and tragic life was a metaparable and living proof that St Irenaeus was right when he said “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” 1
So another way to hear the Gospels is as story about a very human Jesus who by being fully alive set in motion vibrations in his time that still resonate and affect creation today. The glory of God can still be experienced in his story 2,000 years later. The resonating vibrations can be summed up in how we understand the God of Jesus; that is as Love. Love incarnate in Jesus can be felt even now in his actions and words. In him the Word became flesh. Love became incarnate.
If you come to this church and wonder why we are always talking about Love, it’s because Jesus’ life and teachings were all about love, and the God of Jesus’ IS LOVE. See, we can choose to hear Jesus had only one superpower, God . . . Love. And the God of Jesus is manifested on earth IN love. Jesus tapped into that love and wore it on his very being using his life and love for the good of all.
Love was – and remains– Jesus’ superpower. The problem with the other way of understanding Jesus– that is, as having supernatural powers– is that it makes his acts beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. We can’t bend the laws of nature. To do so would require supernatural power. Understanding Jesus as having a superpower that is natural – not supernatural– makes all the difference in the possibility and promise Jesus’ life and love and God offer the world. It means that we – human beings– can develop and tap into that power. We too can wear Love on our very being using our lives and love for the good of all. It means ordinary mortals like you and me and the folks down the street can speak and act, and live as Jesus did, because all mortals can tap into and wield the superpower of love.
Simply put, if Jesus, a lowly peasant homeless man, can be a superman– super human– so can we. All we have to do is work at working Love, the God of Jesus, more fully in our lives. The God of Jesus was and is love. Jesus– an ordinary human became extraordinary by becoming Love to all who encountered him on earth. In this Way he was experienced as God incarnate.
Jesus’ story can be understood to be about teaching and showing us how to do this as ordinary humans. How to be able to bring about the extraordinary transformation of our life and life on earth: how to bring love to all or die trying– and what a difference that makes.
Today’s Lectionary reading in a very real sense supports what I have just told you, that Jesus’ story can be heard to be about a man – not a superman– who, with the power of love, does extraordinary things. John the Baptist was a hell fire and brimstone preacher baptizing people and having them confess and repent of their sins. Our lesson today records Jesus being baptized by John. Historians think this baptism occurred, which pretty much means it is very likely Jesus confessed and repented sins. Making him very human. John expected the one who came after him to be even more powerful than he. John thought it would be another person touting hell fire and brimstone.
This is what John is reported to have said in the verses that come before today’s reading:
“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke3:16-17)
John like many back then (and many today) thought the Christ would be a super warrior from God who would lead God’s chosen to the violent destruction of enemies and to an earthly kingdom. But it turns out John was wrong. From within John’s own disciples Christ emerges. It is Jesus, a man. A man who confessed and repented of sins, a man who apparently may have at first followed John’s angry God theology. But Jesus was also a man who figured out that John was wrong.
Jesus finds the God of the Gospels – the God who is love. Jesus’ Way is not about the violent destruction of enemies. It is about the love of enemies. It’s easy to fantasize and talk about destroying enemies. But we can hear earthly ways of mean and angry politics in the news today. From ISIS to renegade Americans who want to kill and oppress people because they are different in religious understandings, color or background. This gives us a glimpse at how ugly and un-godly destroying and oppressing purported enemies or anyone else can be.
Christ is not about destroying or oppressing enemies or anyone . . .ever. Jesus figured out that John’s way of anger, and an angry God, and a destroying Messiah was wrong. Jesus finds the true God of the Gospels – and of the Old Testament, for that matter – the God who is love. And just as importantly Jesus the man gets that through finding that God of love we all have access to a superpower. Indeed, Jesus gets that it is the only one true superpower.
It’s not changing water into wine. It’s not walking on seas or quieting storms. It’s love. Love for everyone.
If we choose to we can hear today’s lesson reflecting a whole different kinda Christ than John the Baptist was pitching and preaching and that people back then, and today, expect. Luke puts it like this:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The dove– the universal sign of peace is sent by God. Not the hawk. Peace, not vengeance or violence. Love, not hate. Love is what pleases God and Jesus got that. So God brings a dove, the sign of peace and God’s spirit of peace. From that day forward Jesus’ life is remembered as having that spirit, and being about teaching and showing how human love brings in peace and the Spirit of God.
Jesus liked to be called Jesus, but we remember him as the Christ, as Lord, because he loved so intensely it became a superpower. God on earth– Love incarnate in a human being gave superpower to someone born of flesh like us.
The good news is as humans we too can have that superpower. THE. GOOD. NEWS. IS. AS. HUMANS. WE. CAN. LOVE. And that love will give us the superpower to be– as Saint Irenaeus put it– “the Glory of God [as] a human fully alive.”
* based in good part on a sermon I wrote in 2011.
1. Meyers, Robin, Saving Jesus From the Church, 2009, 38.