The Pre-Easter Jesus’ Acts Led to Easter – February 7

A sermon based on Mark 1:29-39
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 7, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I recently stumbled across sermon notes I made awhile back trying to summarize what we actually know about the Jesus of history, the person whom Prof. Marcus Borg’s refers to as “the pre-Easter Jesus.” It’s not an easy topic to cover in the short time-frame of a sermon which may be why I seem to have given up on it previously. Clearly I’ve decided to try again.

The reason I keep trying is that one of the greatest findings on my personal spiritual journey has been the pre-Easter Jesus. See for me, the first step to getting on Jesus’ Way was understanding that Jesus was fully human in his day. It meant I did not have to have superpowers and do miracles to, as First John (2:6) puts it, walk as Jesus walked. It also led me to realize that Jesus was not made up. Understanding that Jesus lived fully human like us, like me, mattered. It meant that a human did what he did and caused vibrations of love that continue to influence lives in meaningful positive ways. I wanted some of that. And knowing the Jesus of history helped me get it . . . and it helped me better experience Jesus and God through him.

To all Christians Jesus is the decisive revelation of God –and his life began that revelation. Knowing about Jesus’ pre-Easter existence can help us better understand Jesus’ Way, and how his life led to the Easter experience and the existence of the post-Easter Jesus– and how he reveals God. It can also help us address questions and ideas about what Jesus said, or meant, and how his followers should act– not by dogmas or creeds, but by Jesus’ own words and deeds. Knowing the facts can help us make claims about Jesus, and challenge false claims too. Perhaps best of all they can lead us to act as Jesus intended. In short, if we as humans are trying to be like Jesus we should know what Jesus as a human was like.

While we try, it can help to set aside stories and texts that mix in the post-Easter Jesus’ theological explanations. The idea is to weigh empirical facts in an Age of Reason kind of way. Which means not just assuming the Bible’s words all depict literally historical events, but rather trying to find which ones likely do. Which is fair since the Bible’s authors did not write about Jesus in a modern factual history sense. Theology is laced in their writings.

While that’s not bad for trying to record and explain the post-Easter theological experiences and reflections, it can muddy up the facts on the pre-Easter Jesus and Jesus’ Way as he intended it. I am not saying the Bible doesn’t make accurate faith claims about Jesus before and after Easter. I am not trying to take those faith claims away or diminish their reality. What I’m exploring are claims about Jesus that are hard to dispute as a matter of fact, not faith.

There a number of books detailing the Jesus of History. The first one I read was Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and I still highly recommend it. Another good one is by The Jesus Seminar is called “The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus.” That book painstakingly lists all the acts credited to Jesus in every known early Christian writing then comments on the reasoned likelihood of each event being historically accurate – and it has a fascinating chapter near the end that details the probable historic facts of Jesus’ life. It is, however, too long to recount here. I also highly recommend a companion work by The Jesus Scholars called The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. Those are great resources on the Jesus of history. I want to mention one more great resource. It’s a later work by Marcus Borg called “Speaking Christian,” which succinctly summarizes major Christian topics.

Thankfully Dr. Borg’s chapter on Jesus includes shorter summary of facts that most scholars agreed exist in the evidence we have on the pre-Easter Jesus. It’s a great summary, but still a little long to recite in a sermon. So, I decided to summarize Dr. Borg’s summary as well as quote him at length. Here’s what the evidence more likely than not tells us about the pre-Easter Jesus’ life and primary actions:

He was Jewish and grew up in Nazareth in Roman occupied early first century Palestine. He left his hometown, probably in his twenties, and encountered John the Baptist and may have been one of John’s followers for a while. After John was put in prison Jesus started his own ministry and following. He taught, healed and performed exorcisms (as we talked about last week).

Jesus’ ministered primarily to rural peasants. He did not go to cities, where the elite were, except he went to Jerusalem during Passover. Jesus told parables and used pithy sayings and stories in his teachings. Here’s the gist of Jesus’ primary actions and theology in Dr. Borg’s words: Jesus

“was known (and criticized ) for his association with marginalized people often called “tax collectors and sinners” in the Gospels.
He was known, (and criticized) for his inclusive meal practice. In a society where sharing a meal meant acceptance of those with whom one ate, he ate not only with peasants, but also with those commonly seen as outcasts, virtual untouchables.

At the center of his message was the “kingdom of God.” . . . God’s kingdom is not the afterlife; it concerns life on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer emphasizes “Your kingdom come on earth” The kingdom of God is what life would be like on earth if God were king and the kings and emperors of this world were not. It’s a world where there’s justice (everybody should have enough) and peace (no more war). He taught non-violent resistance to exploitation and violence.

He did not teach “Accept the way things are and wait for heaven,” But sought to empower those who heard him to change the way things are.”

During Passover Jesus brought his message to Jerusalem where the powerful elites appointed by Rome ruled. And I want to quote Marcus Borg again on what happened in Jerusalem

“There [Jesus] engaged in provocative actions: entering the city on a donkey, which symbolized that the kingdom of which he spoke was one in which there would be no war; indicting the Temple authorities for having made the Temple a den of robbers– collaborators with Rome and exploiters of the people; challenging the authorities and their representatives in a series of verbal conflict; prophesying that Jerusalem and the Temple would soon be destroyed because, in words from Luke, Jerusalem did not know ‘the things that make for peace.”’

This provocation resulted in Jesus being arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. He was executed by a form of capital punishment reserved by Rome for rebels, crucifixion. The Jesus of History’s life ended on that cross.

That’s a brief summary of probable facts we have on the Jesus of History. When I hear or read a summary of Jesus’ life with all the supernatural claims and post-Easter theology set aside, a singularly remarkable human being emerges. Indeed, it seems to me a miracle that Jesus accomplished so much with a human life in the span of maybe 33 years as a peasant at a time when there was no mass media and at a time of brutal consequences for doing what he did– daring to bring in God’s realm.

Not only did Jesus bravely, thoughtfully and lovingly accomplish so much, but part and parcel of it all was he taught his followers how to do it – to live like that too. The bare facts of Jesus’ life alone show us how to get on his Way and ride the waves of Love toward more and more and more breaking in of God’s realm. It’s not difficult to see how a life lived like that seems like a miracle and how Jesus’ life has dramatically affected and transformed lives ever since– Post-Easter.

The early Jesus followers saw this. Shortly after Jesus’ death on the cross his followers discovered that neither Jesus nor His Way ended, both could be experienced after his life, what we can call the Post-Easter Jesus. Many, many people after the first Easter have been lifted up and healed by Jesus– saved from a lesser way of being with him and His Way.

Today’s story has Peter’s mother-in-law lifted up by Jesus and healed, saved from what ailed her. In the lesson her response to that salvation is to serve Jesus and others. That’s actually the model, the lesson, intended by the author for us to hear and follow. Serving Jesus and others is how Christians are to respond to being lifted up and healed, saved from what ails us.

What does that service look like? It looks like love! The care and the desire others’ well-being on earth. That type of service mirrors Jesus service and reveals God on earth in our words and deeds, as it did in Jesus’ words and deeds. We serve Jesus and others by acting like the pre-Easter Jesus. We know humans can do it. We serve Jesus and others by associating with marginalized people, having an inclusive community, accepting those “commonly seen as outcasts, virtual untouchables.” We serve Jesus and others by making the center of our message the “kingdom of God” (The reign of God) not in the afterlife but here now in life on earth. Where God reigns not the kings and emperors of this world. We serve Jesus and others by aiming for a “world where there’s justice (everybody should have enough) and peace (no more war). We do that with non-violent resistance to exploitation and violence. We serve Jesus and others not by teaching “Accept the way things are and wait for heaven,” but by teaching empowerment to change the way things are.

The Jesus of history lived and died, but lives on in the post Easter Jesus and miraculously that includes living on in his followers they–we– serve him and others. May we do our best to serve Jesus and others.

AMEN!

ENDNOTES:
1. The facts in this sermon are mostly taken from the chapter in this book, and the Gospels. I have borrowed the pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter Jesus language from Marcus Borg. I first encountered it in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, but he also uses it elsewhere.

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