The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 7, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. The need for hearing “good news” is enhanced as we consider that one of the closing days of this penitential season is upon us this morning, last Sunday of Lent; and we are now looking forward, just a week away, to the drama and passion of Palm Sunday with a much-anticipated theatrical portrayal of Luke’s Gospel. That will mark the beginning of Holy Week leading eventually to the joy of Easter Sunday – only two weeks from now.
But what does it all mean?
That’s a very big and extremely complex question. Yet, let’s give it a try. I have divided this sermon into two parts: Formational and Informational. The first is broadly theological and sacred, while the second is more historic and secular. Hopefully, these distinctions will become self-evident.
For starters, consider the following as we attempt to make sense over what’s happening in Christian churches throughout the world this month of April 2019. This is a time in the church’s life when we consider a profound theological dilemma, what some would call a ‘conundrum’ – the matter of ‘God’s law and divine purpose’ coming up against ‘Human law and individual aspirations.’ God’s Law vs. Human Law. Keep in mind this is not just a legal question but a moral, ethical, psychological, anthropological, and yes at its core, a very emotional and perplexing issue. Yet it’s something we’ve all thought about at one time or another, and may well have developed some strong opinions that we could and should appropriately share with friends and fellow parishioners alike. It’s about the meaning of life.
Acknowledging full disclosure here, and admitting my own leanings and biases; I would submit that we ought to align ourselves with God’s law declaratively: hard though it may be to follow, or even to understand; and then favor that approach over Human Law. This is the only way we can legitimately lay claim to the salvation we presumably hope to achieve in our respective lifetimes. This is similar to the betting odds often referred to as “Pascal’s wager” first presented in the writings after his death in 1662, whereby God’s pre-eminence and existence are posited as eternal.
Given the possibility that God actually does exist, and assuming the infinite gain or loss associated with eternity, a rational person should live as though God exists and seek earnestly to believe. If it turns out God does not actually exist, such a “believer” will have lost out on only a few finite pleasures or luxuries – not the gift of life itself. Human lifestyles, for the most part, are marked by material possessions and limited transitory “things.” But human lives are marked by God as eternally precious. God’s on your side! That’s a pretty good bet, and you can literally bet-your-life on it.
Moreover, when all the commentary is finished, when all the resolutions have been proposed, when all the talk is completed, and when all the documents are filed, the fact remains that God’s commandments prevail. God has created us in God’s own image, and God has given us the counsel, advice, guidance, direction, and all the commandments-we-need-to-know contained in what Episcopalians, using the Book of Common Prayer, call the Summary-of-the-Law; and I quote…..
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
There you have it; orthodoxy in its most concise form. That is the means by which we affirm the Christian way of life: God’s ways are to prevail always over our own human ways, every time. And appreciating Jesus as the man-for-others while honoring him as the Christ-of-faith is both a mental and a spiritual balancing act…but one well-worth adopting.
Shifting now to another concern I want to address this morning: let’s back-up and re-focus. We need to look at both Jesus-the-man, and Jesus-the-Christ with a new and different perspective. Let me repeat that. We may need to see Jesus-the-man and Jesus-the-Christ from entirely new perspectives.
And to that end I was delighted to see that one of the leading women biblical scholars in America has written some timely and relevant materials; giving her thoughts on a variety of topics regarding the ministry of Jesus, and the important role he played in the development of faith. What’s interesting is that the author, Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D., is an accomplished academic researching the historical-Jesus; and she does this as a full-time Distinguished Professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, TN.
Yet even more interesting is the fact that Dr. Levine is a mother, grandmother, and co-author of several best-selling children’s books; and most significant for our purposes here, she is a devout practicing member of her orthodox Jewish synagogue where she serves on an Advisory Board. Recently, Christian Century magazine interviewed her, and the following text is edited for clarity.
Q. What are your hopes for the people who are seeking to understand the Passion of Jesus?
A. I want them to travel with Jesus to see the risk that he is taking and therefore to recognize the risks that they might want to take in their own lives. Jesus is going to die. His friends don’t know it, but he certainly knows it. And in light of that frightening knowledge, how do you act now; and what do you do differently now?
I also want people to recognize the different ways that stories are told. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have different emphases, and if we mush them all together we are going to miss a whole lot. There’s not just one story. Each writer already has a different story to tell and a different image that we should take away. Don’t settle for just one point of view.
Q. What specific concerns are you hoping to raise about a Jewish Jesus?
A. I want my readers to ask themselves the difficult questions that the text poses. When we pay taxes for example, who is on our coinage? Jesus addresses this in his reference to Caesar’s-image as the coin-of-the realm. What’s the propaganda here? Where’s the money going?
Or another example in the Gospel of Mark, when the woman anoints Jesus, Mark says the story of what she did will be told “in memory of her.” But that’s it. Why don’t we fully and completely tell this story “in memory of her” to a wider audience? Why don’t we have a first dinner during Holy Week where we celebrate that woman, and all the other women, who deserve recognition? We have a widely acknowledged last dinner, the so-called “Last Supper” with 12 male disciples at table in the Upper Room with Jesus; so why don’t we have a first one? A First Supper…so to speak?
And at the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, when the hero comes into town, and we think everything is going to be terrific; perhaps then it IS time for a feast occasion. So let’s do it liturgically. But then, afterwards, let’s also take note. What typically happens the next day? Do we expect our messianic hero to do everything for us? What is our ongoing role in Jesus ministry?
Each of these stories opens us up to “other” stories, “other” questions, and “other” possibilities that are worth talking about. Maybe the answers that we come up with will differ from person to person, setting to setting, and place to place. In fact, they probably will. Count on it. But that’s a good thing.
Q. When it comes to the Passion Week texts, what are some of the most common mistakes Christians make?
A. The standard one, which one hears less today, at least in polite society, is that the Jews killed Jesus because he was interested in social justice, or because he told parables. Jesus didn’t die because he told parables or because he proclaimed good news to the poor. Jesus died, historically speaking, because he was a popular leader, and Pilate, like any intelligent Roman governor, did not want popular leaders messing around—particularly during Passover at the feast-of-freedom, for obvious reasons. Face it. He simply didn’t want a riot on his hands, so he acted accordingly. Can you blame him?
A number of commentators have suggested that the Jews were looking for a certain kind of militant messiah rather than one who talked about peace. As soon as you say that, you know you’re in trouble, because it’s not like there was a singular Jewish point of view. There’s no Head-Jew to tell us all what to believe, and even if there were, we probably wouldn’t pay attention to him anyway.
Does all this sound familiar? Does Jesus speak for Christianity, and if so, does anyone seriously pay attention to him? Let’s get back here to Trinity Church, Morgantown, April, 2019. This is likely as good a stopping point as any for this sermon, especially this Last Sunday of Lent, because it gives us an opportunity to think further about the drama and the Passion that lies just ahead.
Who is this Jesus?
Having seen a different glimpse of our Christian faith from a Jewish perspective, we now have a sharper lens to understand our unique identity as we undergo our own doctrinal liturgies in the Holy Days we celebrate ahead.
And remember the freedom of belief at Trinity Church; an open-mindedness where “All are welcome to worship and walk with God” however understood in the journeys-of-faith we both individually and collectively profess; that truth remains the bedrock cornerstone of our Christian experience.
And we ask all this - in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request