Talking about Jesus…
This past week a few of us were sitting in conversation talking about atheists of all people, and how we, as Christians, are to live in relationship with individuals who do not share our beliefs. Are there ‘deal breakers’ when it comes to the people we consider friends, romantic partners, or colleagues? What most in the conversation said is that while we may not agree on the same ideologies of this world, things would basically be okay as long as we love one another and don’t put down one another.
But words can be powerful, right?
While we were talking about some of the issues of living in relationship with atheists, someone added something pretty interesting to the conversation. ‘You know what? I actually have a harder time sometimes dealing with other Christians who don’t think I’m Christian enough, rather than dealing with atheists. It’s like if I don’t talk about Jesus enough, or use the right words, they feel I’m not doing my part. In a lot of ways, I feel more judged by those people than others who don’t even share my faith.’
What an interesting, and yet profoundly insightful observation about our faith lives. The words we use to express our faith are sometimes just as important as our faith identity itself.
How many other times have we found that the words we use have a direct impact on our experience of a place, or a person, or even a faith? Want to describe a home? Is it small, or is it cozy? Are the walls painted yellow, or sunbeam? The master bath sounds so wonderful, but is it really so masterful? Is the home located in the middle of nowhere, or is it a place of solitude and retreat?
The words we use influence the way we experience this world, and the words we use even influence those around us. There is power in the language we use.
This week celebrates the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King knew something about the power of words. In fact, one of his letters, a letter from Birmingham Jail, is one that I look back on as one of the most influential parts of my personal call into ministry. Listen to these words:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
The Gospel of John is filled with beauty, poetry, and imagery that shares the gospel message in a way that is unique compared to the other three gospel accounts, called the synoptic gospels. While the author of John may have used many of the same earlier texts that the other three gospels used, John is sometimes more concerned with clearly articulating a theological message rather than that of simply telling the story of Jesus.
Last week (if we weren’t snowed out) was ‘Baptism of the Lord’ Sunday; the story according to Matthew where God says of Jesus after being baptized, ‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
This week our gospel text builds upon this idea of the person of Jesus and the language we use to describe him, as John recounts the story of Jesus with John the Baptist, and the calling of the first disciples.
John understands his role is to announce Jesus as the Christ; he is the ‘opening act’ in this drama that Jesus has now become part of in John, chapter 1.
29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
John could have given Jesus any title that he wanted, but he called him ‘the Lamb of God.’ Why? We don’t hear too many celebrities today being described as livestock. No, John used the words and terms that were familiar to the Jewish audience of the time; the same images that prophets before John spoke of concerning the coming of Jesus…of the Messiah.
John will continue to describe Jesus in different ways:
30 a man who ranks ahead of me
33 the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34the Son of God.”
35 the Lamb of God!”
Jesus would later be followed by two disciples, and they would call him by another name:
38“Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher),
Andrew found his brother and said, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).
Then we read that Jesus did a little naming of his own when he called his disciples.
42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
So what are we to make of all of this naming? What is in a name after all? Are the words we use really that important?
One reason we read so many different names of God, and titles for Jesus is this: God moves within many of our different experiences, relationships, and daily lives.
The Good News this morning: God gives us the gift of language to share the many different and unique experiences of our Creator with the many different and unique people of this world!
God moves in our lives in so many unique ways. Our response, and our gift, is the ability to use such words to point to God’s movement in the world.
And beyond this, God continues to move as we are called as God’s children. We are called ‘beloved’ in our baptisms, and we are given new identities in Christ as we are compelled to live as new creations.
But how do we do this?
Getting back to MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, parts of this letter speak to the question of, ‘how are we to use language to share the many different experiences of our faith?’ Dr. King was able to use words that were once used against the cause of the civil rights movement, and transform them into words to share his experience of God.
Dr. King writes,
Now this approach is being dismissed as extremist. I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.
But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.
Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”
Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”
Was not Martin Luther an extremist?– “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.”
Was not John Bunyan an extremist? — “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.”
Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”
Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
Dr. King used the very words that were once used for hate and marginalization and turned them into instruments to share the gospel message of love and grace.
In the same way we use many images and words to celebrate the mystery of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. For some it is a communion, for others a feast, still for others a memorial. And in all of these words and experiences, God moves to share unconditional love for the world.
So talking about Jesus…
Do we need to use the same words our friends who are also Christians? Does that mean that we understand God the same exact way? Or is it okay to enjoy a little diversity in the experience of the Divine?
Not only is it okay, but it’s part of God’s Beloved Community being realized here on this earth. God will continue to move in imaginative and bold ways to share such a love with the world. May we be as imaginative and bold in the words we use, like that of John the Baptist, Jesus, and MLK. And may the lives we lead continuously point to Christ as our source of love, justice, and grace.