In today's Gospel reading for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, we hear Jesus ask the disciples that very interesting question, “Who do you say that I am?” And so that's the question I want to start off with this morning. And I want you to consider, who do you say that Jesus is? I mean, when you close your eyes to pray to Jesus, whom are you picturing in your mind's eye?
For the first half of my life, what I pictured in my mind's eye was somebody that looked like this. Because this was the image of Jesus that I grew up with, in my 12 years of Catholic schooling. This was the picture of Jesus that hung in every classroom right above the blackboard. And we had a similar looking picture of Jesus in our home, in our dining room. And we got to see this image of Jesus, in statues, on stained glass windows, in the little illustrated children's BibleI had Jesus, look like that. And even when I watched Hollywood movies that depicted Jesus, they were by actors who looked like that.
But I think we all know, Jesus didn't look like this. This guy never existed. Now, back in 2017, I gave a talk here at Douglas UCC, on what the real Jesus looked like. And to date, it is our most watched video on YouTube. That one talk has almost 350,000 views, and over 8,000 comments, most of them negative.
And the reason that they were so upset is because during that talk, I shared an image of what the real Jesus probably looked like. It was an image that was in National Geographic magazine a few years ago. You may have seen it – National Geographic invited a group of the world's leading theologians and anthropologists to come together and imagine what the real Jesus probably looked like. And this is the image they came up with.
So when you close your eyes to imagine Jesus, in your time of need and comfort, is this what you picture in your mind's eye? For many Christians in America today, if they saw this guy walking around their neighborhood at night, they would call the police. This is the guy that they wouldn't want to be sitting next to on an airplane, or buying the house next door. And for many Christians in America today, this is the guy they want to ban from coming into our country.
Now, several of those comments on YouTube, said, why does it matter so much what Jesus looks like? Who cares what he looks like?
Well, I think it matters very much. I do. Because I think if we saw that image growing up on our stained glass windows, on our statues, in our illustrated children's Bibles, and in our Hollywood movies, we would be much more compassionate and accepting of the least of these among us.
Jesus was a dark-skinned, poor refugee. His name was Yeshua. And he spoke Aramaic. He led a counter-cultural movement that so upset the religious and political authorities of his day that they needed to arrest and silence him.
That's who Jesus really was.
And I think it's very important that we as Christians know that, because the purpose of being a Christian is to follow in the steps of Jesus. So if we don't really know who he was or what he was about, how can we follow in his steps? It's very important that we know who Jesus was so that when we see the migrant family crossing the border, and we see the poor refugee, or the Middle Eastern man on the airplane, we will say, “Oh, that's the Christ in our midst!”
Now, the very popular political commentator, John Fugelsang, spoke about who the real Jesus was. And his words so resonated with people, that those words are now on posters and on T-shirts. And this is what he said. “Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary. He hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks. He wasn't American. And he never spoke English. He was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer. He was never anti-gay. He never mentioned abortion or birth control. He never called the poor lazy. He never justified torture. He never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes. He never asked the leper for a copay, and was a long haired, brown-skinned, homeless, community organizing Middle Eastern Jew.
That's who Jesus was. It's very important that we know that. Because a large majority of Christians in America today have a very different understanding of who Jesus was. You may remember back in March, the very popular Christian pastor John Pavlovich was right here at our church and spoke from this very podium. And if you remember, John Pavlovich said that if the real Jesus came back today, most Christians wouldn't even recognize him.
He said Jesus rejected the exclusion and rigidity of religious fundamentalists. He championed the poor, and he opposed the powerful. He freely gave food to the hungry and care to the sick. He welcomed women in ministry and he treated them as equals. He decried personal and systemic violence, he condemned the hoarding of wealth. He was an activist for the common good.
Jesus was a progressive. That's what John Pavlovich said. And many of you know last month I attended the UCC General Synod, the National gathering of all of our 5,000 UCC churches, and I got to take a picture with one of our UCC national officers, the Reverend Traci Blackmon. Of Jesus she said this, “Most of Jesus's public ministry was spent reaching out to those who were ignored in the community and undeserved, underserved by the ruling class. So in my quest to follow him, I'm compelled to do the same.”
Again, my friends, we can't call ourselves Christians, followers of the way of Jesus, if we don't follow what he did, who he was, what he was about.
Our call as Christians is to go and do as Jesus did. So what we have to do is – that image of the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus? We have to get rid of that that guy. He never existed. And we have to start inviting in more authentic pictures of Jesus into our churches and into our homes and into our prayers.
So what I want to invite you to do this week is, I want you to go online. And I want you to find some more authentic images of what Jesus looked like. So many artists have imagined Jesus as a black Jesus, a Native American Jesus, an Asian Jesus. I want you to find images of Jesus that are different from the ones you grew up with. I want you to print them out. And I want you to bring them to your time of prayer and meditation. Because I guarantee that this will begin to transform your heart and mind.
We can begin to see Jesus more clearly. Love him more dearly, and follow in His way more nearly.
Words of Integration and Guidance
from the book “The Quest” by Mary-Alice and Richard Jafolla
Who was Jesus, and why has he had more of an impact on humanity than any other person who ever lived? He wrote no great books and created no important works of art. He never commanded a powerful army, and he never ruled so much as a tiny nation. His death caused scarcely a ripple, other than among the relatively few followers he had attracted during his short public life. If a time machine could take us back to the hills of Nazareth at the time of Jesus' childhood, we might see a young boy who looked and acted the same as any other boy his age. It's likely that he caught colds, had stomach aches, got angry, and worried about his studies. He probably attended Hebrew school in his hometown with all the other boys. However, no matter where or what he studied, his real learning came not from any outer reading or lectures but from an inner knowing. At some point, a great revelation came to this seemingly ordinary youth. He may not have grasped it totally at first, but there came a time in his spiritual growth when he was aware of the extraordinary power within him. At that moment, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter's son, began his quest for Jesus “the Christ.” When we study Jesus' life, we see a perfect example for us to follow. After all, was there ever anyone whose words and actions so exuded love? Was there ever anyone more at peace with himself and with life? Business students study the lives of great entrepreneurs. Actors study other great actors, and writers read other great writers. It is only natural that many on a spiritual quest turn to the study of Jesus' life and teachings. Many of these people call themselves Christians, but the word Christian is not important. The objective is to reconnect with the divinity within—to find God. Our ultimate purpose is to experience the presence of God daily. If we do that, everything will be alright.
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