Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Scott L. Barton
First Congregational Church of Hadley
April 21, 2013
Acts 9:36-43
John 10:22-33

 

How cool is this, that I’m filling in for Sarah Buteux!  It’s like being asked to sub for Barbara Brown Taylor, who is one of the foremost preachers in the country.  Really!  Your pastor, along with your welcome and enthusiasm, is the reason why my wife Gayle and I have been worshiping with you these last few months.  I have found a place where the way the Gospel is preached speaks to me.  It’s not easy, when you’ve stood up before congregations for many, many years, not to second guess the preacher, when you’re in the pews.  But I don’t do that here.  So it’s been a real gift for me to have found such a smart and authentic pastor, because God has been present, not just theoretically, but in fact; and I have a sense that you experience that, week after week, yourselves. Thank you for the welcome, and for being the congregation that’s made it possible.

 

It’s a long story but I was in Boston Monday, and was going into the city on the T right after I heard about the bombings.  I’d decided to try to walk around the bombed area to a meeting I had, although I changed my mind at one point, when the train let everybody out earlier than I thought it would and then just went back.  So that’s what I did.  But on my way in, with the news raw and fresh, reading about it on my phone, I was thinking of what Sarah said last week in her sermon, about daring to keep saying, “I love you,” as often as possible.  This week, we were reminded about that, weren’t we, about what really matters?  On Friday, I sat at my computer and kept refreshing the news, because our youngest daughter lives just one town away from where they were looking for the suspect. I couldn’t not think of her.

 

And then we had the news of all the people who did the things that really mattered, who went towards the bombings to help the people whose lives were changed in an instant.  People like Dr. Natalie Stavas, a pediatric resident at Boston Children's Hospital, who was near the home stretch of the race she was running with her father when she heard the blasts. Despite having run 26 miles, she went over barriers and past policemen, until one stopped her. Stavas later told CNN she told him she was a doctor and pleaded, "You have to let me help, you have to let me through." She performed CPR on the first person she encountered, and worked to halt peoples’ bleeding. And hundreds of others, she said, were doing the same. 

 

She did what mattered.  She stood up when she saw the need.  The meditation quote that Sarah chose for the bulletin has gotten tremendous press this week, Mr. Rogers, saying that when bad things happened, his mother would always say to him to look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.

 

There’s something here that’s at the heart of who Jesus is, and we get the theological way of putting it in John’s text.  The Gospel of John can be difficult, I think, for modern ears. It can for me, too.  In it, Jesus says things that are, well, right in your face.  Today, he doesn’t beat around the bush: “The Father and I are one,” he says.

 

Does that make you squirm a little?  It’s no wonder “the Jews,” which for John means the leaders, accused him of blasphemy!  Jesus and the Father, one?  Jesus, born of Mary?  Jesus who prays to the Father, one with the Father?  What, is he talking to himself when he does that?  It’s all very confusing, and not only to Unitarians!  I’ll bet it’s confusing to Congregationalists, and to people who are wondering if they want to be a part of this outfit called the United Church of Christ.   I even know some Presbyterians who are confused about it! Why does he say it, when anybody with two eyes and a brain in their head can see a flesh and blood man standing before them?

 

Well, context is everything. John bothers to tell us where this whole conversation, that Jay read so well, by the way, took place.  It was in the Temple, but he’s very specific about where in the Temple – it was in the portico of Solomon.   So I read that, and I think of one classic story. It happens in the book of I Kings, right after Solomon has become king, and anyone reading the story wonders just what kind of king he will be. 

 

Two women who were prostitutes come in and stand before him.  You may remember this. They’ve come for a ruling.  They live in the same house, and they’ve each had a baby.  And one woman says that during the night, the other woman rolled over and suffocated hers.  But when she discovered it, she switched babies with the woman who is speaking.   So they go to Solomon with the live baby and argue in front of him.  It’s remarkable to me that ancient Israel didn’t think it was beneath the dignity of the king to hear such a case.  Except it goes to show that the people of our God have always believed in justice for all, no matter who you are. 

 

Who will Solomon believe, in this she said/she said case!  He says to his aides, bring me a … what?  Right, a sword.  Then, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other,” the king says.  Well, the chief of staff and the palace press secretary must have had apoplexy on the spot!  But the mother of the baby says, "Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him.”  But the other woman says, "No, go ahead and cut it in half."  So Solomon knows that the baby belongs to the first woman.  And all Israel, the text says, stood in awe of the king.  You’d think they might have also stood in awe of that wise, and brave, and utterly loving first woman, too, I think, the one who chose to give up everything that mattered to her, so everything that mattered would live.

 

Now, I think it's no accident that Jesus is walking in Solomon's portico in the Temple when the Jewish leaders ask him to make a choice:  Are you the Messiah, or not?  They want him, publicly, to choose, to take a stand.  So Jesus gives them all the evidence to indict him that a prosecuting attorney might need: "The Father and I are one," he says.  It's a clear case of blasphemy, and they try to arrest him themselves, but, somehow, Jesus escapes from their hands, that day.

 

Who was he, really?  Some of you might remember this item from ancient history, a TV quiz show from the 50’s called “To Tell the Truth.”  Four celebrity panelists questioned a team of three challengers, all claiming to be the same person with some unique gift or job.  Only one was it, and was sworn to tell the truth, but the other two could lie through their teeth. And the panelists had to decide who wastelling the truth.  So the challengers would each walk on, and each would say, "My name is …", and for the sake of argument let's say it was "Mary Williams."   Number one walks on, "My name is Mary Williams."  Two, "My name is Mary Williams."  Three, "My name is Mary Williams." And they sit down. And after lots of questions from the panelists to each of the three, the panelists would vote.  And then, the host, Bud Collyer, would say, "Will the real Mary Williams please stand up?"  And one of them, for dramatic effect, might pretend to start to stand up, but it would then be another one, and the real Mary Williams would finally stand, and the audience would applaud, and the panelists would be surprised - or not - depending on who had guessed correctly, and best of all, we'd know if we had been right in our own guess at which one was the real Mary Williams.

 

Well, something like that is going on here!  Will the real Jesus please stand up?  We want to know which one you are.  It’s so funny; I told Sarah my sermon title last week at coffee hour, and she said, “Oh, Eminem!  Will the real Slim Shady please stand up!”  I said, “What???”  I didn’t know what she was talking about.  Those of you who are Sarah’s age thought I was pretty hip when you saw the sermon title, didn’t you?  Because, that’s the first thing that Hari thought of too.  He was standing there with us.  Later that afternoon, I tried it on one of our daughters.  I asked her on the phone what the sermon title made her think of. “Eminem!” she said right away. “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up!” 

 

I don’t understand that song; I tried!  I do remember the quiz show.  But my point this morning is about the choice Jesus made, the choice to “Come out,” as it were.  In the portico of Solomon, I wonder if he was thinking of that prostitute, who was willing to give up what mattered, so what mattered would live. Would he be simply the interesting, smart, courageous, spirit-filled, honest and engaging man who changed several hundred people's lives?  Or, was it time for him to be known as one with the Father, in the Father and the Father in him, and known to not just the audience that day, but to us? What do you think?  Is he the son of man or the son of God?  Human or divine?  My original title for this sermon was going to be, “Shall we split him down the middle?” – because some days we think of him as human and some days we think of him, as holy.

 

I do think the best clue and the best witness is resurrection.  That is, if Jesus is fully God – which doesn’t rule out also being fully human – then nothing can stop him.  And we know something about God that we didn’t know before, and maybe something about ourselves, too.  Resurrection is what defines him.  And I’m here to try to remind you that that’s what defines us.  It’s why we meet on Sunday, the day of resurrection! We’re the resurrection people.  It’s resurrection that answers the pain at what the world has dished out, at the world's judgment and prejudice and fear of anyone who seems a little different; it’s resurrection that answers the anger at what other people have dished out, like people who unconscionably plant bombs to kill and maim other human beings; or anger at people whom we once thought were our friends, maybe even people in our families; it’s resurrection that answers unresolved grief, from death, or rejection, or from lives we've neglected to live or been unable to live; it’s resurrection that answers the feeling that unless we're like somebody else who seems to have everything, or have everything together, then there’s something wrong with us; it’s resurrection that answers whether death is the end of the party, the end of love, or not. 

 

The story of Jesus, our story, is about a human being, Jesus, who dares to say, "The Father and I are one," not because he needed to make a big claim for himself, but so we would know once and for all that the very definition of God is inseparable from outlandish, abundant, everlasting, overflowing, extravagant and unstoppable love, that somebody named Jesus lived. He came in order to wake us up to it when we forget, so faith in him means a change in us, we who might stand up and now exhibit something of the kingdom of God ourselves. “The Father and I are one” means, God starts everything over.  God calls even us by name, just as in their baptisms this morning, God called little Colin and Alexis by name, and makes us part of a community of witnesses who will speak and act the truth in love to each other and to the world, no matter what happens, knowing that nothing any more can separate us from the God we all need in order to survive. 

 

It's no accident that the New Testament doesn't end with the resurrection of Jesus but goes on to tell of how those who were changed by it participated in God's changing others.  So Peter's raising Tabitha from the dead in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, is more than an embarrassing story we'd just as soon not have to deal with.  He was modeling what Jesus had done.  Many believed in the Lord because of it, Luke says.  What an astonishing thought - that people might have faith in God because of who we are!  

 

I have a dear friend and colleague, the Rev. Ken Williams, who’s the pastor at First Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, who this past Tuesday, was traveling with his wife through Dublin, Ohio, on their way back from Indiana after the death of her mother.  They witnessed a car in front of them lose control and crash. “After passing through the debris,” he writes, “we stopped, along with some other folk. We offered help to the victims until emergency services arrived. When the police officer excused us, I thanked the other man for stopping. This was Tuesday, the day after the Boston bombings. The man said, ‘After yesterday, you have to stop.’

 

“I don’t think he intended it, but he was speaking the language of Easter,” my friend says.

 

After yesterday, you have to stop.  After crucifixion, you have to stop.  Because we’re resurrection people.  Maybe the real Jesus is right here in this room, a Godly and human people – the body of Christ who, standing up, show the world that the Lord is risen indeed, and show the world just what God means.  I may understand one thing in Eminem’s song.  It ends, “Guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us.”  I believe there’s a Jesus in all of us, and in the body of people gathered here today, and in the people of God no matter where we might be. 

 

And so that prompts me to end this sermon by saying to all of us this morning: Will the real Jesus please stand up?