The most difficult thing Jesus had to make people rethink was who he was. The title of Messiah, God's anointed one, was a bit nebulous in the mind of the average Jew. Usually people were anointed when they entered a special office. Prophets were anointed and some saw the Messiah as the prophet Moses predicted that God would raise up. Priests were anointed and some saw the Messiah as a special priest who would cleanse the people from their sins. Kings were anointed and most people saw the Messiah as a king like David, a holy warrior, come to liberate God's people from their oppressors.
What nobody expected was the kind of Messiah Jesus was. If he was a prophet, why didn't he say, "Thus says the Lord…?" Instead, he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you…" If he was a priest, why wasn't he, well, officially a priest, preferably the chief priest? And why didn't he offer sacrifices? If he was a king, why didn't he raise an army and declare war on the Romans?
By contrast Jesus went around healing people and preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God was near. But Jesus wasn't following the guidelines for healing people, like not doing it on the Sabbath and not touching the unclean. And the stories he told about the Kingdom were not about pronouncing judgment on the gentiles for humiliating God's people or repaying them for the same but rather about things like seeds and nets and pearls and other decidedly non-military matters. In fact, after miraculously feeding thousands, he disappeared before the mob could crown him. They certainly saw him as royal material.
Though Jesus did not talk about fighting or raising an army, the leaders of his people, the Sanhedrin and the chief priest, were afraid he might be doing just that. They sent people to quiz him about his stands on controversial matters, such as paying taxes to the Emperor. Jesus did not let them trap him but often turned the tables on them. This did not reassure them. And when, just before Passover, Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by people waving palms and throwing down their garments for him to walk on, and when he followed this by throwing the notoriously corrupt moneychangers out of the temple, the religious leaders were pretty sure that Jesus might begin a revolution.
They bribed one of his students, one who was part of his inner circle, to give away where he could be found in a Jerusalem that was swollen with pilgrims. Once they knew where he was, they sent guards to arrest him and bring him in for interrogation. When morning came, they held a pro forma trial and sent him to the Roman governor to execute. Pilate, notorious for his poor relationship with the people he governed, didn't cooperate at first. Perhaps Pilate just didn't want to do Caiaphas, the chief priest, any favors. Perhaps he thought this was just a vendetta against a religious rival, one who did not appear to be political in the least. But when the manufactured crowd outside the Antonia Fortress (rather than at the temple where all good Jews were having their Passover lambs sacrificed) threatened to tell the Emperor that Pilate refused to execute a traitor, Pilate folded.
Jesus was flogged, forced to carry his crossbeam through the streets, and nailed naked to a tree on a major road outside Jerusalem. When he died, his body was buried in a tomb and that seemed to be that. As the sorrowful disciple on the road to Emmaus said, "…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." By the end of that day, the disciples would totally rethink what Messiah meant.
Jesus qualified as a prophet. Many a prophet died for speaking unpalatable truths to power. But the one category that Jesus seemed to be the weakest in, that of priest, now looked to be fulfilled without a doubt. He had offered the ultimate sacrifice.
If you have a good nose you wouldn't have liked the temple in Jerusalem. Everyday its priests spilled the blood of animals and burned their bodies. That was to atone for the sins of all the people. When the Hebrews were herdsmen, giving up a big fat flawless animal was a real sacrifice. It could have fathered a lot of calves or lambs. It was precious. And you didn't eat meat everyday either or you'd run out of livestock. Killing a calf or a lamb was for special occasions and sacrifices for sin.
Eventually, the animal sacrifices lost their psychological effects on people. They simply saw the sacrifices as the price of doing business, of living the life you wanted. That's why there are passages in the prophets where God rejects the sacrifices and burnt offerings. If people weren't feeling penitent for their sins anymore, if the whole thing had become an empty ritual, it wasn't doing what it was supposed to.
What people needed was not a symbolic atonement; they needed a real one. The problem was the human heart or mind. As Jesus says in Mark 7, "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual sin, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person." Again this echoes what the Old Testament says in Jeremiah 17: "The heart is more deceitful than anything else. It is beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Incurable from a human perspective, perhaps, But as God prophesied through Ezekiel, "I will also give you a new heart. And a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give to you a heart of flesh."
As a nurse, I prefer this metaphor to the usual legal one theologians use, wherein God uses what sounds like legal chicanery to circumvent our death sentence and put it on Jesus instead. Who is he trying to fool? God is not under the law; he is the source of the law. He is the lawgiver and the judge; if the problem is merely legal, he can acquit us. But if your problem is that your heart is incurably sick, then you need a heart transplant. And that means the donor must die. Seeing that while Scripture tells us that Christ's death redeems us, but never spells out the precise mechanism by which this happens, I choose the heart transplant metaphor. Jesus' death offers the cure for our sin-sick hearts. But only if we accept it.
For the disciples, the death of Jesus took on a new dimension. What John the Baptist said about him being the Lamb of God, what Jesus said about giving his life as a ransom for many, about his being the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, about the seed dying into order for the plant to live and grow, came together for them. This was the new thing that God was doing. The Messiah hadn't come to liberate his people from the chains of one earthly political regime only to establish another; he had come to liberate his people from their slavery to sin which truly keeps the Kingdom of God from being realized. By his one sacrifice, he ended the need for any other. By his blood he washed away the sins of all who put their trust in him. He forever smashed the barrier between holy God and sinful humanity. He made it possible for us to cease being rebels against God and to become his sons and daughters, Christ's brothers and sisters, and heirs of his Kingdom. By the death of one man on the cross, Jesus did all this. Wait--by one man? What kind of man, however good, could accomplish this? Sure, Jesus was the Messiah…but was that all he was?
And here we come to the big question: how did Jesus get a group of pious Jewish monotheists to believe that he was divine? What had kept the Jews intact as a people was their faith in one God and adherence to his law. To believe in second God was unthinkable. It was idolatry! So how did they come to rethink the nature of God in such a way as to include Jesus?
Jesus healed the sick but so did the prophet Elisha. He raised the dead but so did Elijah. People could at times hear God speak to him but that was true of Moses. Jesus made predictions that came true but so did most of the prophets. None of those made Jesus God. But one prediction he made stood out. It was so outlandish that the apostles could not comprehend it when he first said it. They didn't even get it right away when it was fulfilled. And who can blame them? Crucified men don't walk away from their tombs.
It was the resurrection of Jesus that made the disciples rethink his identity. He did what only God could do--be so innocent of sin that the giving of his life could bring eternal life to all. And then he came to life again. Not as the wretched survivor of a ghastly ordeal but a strong solid presence that was simultaneously not bound by the constraints of time and space. He could eat with and touch them. He still bore the scars but none of the debility of his crucifixion. Now they understood what he meant when he had said that if one had seen him, one had seen the Father, and that he and the Father were one. Those words should be blasphemy. Would God resurrect a blasphemer?
No. But how is it possible that the Father is God and that Jesus is God but there is only one God?
There is a precedent in Scripture. In the Book of Proverbs, in the 8th chapter, God's Wisdom speaks in the first person. Wisdom speaks of preceding creation. Wisdom says of the creation of the world, "then I was beside him as a master craftsman, and daily I was his delight." Here was an attribute of God treated as if she were a separate person but not as a second god. The Bible also speaks of the Angel of the Lord as a separate person. Yet when he is there, so is God and he speaks as if God. And in Genesis 18, it says "the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him…" When Abraham speaks to them, he is speaking to God. When they speak to Abraham, the Lord is speaking to him. That theophany certainly seems to lay the groundwork for the existence of the Trinity.
As C. S. Lewis pointed out, based on Jesus' claims to be God, he cannot have been simply a good moral teacher. He was either a liar, a lunatic or just who he said he was. And those who lived with him for 3 years came to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed God. I doubt they would have laid out the relationship of the Father and Son as later theologians did. But they referred to the Father, to Christ and to the Spirit as individual persons and yet never said there was more than one God. They probably concluded that God, a Spirit, was not limited as we humans are, to one person per being.
Paul, who wrote the earliest account of the resurrection, said 500 people saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. He said that most were still alive, about 20 years after the fact. And in his earliest letters, Paul also asserts the divinity of Christ. And Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, a fierce defender of the Torah. Yet he was willing to acknowledge that not only was Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, but also the Lord. Paul in his letter to the Philippians says of Jesus that "though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…" That's about as clear a statement of the Incarnation as one could expect to hear from the first generation of Christians. That's how thoroughly the life, death and resurrection of Jesus made people rethink the idea of Messiah and the idea of the way in which God exists.
This Sunday we will look at how Jesus made people further rethink God and his Holy Spirit. But for now, I ask you to reconsider how you think about Jesus. The two errors the church has tried to avoid from the beginning is treating him as merely human or conversely, as merely divine. How does the fact that God became a vulnerable human being make you rethink him and his love? How does the fact that he lived a human life and faced all the temptations we do without sinning make you reconsider how you live your life? How does the fact that he endured pain and death make you think about the troubles you're likely to face representing him? How does the fact that he rose from the dead make you reconsider how you face death? How does the fact that he did all that for you affect your relationship with him?