Is Jesus God?
I have to tell you, this is one of those trick questions that you should not really answer out loud in church. How we answer that question depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is context and definition of terms.
For instance, in about 160 AD, a man named Polycarp, a leader of the church in Asia Minor, and the man who was thought to be the last person who knew one of the twelve apostles personally (he was a student of John), was brought before the governor in the stadium in the Turkish town of Smyrna. “Say it,” the governor said. “Caesar is Lord.” Polycarp, who was then about a hundred years old, said, “No. Jesus is Lord.” The Governor pressed him, threatening him with ferocious beasts and fire and death, but the old man said, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” And so Bishop Polycarp became one of the most celebrated of the Christian martyrs, a man who would rather die than refuse to say that Jesus is Lord.
1900 years later, a young man by the name of Mansfield Kaseman caused quite a stir in the Presbyterian Church when he was asked during his ordination trials, “Is Jesus God?” Kaseman said, “No. Jesus is Jesus. God is God.” Oh, you should have been there that day! People quit the church, and there was generally great weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But here’s the thing: I think that in some very important way, the mystery of our faith is that both Polycarp and Kaseman were correct. Jesus, the Son, is fully divine. But he is not God the Father or God the Spirit. And Jesus, the messiah, is fully human. But he is not me and he is not you. One of the things that the Bible seems pretty emphatic about is that Jesus is one being, and that he is at once entirely human and entirely divine. I’m not sure that makes sense. But I’m sure that it’s true.
In the stories that we normally read around Christmas, Matthew and Luke point us to the events leading up to and around the stable in Bethlehem. These gospels attest to the amazing circumstances of Jesus’ identity, and establish his credibility as the Son of God, and therefore fully divine.
When Mark wants to tell the story of Jesus, he introduces him to us as a full-grown adult. There are no stories of his nativity. He is an itinerant Rabbi who goes, like hundreds if not thousands of others, out to the wilderness to be baptized by another Rabbi, named John, who just happens to be his cousin.
Matthew takes half of two chapters to tell us who Jesus is: There are genealogies and stories of his birth and infancy that help cement the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.
Luke goes into even more detail, using almost two entire chapters to give us the same attestations.
Mark, however, gives us three verses at the beginning of his Gospel that help us understand the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and us. Listen:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV)
In only three short verses, we learn some amazing things. For instance…
We are told that God the Father is awesome and powerful. The phrase “he saw the heavens torn apart” is there to remind us of the reading we shared from the Old Testament this morning, Psalm 29, that describes God’s power, God’s holiness, and God’s ‘otherness’.
We see that God the Holy Spirit is present, and doing what we expect the Holy Spirit to be doing in any age and any time – pointing to the truth in ways that God’s people can see and accept.
We are told in those phrases that Jesus is the Son – just like Matthew and Luke have been telling us. In the person and being of the Son, the Father is well-pleased. Whoever or Whatever God is, Jesus is part of that. And Whoever or Whatever Jesus is, God is filling Him.
And, of course, Mark uses these three verses to tell us something that didn’t happen to the baby Jesus in the manger: he was baptized.
Why? Why would Jesus be baptized?
I mean, when most of you have brought your children to me and asked me to help facilitate their baptisms, I have asked you why you want to share this sacrament with those children. And almost always, you mumble something about sin and forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus is clearly accepted by God. And we hold to the truth that Jesus did not sin and therefore does not require forgiveness.
So why baptism? If Jesus is God – or even Godly, or God-like – why should he be baptized?
The Christmas stories are told so that we might know that God came here. The virgin birth, the worship of the wise men, the fulfillment of prophecy – they all tell us that Jesus is God for us. In a very personal and immediate way, God demonstrates that God is not removed from us and not isolated from us. God came down at Christmas. God is here.
The Baptism of Jesus is here to tell us that the baby born in Bethlehem who grew up as the carpenter’s son and went on to become a Rabbi is really a human being. We learn at Christmas that God is here. We learn today that Jesus is one of us.
That’s kind of hard to get your head around, isn’t it? How can one being be 100% one thing and 100% another thing? Jesus is God. Jesus is human.
Some of the folks who were leading the early Christian Movement shared a belief that has come to be called “Docetism”. The people who taught this were convinced that Jesus was fully God – and because he was so fully God, he could not really be human. The Greek word dokéo means “to seem”, and those who held this belief swore up and down that there was no way that Jesus could have been human. It only looked like a real body. Jesus was not a man, he was God wearing a man-suit. As God, Jesus was entirely Spirit, and timeless, and existed only as an aura. So Jesus could not have really been born. And he could not truly suffer. And surely, God cannot die. So Jesus, as much as he looked like the real deal, was not really a human.
The baptismal story of Mark, though, is the Gospel’s way of telling us that whatever else he may have been, Jesus was one of us. In presenting us with a messiah who goes through the process of baptism, the Gospel tells us that in Jesus, God himself entered fully into the human condition. Jesus, the Son of God, bore the effects and marks of sin.
“But wait!” you say. “Jesus didn’t sin!”
No, he didn’t. But he took on all the freight of sin and bore its consequences. Even though he didn’t do it, he paid for it.
You know what that looks like. Think of the woman who has never had a drop of alcohol in her life. She is a real tee-totaler. Driving home from work, she gets plowed into by a fellow who’s three sheets to the wind and she, who never drank, winds up in a rehab facility for three months, learning how to walk again. She, who abstained, bears the effects of alcoholism.
Or you, who are, presumably, either a man or a woman. And let’s say that you’ve never in your life had an impure thought about the opposite sex. You have always thought of people with grace and kindness and goodness in your heart. But still, when you are with others, you must be aware of the fact that not everyone is like that. The sins of gender conflict, sexism, and sexual violence affect everyone in some way or another.
Jesus’ willingness to go to John for baptism is an indicator that he was fully aware of the effects of sin in the world and that he was entirely prepared to live with those effects – even when he himself was not a sinner.
Those effects included having to put up with the denseness of his friends and followers and the limitations of their ability to process his message.
His motives and purposes were questioned at every turn. Almost everything he said or did was misread or misinterpreted by people who thought that they had power.
Jesus bore the weight of sin when he was forced to watch people that he loved, people that he cared about, people that he created – go through great pain, suffering, and death.
Even though he himself did not sin, Jesus was forced to undergo violent treatment and torture and endure the distortion of his own, sinless, flesh. And, of course Jesus died. He really died. He didn’t seem to die, pretend to die, or look like he died. He died.
Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was really a human being. He was really baptized. He really died. He was really resurrected from the dead.
And because Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was fully human, that means that I can be fully human, too.
There is no part of my life that I need to hide from God. There is nothing about me that makes God scratch God’s head (or whatever it is that God does when and if God wonders) and think, “Hmmm. Well, that little bit of humanity is just too much for me. I’ll never figure those little rascals out.” Because Jesus is human, Jesus “gets” me. Thanks be to God, Jesus knows who I am, what I’m about, where I’m stained, how I’m bent, and what kinds of pathetic behavior I’ve thought about or done…and he loves me anyway.
Is Jesus God? Yes, yes he is, in the sense that he is an eternal, creative, loving presence that participates in all that is, and has been, and will be. That is indeed Good News.
The Gospel reading for today gives us even better news: that Jesus is human. In the person of Jesus, I am presented with a model, a hope, a reality that declares that my earthly existence matters. By entering fully into humanity, God has declared that this life matters, too.
When I was in High School, I was in the marching band. During the football games, we would go out onto the field and move around in shapes and patterns while we played. The one thing that we all had to learn to do was “Mark time”. If you were in the marching band, your feet were supposed to be moving – even if you weren’t going anywhere. So I played a lot of trombone while I was pretending to march.
Listen: we are not just marking time in this life. We are not sent to this earth to simply wait for heaven, where we get in on the “real” action. Jesus is human.
Your body is good. The creation is good. What we do with these bodies and in this world – it matters.
Because God in Christ honored the body by having one of his own, I am compelled to love myself, and others, and the world the way that I would love Jesus were he here beside me. Because God in Christ has honored the body by having one, we can dwell with the encouragement that is offered by Psalm 29. The same Psalm that describes the amazing strength and power of God concludes with this blessing:
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:11, NRSV)
In Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what God has done. The power that shakes mountains and breaks cedars and flashes fire and strips the forest bare and thunders over the waters is with us…and on us…and in us…and for us.
I want to live as if I believe that that is true. For me, for you, and for those that I continue to think of as “them.”
Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, has come to enter fully into our reality. Thanks be to God for the promises that brings. Now, may we have the strength and the courage to enter fully the reality into which we are sent. Amen.