The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Let’s talk about…Jesus.
Now, you may say to yourself, Hal you talk about Jesus almost every Sunday, and that’s true. But how often do you talk about Jesus with your family, your kids, your friends, even with your friends here at Plymouth? I’m guessing not very often.
When I was younger, it seemed that in my church we talked about “Christ” as a more refined, less emotional kind of a figure. It’s easier to make “Christ” conform to your own norms and standards than it is when you think about “Jesus,” the Galilean peasant who preached regime change to overturn the Empire and the forces of this world in favor of the kingdom of God.
It’s also because of the rise of anti-science, anti-gay, anti-woman evangelicalism in the 20th century that led to the Religious Right. It’s because we don’t want to be associated with the televangelists who talked a lot about Je-ee-sus (with three syllables). That Jesus is perceived by some as having one purpose: to get you into Heaven by being saved through a profession of a personal relationship with him as your personal Lord and savior. That theology invites radical individualism (it’s about me and Jesus) and it is centered in the mistaken perception that Jesus’ reason for being here in the first place was to die a bloody and agonizing death on the cross so that believers receive a get-out-of-jail-free card in the hereafter. If Jesus — that Jesus — doesn’t care a fig about social justice, then it’s all about reaching the pearly gates. I imagine that is the Jesus many insurrectionists in DC were praying to on January 6. Don’t you wonder what they would do with the words of the historical Jesus: “Blessed are you who are poor.” “The kingdom of God is among you.” “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God; it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And sometimes we in the mainline churches talk about the Christ of faith as the “post-Easter” Jesus, the one who rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of God. (That’s a metaphor, by the way.) We speak of Christ whose presence is with us today. And that’s really important…but there is more.
But I have an invitation for you. We are going to be hearing a lot from the Gospel According to Mark in the lectionary this year (with a detour into John’s Gospel during Lent), and Mark provides a punchy, no-nonsense, early account of Jesus, the historical Jesus, who lived, walked, talked, preached, healed, proclaimed, and died in the Jewish homeland. Mark gives us a sometimes raw and unvarnished vision of who the Jesus of history was.
You may ask why the historical Jesus is important. The big theological answer is the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, but I’ll set that aside for now. Jesus set an example of what it looks like to live a life fully in congruence with what God intends for humanity. In the version of the Lord’s Prayer we often sing, John Philip Newell writes “May your longings be ours,” which is another way to say that what mattered to the historical Jesus should matter to us…because it matters to God.
The historical Jesus is not so easily bent and contorted to fit our American vision of what a messiah should be. Instead, he was a disturber of the religious and political status quo, a sage of alternative wisdom, and a healer. The Jesus of history is an antidote to Christian Nationalism that co-opts the Christ of faith by putting words in the mouth of Jesus that he never spoke. He never said a word about abortion or same-sex love. The historical Jesus is also the yardstick by which Christians can and should measure our theology, whether it is our idea that God is still speaking or whether it is someone claiming to be a prophet thinks the former president should still be in the Oval Office. If you want to measure your message from the Holy Spirit, see how it looks in comparison to the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, and if it doesn’t measure up, it’s more likely to be your superego talking than it is God.
So, here is the invitation I extend to you: I invite you — no I implore you — to start talking about Jesus. Talk about Jesus and what he said about the poor, what he did in healing people without charge, what he meant by the phrase “the kingdom of God,” what Jesus was trying to do through his ministry and his public witness. As I watched the events of inauguration day last week, it occurred that we have entered a new era for progressive Christianity with a president informed deeply by Catholic social teaching and the social gospel. And in this morning’s New York Times, there is an article, “In Biden’s Catholic Faith, an Ascendant Liberal Christianity” that quotes Dr. William Barber saying, “Birth pangs require one thing: pushing.” Are you willing to push?
Have you ever noticed that the Black church has never had a problem talking about Jesus? We have something to learn! And the Jesus they talk about is most often the Jesus who blessed the poor, healed the sick, and stood up to empire. Can you push yourself outside your comfort zone to talk about Jesus? It’s a new day, and it’s time for us to claim our faith: to show people that the stereotype of White evangelicals doesn’t describe all Christians, and it doesn’t mean our view is exclusive of other faith traditions.
At the end of last year, I received a very thoughtful email from one of our members who wrote, “’We stand on the side of love’ or ‘Come just as you are’ constitute nice sentiments, to be sure. But how do they move us forward? Rather, perhaps we should say: ‘Come just as you are…but don’t expect to stay that way.’ Expect to be challenged and changed…and, occasionally, to be made a bit uncomfortable — that is how growth and progress occur.” YES! This is exactly the centerpiece of Plymouth’s mission statement that describes inviting, TRANSFORMING, and sending. The word you heard in our text this morning, REPENT, in Greek is metanoia, the shift of our hearts, minds, and actions toward the things that mattered most to Jesus. And it’s hard. Transformation is hard!
You may think that it’s hard to talk about Jesus…so just try it! What have you got to lose? People probably think you’re a bit of a crackpot for belonging to this church anyway! Try it! That’s my challenge to you this week.
And if you think talking about Jesus is difficult, imagine for a moment that you met Jesus, and he said to you, “Follow me and leave your classroom or your law practice or your small business or your retirement behind. I’m going to make you do something new that involves changing peoples’ lives!” What would you be willing to leave behind? Would you abandon your career? Your assumptions? Your fear of talking about Jesus? Your wealth? Your family? Imagine him speaking one-on-one directly to you.
It takes an incredible amount of trust in Jesus to take big steps. But here is something I know about you as a congregation: you have big hearts that match your big minds. Once something grabs you, you’ll give it your all, not just for a day or a week or a month. And if we really trust Jesus, we can take big risks for the kingdom.
So, what do you think Jesus is asking you to do as a person? What do you think Jesus is asking us to do as his followers? Where do you think Jesus is calling Plymouth in this new year? As we eventually leave the pandemic behind and we can come back together, what do you think Jesus wants us to do together for God’s world?
These words of Amanda Gorman are worth repeating:
“For there is always light if we are brave enough to see it,
If only we are brave enough to be it.”
Let’s be the light.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.