This Sunday we continued our sermon series reflecting on the arguments in Reza Aslan’s bestseller Zealot. For my sermon, rather than a single sermon or a 3-Point Sermon, I preached 3 separate sermons spaced throughout the worship service.
I’ll post the audio here soon.
Trusting the Gospels Historically: Philippians 2.5-11
Twenty years ago, my mother uttered those words that have since gone on to become synonymous with American Exceptionalism:
‘Let’s go to Costco.’
Actually, my mother said ‘Let’s go to the Price Club’ because that’s what it was called back then.
We’d never been to the Costco before and if my mom was prepared for what we found inside, I sure wasn’t.
It was like a shopping mall for the apocalypse.
“No wonder all my Mormon friends’ parents shop here” I remember thinking.
It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember how that day, in addition to a tub of frozen Pork BBQ and a gallon of black olives, I talked my mom into buying me a copy of the Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game, a book which in hindsight should’ve been titled 69 Shades of Grey and should never have been allowed into the hands or the mind of 15 year old me.
It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember like it was yesterday how that day at Costco my mom bought herself a compact disk- they were called ‘CD’s’ back then. It was the soundtrack to the major motion picture, The Bodyguard.
In case you don’t remember, The Bodyguard was the ’90’s version of the Twilight movies, except instead of werewolves and vampires it starred a balding, swollen Kevin Costner as the eponymous hero and Whitney Houston as a pop star whose troubled personal life echoed Houston’s own.
The movie was typical for both stars. Whitney Houston sang as she always did on stage and Kevin Costner attempted to act as he always does on screen.
Giddy with romantic projection, my mom laid the CD into the shopping cart and headed to the register.
As you no doubt remember, The Bodyguard lasted longer in the daydreams of suburban women than it did at the box office, but the theme song from the film became a sensation.
It sold a million albums in its first week. It won a Grammy. In the 20 years since, it’s sold 45 million copies and it remains the bestselling movie soundtrack of all time.
It was 20 years ago.
But I remember how when we go to my mother’s Honda Accord, she frantically ripped the CD from its packaging with her teeth, like a solider trying to staunch a comrade’s bleeding.
She turned the key in the ignition, slid the CD into the mouth of the console, and then, like a desert wanderer reaching out towards a mirage that’s too good to be true, she pressed the Play button: ‘I Will Always Love…”
After a few moments, she pressed Pause and looked over at me and in complete seriousness said: ‘Isn’t this great?v‘Kevin Costner’s just so…’
She sighed like Maggie the Cat and her mind wandered and I tried to keep my mind from following wherever hers was going.
Since we didn’t live far from Costco, we sat there in the car, in the parking lot, in the afternoon rain, listening to the next 3 tracks of The Bodyguard soundtrack.
It was 20 years ago.
So I’m sure some of the details of my memory are off.
I’m sure if you asked my mother or my sister, who was also there, they’d recall the details of that day a bit differently.
Because, after all, they’d viewed that day through their own eyes and so would remember it from their own perspective.
Their takeaway from our Costco trip might not be the same as mine.
And none of us knew that, one day, there’d be a reason, I’d be trying to commit those moments of memory to paper.
But once you allowed for variations in detail and changes in emphasis and shifts in perspective, our story would be the same but different.
And each of us would be telling the truth.
20 years, after all, isn’t that long ago.
I’d never tell my mother this but I can still sing all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You’ which I do in the shower.
And I still remember that the next 3 tracks of that album, in order, are: ‘I Have Nothing,’ ‘I’m Every Woman,’ ‘Run to You,’ and ‘Queen of the Night.’
20 years isn’t that much time.
20 years is a short enough amount of time that if I lied or embellished too much or made things up, my mom and my sister would know.
And after just 20 years, you would know what was true and what was not true.
For example, if I told you The Bodyguard was a good movie, you would know that was wrong.
Its only been 20 years- that’s not enough time for you to forget the truth of how awful it really was.
And if I told you that Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner had good chemistry in the movie, then you could think back and know that that doesn’t jive with your own memory, which tells you that marionettes would have been more believable.
It’s only been 20 years.
If I told you that Kevin Costner is a good actor, you’d know that’s a lie.
20 years isn’t enough time to invent a myth that contradicts everything we know to be true about Kevin Costner.
It’s only been 20 years.
I can’t lie and tell you Kevin Costner’s a good actor when there’s too many people still alive, people who were there to see for themselves, movies like Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland
There’s too many people still around who know the true story on Kevin Costner; 20 years just isn’t enough time to change the story.
It’s not enough time to take the once-promising but ultimately-disappointing actor we know as Kevin Costner and reinvent him as a god of stage and screen.
But that’s exactly what popular books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot and even Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would have you believe.
The assumption behind popular books like Zealot is that we could take an ordinary, flawed actor like Kevin Costner and in no more than 20 years convince everyone who’s seen his movies that he’s really an actor on par with Daniel Day Lewis.
You see the popular skepticism about the trustworthiness of the Gospels is the assumption that the real Jesus of history was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels, but was instead probably either a great, inspiring human teacher or a great inspiring human revolutionary who either died a tragic death (in the case of the former) or died a symbolic death (in the case of the latter).
The assumption goes, Jesus’ followers attributed myths to him, myths like his divinity and his resurrection, only much, much later.
Making claims about Jesus neither Jesus nor his first disciples made about him.
The problem with that assumption is that it has no answer for the scripture you heard today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
What you heard read- it’s actually a song, a Christian hymn, that was popular enough for Paul to quote it and assume his audience would know it.
This song that speaks of Jesus being the eternal God made flesh in the form of a humble slave.
This song that alludes to God raising Jesus up from the dead.
This song that climaxes with echoes of Daniel 7 where every tongue confesses and every knee bows down in worship.
This song, according to scholarly consensus- Christian and non-Christian scholarly consensus- originates at the latest to 20 years after the crucifixion.
And probably more like 15.
Think about that.
This song is closer to eyewitnesses’ own experience of Jesus than we are to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’
This song which speaks of Jesus in some of the most sophisticated theological language in the entire New Testament was sung by people who had actually known Jesus.
Think about that.
At the same time the first Christians were proclaiming in oral form what we know as the Gospels, they were already putting that proclamation into praise songs and prayers.
Think about that.
Among a Jewish People that had for hundreds of years suffered persecutions and executions for refusing to worship anyone else but the God of Israel, we have proof that in just 15-20 years thousands of them were worshipping Jesus.
Which broke the first and most precious commandment and was the worst of sins.
Unless it were true.
20 years is not a lot of time.
If it’s true that I can still remember all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You,’ then there’s a good chance that this song (from Philippians) is based not on myth but on memory.
Trusting the Gospels Politically: Mark 1.9-11
10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.
As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest.
When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions.
There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.
Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book.
So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.
“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”
He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.
“Sounds fascinating” I lied.
“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”
“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”
“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.
“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”
He didn’t blush.
He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”
Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot, is a slightly less fantastical version of Dan Brown’s own.
Reza Aslan’s central thesis is that the one verifiable, historical FACT of the Gospels is what we recite in the Creed: that Jesus of Nazareth “was crucified by Pontius Pilate.”
Crucifixion, Aslan notes correctly, was a punishment reserved exclusively for crimes of sedition against the state.
Therefore, Aslan speculates, the “real” Jesus was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels.
If we know Jesus was crucified then the “real” Jesus must have been a zealot, a member of a 1st century Jewish movement, which agitated for the violent overthrow of Rome.
If Jesus died on a cross by definition he was a revolutionary.
After his death, Aslan argues, the politically subversive message of Jesus was expunged from the record.
The once politically-charged Gospels were spiritualized to make them amenable to the Empire in which Christians lived.
Now, Reza Aslan’s thesis is half-right, and he gets right something a lot of Christians miss.
Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary.
Reza Aslan is right about all of that.
You don’t get sent to the electric chair for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.
But Reza Aslan is wrong about the manner in which Jesus was a political revolutionary, and he’s wrong to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels.
It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.
Take the passage you heard from Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus.
Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.
Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence.
Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different.
And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.
So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.
The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.
It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle. A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see.
And that’s not all.
Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’
That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.
Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.
Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.
Mark shows you a Dove.
And Mark tells you Beloved Son.
And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.
And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.
Reza Aslan argues that you can’t trust the Gospels.
You can’t trust them because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.
But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.
As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.
Reza Aslan is correct: only political revolutionaries wound up on Rome’s crosses.
But the mistake Reza Aslan makes is in assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.
Reza Aslan assumes the only effective revolution is a violent one.
And so, Reza Aslan completely misses just how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are because he doesn’t believe that any Kingdom can defeat its enemies by loving them.
And to the extent that you miss how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are, perhaps its because you don’t believe it either.
But just remember, it’s 2,000 years later and there’s a whole lot of us who believe that Jesus is Lord.
And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.
Trusting the Bible Personally: John 21.2-20-25
I got this Bible as a gift from Woodlake United Methodist Church when I confirmed, back when I was 17 or 18 years old.
Truth be told, I didn’t actually open this Bible until I went to college; in fact, I didn’t read a single word of the Bible at all until after I was confirmed- that is, until after I became a Christian.
In other words, I became a Christian without the Bible.
Or rather, I didn’t need to believe in the Bible to believe in Jesus because, when I was a teenager, through the mediation and witness of my church, I met the Risen Christ.
Or, to be grammatically correct, thanks to the mediation and witness of other Christians in my church community, I was encountered by the Risen Christ.
John concludes his Gospel with the cliffhanger that he’s just scratched the surface of what Jesus said and did.
Which, on the one hand, means John thinks he’s told you enough; John thinks he’s told you all you everything you need to know this Jesus.
But on the other hand, it also means John doesn’t think the Gospel’s about proving the case for Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt.
If that’s what the Gospel was about then surely John would include every possible piece of evidence, leaving no stone or story unturned.
Not to mention, if the Gospel was meant to prove the case for Jesus then you can bet that Matthew, Mark and Luke probably would’ve gotten their stories straight.
And you can be damn sure the ancient Church would’ve allowed only 1 Gospel into your bibles.
But they didn’t. The ancient Church included all 4 Gospels, and they did so knowing those 4 Gospels were filled with all the chronological inconsistencies and internal contradictions that folks like Reza Aslan want you to get hot and bothered over.
The Gospels aren’t trying to prove anything about Jesus because that would imply you can know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.
And you can’t.
You can’t know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.
The Gospels don’t try to prove; they bear witness to something that only be known by experience and encounter.
When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we don’t mean they’re objectively provable.
When we say scripture’s the word of God we mean not that its the literal word of God but that its a trustworthy pointer to Jesus Christ, the one-capital-W- Wrod of God.
When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we mean they’re more like windows.
And the purpose of a window is not for you believe in the window.
The purpose of a window is to help you see what exists outside the window. Beyond the window. Independent of the window.
When I say I believe the Gospels are trustworthy, I mean that- like windows- in them and through them, I see the Jesus I’ve already met.
I know the Gospels are trustworthy because I know Jesus Christ.
I don’t believe in Jesus because I believe in the Bible.
I believe in Jesus because I’ve met him.
I don’t believe in the the resurrection because I believe in the Bible.
I believe in the resurrection because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead.
I don’t believe in the virgin birth because I believe in the Bible.
I believe in the virgin birth because I know the Risen Christ and if Jesus is resurrected then that’s the start of a whole New Creation and virgin birth sounds like a good way to describe how it must’ve all began.
I don’t believe Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so.
I believe Jesus loves me because Jesus told me so.
And tells me so.
And what I find in the Gospels is confirmation of the Jesus I already know.
And therefore I trust them.
Can I prove that?
Of course not.
Neither can I prove that I love my wife.
All I can do is bear witness. Like those Christians at Woodlake UMC bore witness to me; so that, one day I might be encountered by Christ myself.
The Gospels are like windows.
And some Christians spend their whole lives at distance, debating the merits and measurements of the window.
But I can promise you that just looking through the window to see what it’ll show you is a much more interesting way to live.