The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE ULTIMATE QUESTION

Delivered 5/21/2000
Text: Matthew 16:13-16
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Many years ago, in my seminary days, our first course in Systematic Theology dealt with basically the same question as that which the Lord posed here to his disciples. Our professor described Jesus as "the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." Did you get that? "The proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." On our way out of class that morning, we chuckled at the whole thing: "Jesus said to them, `Who do YOU say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, `You are the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God.' Jesus answered and said unto him, `What???'"

The definitions of theology professors notwithstanding, one would think that after almost 2,000 years, the question of who or what is Jesus...the ultimate question...would have been settled, at least for Christians. But such is apparently not the case, and that is why we had another miniseries this week on the life of Jesus. CBS promos said, "See the greatest story ever told...as it's never been told before."

"His birth changed the way time is measured. His life changed the destiny of billions. His death changed the course of history. This May, CBS presents the first great miniseries event of the new millennium...Experience for yourself who he really was. JESUS." DRAMA!

There was a fair amount of pre-release press coverage on the project. TV Guide says, "CBS's Jesus presents the first Messiah-as-surfer-dude. Jeremy Sisto's playful Jesus exhibits a zest that should make his sacrifice all the more poignant."(1) TIME magazine said the film "wants to find a middle ground between irreverence and irrelevance, promising a Savior who laughs and emotes like the blue-collar rabble rouser he was in the New Testament. It takes steps toward greater realism, putting the political ferment of Christ's time in the foreground [and it does an outstanding job of that], but ends up a traditional, staid epic that is double-dipped in ham-fisted dramatics."(2) Well, quibble, quibble.

To be sure, when Hollywood starts to tell the story of Jesus, we cannot be certain what to expect. The images might be pious, as in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, the first made-for-tv miniseries in 1977. They might border on the blasphemous as in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ that caused such a furor a dozen years ago. But they all have this in common -- they are largely fictional and take great liberties with the Bible.

For example, in this week's presentation, early on we find Jesus coming to Bethany to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. As it turns out, Mary has a crush on Jesus and obviously wants to marry him, a prospect with which Martha and Lazarus are perfectly happy. In fact, in an effort to motivate Jesus toward Mary, the information is offered that another young man in town has already proposed, so Jesus, if you are interested, you had better get a move on... Unfortunately, the script writers must not have been aware that middle eastern marriages in the first century were not arranged that way - in fact, they were ARRANGED...by the families of prospective brides and grooms; romance had nothing to do with them. The reasoning was that a marriage was far too important a step to leave to emotion and hormones. (And with the modern rate of divorce, they may just have something there.) Of course, the Bible never has Mary pining away over Jesus, but Hollywood needs a love interest in the story somewhere - at least this one did not have Jesus hanging on the cross and fantasizing about having sex with Mary Magdalene as The Last Temptation of Christ did, so thank heaven for small favors.

Speaking of Mary Magdalene, she, as usual, was presented this week as a prostitute. Just as a matter of information, that tidbit of biographical data is found NOwhere in the gospels. It has been speculated in the church for hundreds of years, but is ONLY speculation. Still, it regularly appears in film as a fact. There is a certain drama to it, the prostitute as disciple. OK. Just remember, it is not biblical.

Of course, Hollywood's playing fast and loose with scripture is the rule rather than the exception. In this depiction, there is a scene from Jesus' boyhood where he restores a bird that has accidentally been killed back to life. That story is not in our Bible. Then there is a scene in which Jesus and Mary and Joseph discuss the suffering of the Jews - Joseph starts to apply a little pressure on Jesus, to do something about it. Jesus looks clueless - it is as if Mary and Joseph know more about his divine nature and mission than Jesus does. Scripture does not offer any such picture.

Speaking of Mary and Joseph, the film presents an exceptionally warm family relationship among them. Jesus holds them both in the highest regard and lets everyone know it. Following Joseph's death, Jesus is torn with grief, and he cries out to God to raise Joseph from the dead: "Give him back to me," he wails. "Raise him! Raise him up in my arms!" But then, just as in the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus concludes his prayer with "Your will be done."

The film does an excellent job of portraying Jesus as very human with a good sense of humor and appreciation of fun, something I have long insisted is true. I do not know if he actually started any water fights with the disciples, but I would not rule it out either. Call that scene artistic licence.

That certainly came into play with the depiction of Satan. The Evil One is portrayed alternately by a man in a twentieth century designer suit with slicked back hair, looking for all the world like a wizard of Wall Street, and a beautiful woman dressed in a bright red gossamer gown that blows wildly in the wind. We encounter him/her/it as Jesus is tempted in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry and again in the Garden of Gethsemane as he wrestles with his impending torture and murder. In an interview, producer Lorenzo Minoli explained his reasoning: "We wanted to emphasize the fact that Jesus is still with us. So we included some contemporary elements. We have flashes of the Crusades, the burning of witches, World War 1, and Kosovo. For Kosovo we did a reenactment. You see, we also wanted to point out that Satan is still with us, too."(3) Good point. And very interesting artistry.

So saying, sometimes theological problems arise when artistic licence goes too far. For example, all the gospels report the story of Jesus' baptism by his cousin John. The only thing we hear John say to Jesus in scripture leading up to the ceremony is a reluctance to do it - John felt unworthy. In this week's film, however, when Jesus asks John to baptize him, John responds, "If you confess your sins and dedicate your life to God, OF COURSE!" But traditional Christian understanding is that Jesus had no sins to confess - he was the spotless "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." That got lost in the artistic license.

Obviously, any cinematic rendition of the gospel record will be a mixture of fact and fiction, and most producers will stress that. Sadly, that will make no difference to those who choose to object. To them it is not fiction so much as blasphemy. After all, the subject of the story is not some minor historical figure, but the founder of our faith, the one whom a third of the world worships as Lord. This is the one to whom Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Some years ago, in the midst of all the controversy about Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ, as the congregation I served was filing out after the 11:00 o'clock service, a well-dressed young man came to the church door obviously looking to speak with me. In his hand he held a petition and a plan of action for me to use to help prevent the distribution or showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. I said, "Thanks, but no thanks." I had not seen the film at that point and would not condemn it on the basis of hearsay evidence. I would want to make my OWN decision after seeing it before saying it was worth or not worth viewing. He asked, "Do you want to SEE it?" I said, "Of course." He found that difficult to believe, but with sadness, he left. He probably felt that this was one more heretical mainline minister who, as in days of old, should probably be burned at the stake! Sad, again.

Well, I am NOT a heretic! I believe that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." And if movies, whether the one this week, or even The Last Temptation..., flawed as it was (and even silly as it was), get people to look again at Jesus, then I say God bless 'em, because looking at Jesus is something Christians do not do enough.

Why do we not? Several reasons, I suspect. First, our theological formulations about the person and work of Jesus Christ were fairly well settled for us by the church fathers in the early centuries of the faith. We repeat the words of the creed: "one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God...God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God; Begotten, not made...one substance with the Father...incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man..." We remember the words of our confessional statements: "God and man, in two distinct natures, and one Person forever."(4) We believe all that even if we do not understand it any more than the "proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." The theology is settled for us! "You are the Christ, the son of the living God."

A second reason for not looking much at Jesus is that, for the most part, our picture of him is well established. We are content with the mental images of Christ we have had since childhood...a beautiful baby in an ethereally-lighted antiseptic manger; a white-robed teacher gently and lovingly instructing attentive crowds on lush, green hillsides; a brilliant and insightful debater who calmly and courteously skewers opponents with his incontrovertible logic; an unfortunate martyr who died with supreme dignity. This is our picture. Yes, we want to say more than the ancient gossip about his being another John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or some other prophet. But those childish images are generally sufficient, even if they end up giving us a hot-house flower kind of Lord. This is what we most often mean with "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

A third reason for not looking too closely at Jesus is that we would simply rather not. Our pat theological answers and our warm mental images are just fine, thank you. We have enough challenges in our lives. Our children are a challenge, making ends meet is a challenge, staying healthy is a challenge, the environment is a challenge...challenge, challenge, challenge. We do not need that from our religion TOO! Please, let us have SOMETHING in this life that is NOT a challenge, something we can count on, something we do not have to worry about.

To be sure, there are parts of the Biblical picture of Christ that absolutely challenge us - we would rather not notice Jesus' evident bias in favor of the poor and marginalized of society; as wealthy Americans we would rather he not remind us, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven";(5) as good church goers, we would rather not notice that the ones for whom Jesus had the most contempt were the religious folk of his day; for people who want comfort rather than challenge from their faith, we surely do not want to hear, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross..."(6) Those are all a part of the Biblical picture, but "No, Lord. Let us simply say, `You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,' and leave it at that."

I suspect Lorenzo Minoli and his screen writers would agree with the wisdom of the remark that "The only way to make a good statue is to throw away good marble."(7) You and I might or might not agree with what was "chipped away" in this film, but that is all right. If it challenges people to actually THINK about Jesus, to see and hear him in a new way, it accomplishes more than most of the traditional images ever do.

Can we then learn from it, even though some of it might be questionable? Of course. During my doctoral studies, one of my professors recounted an experience from his early days in seminary. He had gone out to a small country church for worship one Sunday and was mortified to hear some of the worst theology he had ever encountered coming from a Presbyterian pulpit. As he sat and listened and heard this wrong, that wrong, and the other wrong, he began to wonder how in the world God could ever use this kind of drivel. Then he realized that God had indeed used it; God had spoken to him that morning by forcing him to reflect on his faith. The result: he got something out of it. He might not have gotten what the preacher had intended, but God did speak.

Millions upon millions of words have been written and spoken about Jesus. As Emerson once noted, "The name of Jesus is not so much written as PLOUGHED into the history of the world."(8) But none of that history has ever been able to tell the whole story. Surely, the "Jesus" mini-series did not even BEGIN to do that, nor have any of the other cinematic attempts through the years. But, as that great preacher of the last century, Horace Bushnell once said, "Who can satisfy himself with anything he can say concerning Jesus Christ?"

"Who do you say that I am," asks Jesus. After seeing this week's portrayal, the press responds, "A vibrant multi-dimensional Messiah: a man haunted by visions of atrocities still to come (the Crusades, the burning of Joan of Arc, the world wars), yet one who loves to laugh, eat, drink, and dance in the streets with wild abandon."(9)

Then the question is asked of you, the ultimate question. "Who do YOU say that I am?" Proleptic? Salvific? Eschatological? Or anything like that? I doubt it. No, my prayer is that, with Simon Peter, you would simply say with every fibre of your being, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Amen!


1. TV Guide, 5/6/00, p. 24

2. James Poniewozik, "Human, None Too Human," TIME, 5/15/00, p. 86

3. http://www.hollywoodjesus.com

4. Shorter Catechism, Q.21

5. Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25

6. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23

7. G. K. Chesterton

8. Quoted by Charles Jacobs, "Life's Most Important Question," sermon, in 88 Evangelistic Sermons (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 19

9. "The Greatest Story, Retold," TV Guide, 5/6/00, p. 18

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