Lent 1 – Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Jesus as Spirit Person,” Susan Ryder

The season of Lent is traditionally observed as a time of prayer and spiritual commitment to prepare us to walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. On this first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, followed by a 40-day wilderness sojourn, a version of which is found in all three synoptic gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke – wherein Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. The experience prepared him for his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, which ultimately led to his death on the cross for the sins of the world. According to that interpretation, Christians traditionally view Lent as a time of preparation, contemplation, and sacrifice. We usually observe Lent a bit differently at NCC, and this year is no exception. Our theme for the next six weeks will stem from the question Jesus asked his disciples in Mark 8:27-29: Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?”

We will consider the question of who Jesus was based on what he said and did in the gospels. Our friend Marcus Borg offered a practical way to apply this theme from his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, where he wrote about what he referred to as the pre-Easter Jesus, describing four different religious personality types, all of which were embodied in Jesus. The first is that the historical Jesus was a spirit person, a mediator of the Sacred, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God, which we will explore this morning. Second is that Jesus was a wisdom teacher who used classic means to teach and advocate for alternative wisdom, and practiced what he taught with integrity, which we’ll consider in a few weeks. Third, Jesus was a social prophet who criticized the elites of his day and was an advocate of social justice, often in conflict with those in power. Bob will reflect on this aspect of Jesus’ identity next week. And lastly Jesus was a movement founder who brought into being a renewal of Judaism that shattered the social boundaries of his day, and which ultimately led to the founding of the early Christian church – which we will take a look at in a few weeks. We will also explore Jesus as a Healer, and on Palm Sunday, Jesus as a Revolutionary. A few readings to get us started on thinking about Jesus as Spirit person.

READINGS:

Mark 1:9-14
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.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

Jan Richardson: As Jesus knew, going into the barren and uncomfortable places isn’t about proving how holy we are, or how tough, or how brave. It’s about letting God draw us into the place where we don’t know everything, don’t have to know everything, indeed may be emptied of nearly everything we think we know.

Marcus Borg: Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit of God was the central reality in his life, the source of all that he was.

Some questions for your consideration: Think of something important to you, something you know to be true even if it’s intangible. Think of someone you love, for example. You know the reality of that love despite not being able to hold it in your hand. You can feel the strength of it – it energizes you. It can anchor you. It can give you courage. I think this is something like the experience Jesus knew of the sacred mystery we understand mostly as a concept yet experience only in occasionally glimpses. With that in mind, how does Jesus’ identity as a spirit person affect your understanding of him? How does it affect your understanding of the sacred? Does it affect your sense of what is real and what is possible? Does it affect how you experience your own relationship with the Sacred?

REFLECTION:
Unlike his counterparts, Matthew and Luke, Mark does not offer his readers any colorful details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness. We don’t learn what the specific temptations were, or how Jesus responded to them, as we do in Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t even let us know if Jesus “passed” his desert test. All he offers are two abrupt sentences: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

We are left with more questions than answers: How did Jesus spend his time? Was he tempted 24/7? Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot? Where did he sleep? What was the silence and solitude like, hour after hour after hour? Did he break it up by napping, humming, laughing, or shouting? Did he star gaze? Bird watch? Try to catch lizards? As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his life? Question his sanity? Wish to die? Mark — given, as ever, to brevity — leaves all of these questions unanswered. But the few details he does include give us something to consider as we reflect on Jesus as a Spirit person.

First and foremost, we notice that Jesus didn’t meander into the wilderness. In Matthew and Luke he was “lead” by the Spirit, but in Mark he was not given a choice. Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit, which descended upon him like a dove and drove him into the wilderness – not for a relaxing time in a beautiful setting, unplugged from the rest of the world for renewal and rejuvenation. No, this wilderness trip would be difficult, it would be tough – not a chosen respite but a difficult challenge. According to Mark, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness. Oddly enough, I find this detail somewhat comforting. Why? Because it rings true. Like Jesus, we don’t choose to enter the kind of wilderness he was about to experience. We don’t volunteer for pain, loss, danger, or terror. But that kind of wilderness happens, anyway. Whether it comes to us in the guise of a hospital waiting room, a difficult relationship, a troubled child, a sudden death, or a devastating diagnosis, wilderness appears, unbidden and unwelcome at our doorsteps, and drives us in.

Second, wilderness journeys last a long time. I’ve never spent forty days in solitude and silence, much less in a state of physical deprivation and danger. Even knowing that 40 days wasn’t to be taken literally, but instead “as long as it took for God’s work to be accomplished,” I can’t imagine that Jesus’s time in the wilderness passed by quickly. The sense I get from Mark’s gospel is that Jesus struggled and wrestled, something we can all relate to. Why, we ask, is this pain not ending? Why is this happening to us and not to someone else who really deserves trials and tribulations? Where is God? Perhaps this last question is answered by the third detail – angels. What a comforting truth — one that we can recognize if we open our eyes and take a good look around. Somehow, somewhere, help comes. Rest comes. Solace comes. Granted, our angels don’t always appear in the forms we might prefer or expect, but they come.

So what does all of this have to say about Jesus as a Spirit person? A Spirit person is one who has frequent and vivid experiences of the sacred – occasions where the veil from this world is lifted and they catch a glimpse of something more. Most of these experiences involve non-ordinary states of consciousness such as visions, shamanic journeys, mystical experiences, and a sense of immediate and limitless connection with the world. Spirit persons are rare; there have only been a handful of them throughout human history who had an impact on the world around them and in whom the sacred was evident. The implication that Jesus was one of these mediators of the Sacred, one of those figures in human history with an experiential awareness of the reality of God, rings true in this story. That the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove after his baptism, and then compelled him into the desert for 40 days of introspection and who knows what else, imply a deep, abiding relationship between Jesus and the Sacred Mystery. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray Jesus as a Spirit-filled person through whom the power of the Spirit flowed.

Other clues to this identity are found within stories which portray the role of prayer in Jesus’ life, saying he entered into times of deep contemplative / meditative prayer, often going into the hills to pray, sometimes all night long. While these long hours of prayer in solitude in which the mind is stilled and the heart is directed toward God were part of the Jewish tradition in which Jesus lived, Jesus made this a priority. Additionally, there is something about people who are in touch with the sacred that can be felt by those around them; it evokes awe and wonder, and impresses people with the feeling of another world, of something more, the Sacred. The amazement of those around Jesus was attested to many times in Gospel stories.

The cumulative impression created by the stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that Jesus stands in the Jewish tradition of spirit persons, as he is portrayed as someone through whom the power of the Spirit flowed. For Jesus, God was an experiential reality; he had a relationship with the Sacred, not simply an element of belief. Let me say that again – for Jesus, God was an experiential reality; he had a relationship with the Sacred, not simply an element of belief. Jesus had a tangible experience of God being real, and everything about Jesus comes from that experience. Imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of a spirit person who involuntarily and continuously channeled the presence of the scared mystery so that it’s tangible and not just the words we say from the page. That’s what it was like to be with Jesus.

We return to the questions I posed earlier – Think of something important to you, something you know to be true even if it’s intangible. Think of someone you love, for example. You know the reality of that love despite not being able to hold it in your hand. You can feel the strength of it – it energizes you. It can anchor you. It can give you courage. I think this is something like the experience Jesus knew of the sacred mystery we understand mostly as a concept yet experience only in occasionally glimpses. With that in mind, how does Jesus’ identity as a spirit person affect your understanding of him? How does it affect your understanding of the sacred? Does it affect your sense of what is real and what is possible? Does it affect how you experience your own relationship with the Sacred?