September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Our theme for this recommitment season is “The Mind of Christ in Us.” That is quite a concept! It’s very challenging to think about, and a bit hard to know where to start.
As I struggle to understand a difficult idea, I sometimes imagine I’m trying to explain it to a curious 10-year-old. What could I say to such a child, to make clear what I’m talking about? Maybe something like this: “Well, if you had the Mind of Christ it would be as if you were still yourself but also different, in a really good way. You would still see everything from your point of view, and hear the same birds, and smell the same bread baking, but it would all seem richer and more fun somehow, like it came to life all of a sudden. And the really big change would happen when you started hanging around with your friends, and even with other kids you don’t like very much. They’d still be the exact same people they were before, but now you’d want to help them out, and forgive them when they get stuck and do stupid stuff, and not worry so much about getting your own way.”
Who knows, I might even tell the child a parable, about how there once were these people who were stuck in a cave all their lives, watching TV, and one of them thought she saw just a glimpse of sunlight coming from somewhere. “And so she left the others and walked out of the cave into the sun. You can imagine what a big change that would be. She’d never want to go back into the dark cave with the dumb TV programs, would she? But if she has the Mind of Christ now, I think she would go back, because she’d feel so bad about leaving everybody stuck down there. She’d go back and try to tell them about the sunlight, and get them to come out with her and live in the bright air.”
Well, somewhere Plato and Jesus are probably having a good laugh at me, but it’s the best I can do.
Now here’s a question I think about a lot: Is the mind of Christ the same as the mind of Jesus? For that matter, what was the mind of Jesus? What must it have been like to be Jesus? Did you ever think about that? — really spend some meditation time trying to imagine what being Jesus would have felt like? Let’s take a minute, close our eyes, and do it right now.
Jesus is such a vivid character as we read about him in the Gospels. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said that there are three characters in literature who stand out by far as the most striking and memorable. One was Socrates. And one was Jesus. Of course you want to know who the third one was . . . Sherlock Holmes. And this seems very true. If any of these three people turned up on some kind of What’s My Line? show, where you could only hear their answers to questions, I bet you’d identify them almost at once. That way Jesus had of deflecting either/or questions, of finding better questions, the sudden uprisings of anger, sadness, compassion, and doubt, his crisp, clear speech, the endless fount of storytelling . . . really there is no one like him.
And yet . . . in some ways he is forever unknowable, and perhaps this is where the mind of Jesus starts to blend into the mind of Christ. When I try to imagine being Jesus, I do pretty well until I arrive at that thin place, that borderland between human and divine consciousness. I’ve had one or two such moments myself, but what it would be like to live in that place, for hours or days or weeks at a stretch, I really can’t imagine.
We’re getting perilously close to Trinitarian doctrine here, which has never done me much good. I’m willing to accept as an article of faith that Jesus was both human and divine, Jesus and Christ, but what the proportions were, how the recipe worked . . . the doctrine doesn’t tell me. You might know that there are a couple of traditional Christian ways of naming the extremes, so to speak – in other words, a vision of Jesus as mostly God, and a vision of him as mostly human. The mostly-God image has a name, monophysitism, which consists of the belief that Christ’s divinity dominates and overwhelms his humanity. I’m sure most of you have read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Much as I love those stories, I’ve always thought that the Christ figure in the stories, Aslan the lion, wasn’t a very good depiction of Jesus. Aslan always seems to know he’s God, kind of play-acting at being a lion. Whatever lionlike emotions he may have always get filtered through his divinity. I don’t picture Jesus as a god come down to earth like Zeus, fully aware at all times of his power and immortality. Nothing in the Gospels, except perhaps occasionally some passages from John, suggest this kind of existence.
There’s also a name, of course, for the mostly-human way of picturing Jesus. Actually there are several, but the one that I’ve always found appealing is called adoptionism. It’s the belief that Jesus was born as a mere (non-divine) man, was supremely virtuous and that he was chosen later as “Son of God” by the descent of the Spirit on him. In other words, he earned his divinity. He was adopted by God, rather than being born of Him. The reason I find this appealing is that I can understand it. It fits my limited and primitive sense of how grace and holiness work. That alone should make me suspicious of it.
And in fact, both of these concepts – the mostly-God and the mostly-human – have been dismissed as heresies by the Church for the better part of two millennia. They’re just too easy. They do away with the mystery rather than engage us with it.
Richard Rohr has another way of approaching this mystery. He suggests that the being of Jesus was not fundamentally different from our own – that each of us partakes of the Universal Christ in much the same way that Jesus did. To understand “being Jesus” is merely to understand, deeply, ourselves, or at least what we could be. We can read Scripture about Jesus and ask ourselves, How is this about me? How am I too partaking of a human and a divine nature? I certainly don’t think this makes the mystery go away, but it does make it more personal and perhaps more accessible.
Let’s see if this morning’s lectionary is any help with this. The passage from Philippians includes a fascinating statement: Paul says that “Christ Jesus, being in very form God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Could this possibly apply to me, to us? Can I find my Christ-nature inside myself, as something I am born with, not a summit to be reached? Well, but the Philippians passage goes on: Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross!” There is no transition between the statement about Jesus’ equality with God and his “making himself nothing” and becoming a humble servant. This picture of the Mind of Christ is very radical. Two seeming opposites are linked together as necessities: Jesus as the very highest, God himself, and Jesus as the humblest, most human, “obedient to death.”
Is it a paradox? Does having the Mind of Christ mean doing the lowest tasks to serve others? If so, it is a paradox that ought to sound very familiar, because it’s just the sort of thing Jesus taught, over and over: the last shall be first, the lowest shall be highest. Indeed, as we turn to the lectionary passage from Matthew, we find this again. Jesus tells the temple authorities that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of them! This is not only a paradox – how can unholy people be also holy, without following the holy rules? — but also offensive. Coming on top of Jesus’ previous rebuttal in the Matthew passage, where he stumps the elders about the source of his authority, we can imagine how outrageous this new teaching must have been.
But I think Jesus is also saying something here about the Mind of Christ. When he poses his riddle about where John’s baptism came from, the two choices he offers are: from heaven, or from humans? Here we are again with the mystery of how to reconcile divine and human nature. It’s interesting that this confounds the elders not on religious grounds, but on practical ones: They’re afraid their constituents will be mad at them for denying John’s prophecies, or, if they accept those prophecies now, this pain in the ass Jesus will demand to know why they didn’t believe him then, while he was still alive. So they reply, We don’t know. And Jesus makes it clear that, likewise, they will never know the source of Jesus’ own authority.
The elders would be a lot more sympathetic if, instead of worrying about these political questions, they had really tried, and failed, to answer the challenge about John’s, and Jesus’, authority. It’s the same question we’re failing to answer this morning – how can John, or Jesus, or you, or me, be both divine and human? How can I have the Mind of Christ in my incarnation as a lowly, usually clueless human being?
I think that many Christians – many spiritual people of all sorts – would turn to the topic of prayer now, and describe how prayer can bring the Mind of Christ closer to me. I’m sure that’s true, and every now and then I get that sort of result from prayer. But I want to be honest and tell you that almost always the Mind of Christ is revealed to me in a different way – two different ways, actually. The first is through a direct moment of grace which I do not cause and which I cannot control. This was my initial experience of the Holy – a flash of metanoia that changed my life. And since then, I get flashes and echoes of this, usually through art or nature, but what I want to emphasize is that the direction is from Christ to me, not the other way round. I can’t pray it into being, or if I can I keep forgetting how. I suppose this experience is why Plato’s allegory of the cave has always spoken so vividly to me. A moment of grace, an instant connection with Christ, is exactly like coming out of darkness into light, or waking from a dream. And we don’t earn it or do anything to make it happen, at least nothing on the conscious level. Plato himself never tells us why that first person leaves the cave. But he does say this: “Such a person is compelled to stand up, to turn his neck around, to walk and look up toward the light.” Compelled – by what? by whom? All we know is that it’s nothing he or she has decided to do.
But it’s the second way that I come to experience the Mind of Christ that is really the heart of my sermon this morning. Quite simply: I can’t do it alone. I need other people. When I first began my recovery from alcoholism, many years ago, I went to a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because I could see that the company and support of others who were in the same boat would be a big help. Then, after a while, I started to understand that there was more to recovery than just abstention from alcohol and drugs, and that together we were doing something that I could not do on my own. We were creating a safe place to learn how to live a holy life – I know that’s a pretentious way of putting it, and of course I don’t want to imply that AA people succeed in being holy all the time or even most of the time. But what I’m trying to say is that this was my first church, my first Body of Christ.
And really, Seekers was and is my other longstanding experience of this Body of Christ. I learn about the Mind of Christ through being part of his Body. I watch the actions of others, and am moved to act myself. I share the grief and rage and joys of all of you, and begin to appreciate and accept my own passions. Hardest of all for me is slowly learning what servant-leadership means. I am temperamentally selfish and self-sufficient and look for reasons not to serve others – that is my human nature. But as a member of our Body of Christ, my heart is being awakened. Mind and Body are working together in me, not apart.
So we need other people in order to become holy – at least holy in the way that Jesus was. He had his contemplative, solitary moments, but most of the time he walked and worked among people, engaging with them, healing them, challenging them, serving them. And when he died, returned, and then left this Earth, he left behind the first community that we can call the Body of Christ. The Mind of Christ needs the Body of Christ. I don’t know how to be a mind all by itself. I need others to help me serve, and to serve me.
So finally we come to recommitment. Here am I, a member of Seekers Church, a particular Body of Christ, or if you prefer, a small but significant organ in the Universal Body of Christ that is the Church eternal. My recommitment to Seekers means that, for one more year, I will use you all, every one of you, to manifest the Mind of Christ that is within me. And I’m also saying that you can use me the same way, and that humility and servanthood are the keys to doing this. If everybody serves everybody, who’s on first?! Who’s the best? What a paradox. Now we’re starting to get a little taste of what the Mind of Christ truly sees and feels: a radical equality rooted in humility, not in accomplishment or social position or rule-following.
I’ll close with a quote from Richard Rohr: “A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone.” And what does that mean? I’d have to go back to my faltering explanation to the curious 10-year-old. Or better yet, maybe the 10-year-old could explain it to me. Amen.