There are several places in the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that recount the life and ministry of Jesus, where Jesus tells us in his own words why he came. Every Sunday in the Creed, we stand up and confess that the eternal Son of God took flesh in one human being, Jesus Christ, “for us and for our salvation,” and say that “he came down from heaven.” We bow at those words, in reverence before this central mystery of the Christian faith: God himself came to us as one of us.
So why did he come? If you had to answer that question, what would you say? Two of Jesus’ answers are in today’s Gospel reading, but I thought it might be interesting to look them all up. And it did turn out to be interesting, but for a reason very different than what I expected. So let’s hear from him. (As I read this list, by the way, it’ll have some examples of Jesus’ habit of talking about himself in the third person as the Son of Man, which is both an ordinary Hebrew way of calling himself a human being, and a quotation from the Old Testament that cleverly functions as a claim that he is the predicted Savior of the world.) Here is a list of the most direct statements Jesus makes in Scripture addressing specifically why he came.
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:32)
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Matt 5:17)
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind. (John 9:39)
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:28)
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. (John 18:37)
I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. (John 6:38)
I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
And finally from today’s Gospel reading: I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
How many of those verses would have come to our lips if someone asked us why Jesus came?
I’m guessing not very many. Part of that is probably basic Bible literacy, something that’s notoriously low among Episcopalians, but I expect it’s also because much of this language is strange to all contemporary people. When we hear it or read it, because it doesn’t fit well into our socialization, we find it hard to absorb or we misunderstand it. Let me give some examples right from the list of verses we just heard.
Our culture uses the term non-judgmental to describe a virtue, so we struggle to understand why Jesus is giving us good news when he explicitly tells us he came for judgment. “Righteous,” as central as the concept of righteousness is to the Biblical way of thinking about life, is a word we have almost ceased using, except pejoratively with “self” stuck in front of it. Coming to call sinners to repentance -- well, the Christian meaning of “sinner” as a word that applies by definition to every human being is so little understood that using it can be heard as an insult rather than a source of such profound relief that it makes us sigh in gratitude. Or when Jesus says he came “to give himself a ransom for many” – do we find it plausible that we start out in such a predicament that we genuinely need him to provide a ransom for us? Can we say what he ransoms us from?
OK, none of that is self evident to someone socialized in 21st century America. How about “to save the lost”? A lot of us have been taught that we’re not lost and that we don’t need saving, but that our real task is deeper self-acceptance. “I came not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” is a pretty long way from You Do You. And today’s statement, Jesus talking about setting the world on fire, and telling us that he came “not to bring peace but division,” flies in the face of the common idea that what spirituality’s good for is providing comfort and inner peace.
Of all Jesus’ statements of what he came to do, what are we left with that someone socialized the way we are might easily remember and want to quote? Well, we’ve got one about abundant life and one about testifying to the truth – those are still more or less positive concepts, even though we’re pretty skeptical about truth these days, so maybe we could start there.
I mentioned that what was interesting about that list wasn’t what I expected, and here’s what I mean: Isn’t it fascinating that when Jesus himself describes what he came for, why “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was made man,” he has to do it using language that we have nearly lost the ability to see as describing something real and positive? Out of all those statements, hardly any of them fits into the way we are socialized to believe the world works. But they are the way the person we confess as Lord and God thinks the world works. The person whose coming we say is so revolutionary for the whole universe that we physically bow at the mention of it in the Creed. In the Gospels, these phrases express central aspects of the good news and the love and the healing and the change that Jesus offers.
In our summer book, Ben Myers points out beautifully that the Creed, as vital as it has been for centuries of Christians, cannot be given the responsibility of standing on its own as a way of understanding Jesus. It contains very little, for example, about the lessons Jesus taught and the life he lived. Myers writes, “The reading of the Gospel stories has always been central to the life of the Christian community. The creed was never intended as a substitute for the four Gospels, but only as a guide to the faithful reading of them, [as guidelines that] whenever we read Jesus’ story we are to keep in mind…. [The Creed] is no substitute for the unbroken rhythm of reading and rereading the testimony of the four Gospels. But it is a tried and true safeguard against certain kinds of misreading.”
Misreading of who Jesus is, why Jesus came, what Jesus values, what Jesus taught, has always been a problem. And I’m not talking here about just the recurring mistakes about Jesus that our Creeds deliberately address for us, the so-called classical heresies. I’m talking also about other kinds of misreading. Over the centuries, the name of Jesus has been invoked over all kinds of things that, honestly, ought to make you sick. If you can’t think of any, spend fifteen minutes talking to someone who has rejected Christianity and you’ll hear a whole list of examples, from genocide to sexual abuse to white supremacy to colonialism to sexism and more.
The thing is, though, that none of those things had the name of Jesus invoked over them because people read the Bible well. Right? Those things didn’t happen with churchgoing people involved because those people read the Bible well. It happened because they read it poorly, or only read the parts that sounded like what they’d already been socialized to believe, or let the state tell them how to read it, or didn’t read it at all. If you go a bit deeper into all those examples, there are always Christians in there who are reading the Bible well and standing against the tide, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer starting his own seminary when about 80% of the German church was unable to read the Bible well enough to notice what was wrong with Nazi ideology. Or Hannah More and William Wilberforce and many other Anglicans and Quakers who read the Bible well enough to notice what was wrong with the slave trade.
Reading the Bible poorly, or only reading the parts that agree with what you’ve already been socialized to believe, or letting the state tell you how to read it, or not reading it at all, happens frequently. It just doesn’t end well. Giving up the tried and true safeguards against misreading the Bible, like the Creed or other classic documents like those we have in the Prayer Book that have stood the text not just of time, but of different cultures, happens frequently. It just doesn’t end well.
As I looked this week at that list of things Jesus said about why he came, and compared them with the kind of things we 21st century Americans have been socialized to say, it brought to mind a sentence from one of our great contemporary Episcopal theologians, Katherine Sonderegger. She says this: “the subject matter of the Bible cannot be expressed properly and fully in another religious or moral vocabulary that has no ties to the Biblical witness.” I’m going to read that again. “the subject matter of the Bible cannot be expressed properly and fully in another religious or moral vocabulary that has no ties to the Biblical witness.”
If we want to understand the subject matter of the Bible, in other words, we have to do it by encountering and asking questions of the Biblical text. Learning how to read those texts well is worth the time and effort. The actual words Jesus uses, not our ideas about them or the words we wish he had used, are where the power is.
As we come into our new year at Emmanuel, in addition to our children’s Sunday School, we have three ways for adults to encounter and ask questions of the Biblical text all ready to go and starting in September. Every Sunday at 9:10 our Lectio Divina gathering listens for God in the words of one of that Sunday’s readings and discusses how to put it into practice. On Tuesdays at 7am, our men’s Bible study will be focusing on the words of Jesus all fall, BYO coffee. I am so delighted that they’ve moved from monthly to weekly. On Tuesdays at noon, beginning later in the fall, there is a longstanding women’s Bible study as well. And if none of those times works for you, if a few of you come to me and say that you want to, say, read a Gospel together this year, I will be not just willing but thrilled to make the time to meet with you. Let’s read, so that we don’t misread. Let’s read, so that when we go out to love and serve, the one we are loving and serving is the Lord who for us and our salvation came down from heaven.