O.K, it looks like Lutherans have the last verse down pat. We’re really good at not saying anything to anyone about Jesus!
We hear the usual passage from Matthew’s Gospel used for this night about not making a show of one’s religion, giving our gifts in secret, not making a spectacle of prayer and we find ourselves feeling really comfortable with that.
The smudge on the forehead is already enough of a “showy” thing for us, a bit of a stretch. If someone asks about it, we usually mutter that “it’s a church thing” and leave it at that.
We have become so skilled at practicing our piety in private that when someone does ask us about Jesus, we can feel a little tongue tied.
What should I say to the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Do I go for a history lesson? Do I put Jesus in the context of the bible and the geo-political realities of his day and talk about what he taught and what he said and how it related to the people of his own day and age?
If I do that, I begin to wonder if Jesus has anything to say to me, in the here and now?
Do I speak of Jesus as being a prophet in his own time like Elijah. He was doing battle with the opposing forces of this world, all those “ba’als” out there, the false gods.
Do I then make a tie into the “ba’al’s” of our own day– the false gods of greed, avarice, hatred, the demon of possessions and the apathy of those too long invested in maintaining institutions, holding to power, or keeping the status quo?
If I do that, do I make of Jesus then just a social worker? Someone who had concern for the poor, the downtrodden and rejected of his time and all the injustices and who then inspires me to have the same concerns in my time?
Do I speak of Jesus as a new Moses as Matthew did, portraying him as giving instructions to his followers, a new commandment to pattern your life after, leading them through the wilderness of Roman occupation toward a promised realm where God is a just leader and guide?
Does Jesus teach us still, and if so, what would be the take away in our world? Is it the same as Matthew’s words to a people living under Empire? Or have we become complicit with the very Empire against whom Jesus spoke?
Who is Jesus to me? To you?
This is the persistent question with which the ash upon forehead makes us wrestle.
It’s not as easy to answer as we might at first think because answering the question itself often reveals much more about ourselves than it does about the Jesus we profess.
Who I say that Jesus is will involve much more than my words, or my thoughts, or my actions.
It will also reveal my intentions, my inner most thoughts, my view of the world and my place within it. As one who has been claimed by God in the waters of Baptism and given the gift of everlasting life, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation…. does my life attest to that when it is observed by others?
Do I “look” like one who believes in and belongs to Jesus?
We feel the weight of what it means to belong to Jesus when we are reminded of the disciplines of Lent and are marked visibly with the Ash.
To follow Jesus is to be engaged in the things that Jesus did, and who was he? What did he do?
Well Jesus fasted, but as it turns out he also feasted. He was quite content to show up at weddings and at Pharisee’s houses and to enjoy a good foot massage as much as time away in a lonely place.
Jesus lived a life of self-examination, but he also could be boisterous, known to celebrate and not care what others thought. He plucked grain on the sabbath, thumbed his nose at religious practices of washing and observing proper protocol.
He prayed aloud, and he prayed in private, and scolded those who could not keep watch with him even one hour, but had lots of compassion on those who could not even put together a single coherent thought and who instead lived like a wild person among the tombs, or reached out to grab the hem of his garment looking for healing.
Jesus sacrificed personally, but also didn’t mind extravagance shown to him by others. He accepted the hospitality of Mary and Martha. He was known to do a little shore lunch from time to time when the mood struck him, and to produce prodigious amounts of wine from water.
Jesus certainly did works of love, but he also instructed those who followed him to do such things as well. “You feed them.”
He had compassion on people, but was also known to complain about others. After healing the 10 lepers he wondered what happened to the nine who didn’t say “thank you.” He always had time for the Pharisee’s questions, but warned against their “leaven” and criticized their tithing. He cleared the money changers out of the temple with a cord and turned over tables, but was also known to gather children on his lap and speak tenderly to the grieving.
Jesus was and is (in other words) a complex character.
If you are going to try to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” you’re going to discover that the answer is a far more complex one than with which we are comfortable.
We’d like it simple.
We’d like it consistent.
We’d like Jesus to be one whom we can categorize and characterize and finally “pin down” definitively, because that would give us a standard by which we could measure our own actions and proclaim, “This is who Jesus is, and I am completely consistent with all his expectations.”
But it appears that God is on to us in that department.
God knows that if we could pin God’s Son down to a few consistent behaviors or expectations, we’d find a way to weasel out of them, or say “well, close enough” and leave it at that.
And so, God makes of God’s own Son, (makes of Jesus,) this complex character with whom we have to continue to wrestle and dance our whole life long.
It’s not that we can’t tell you who Jesus is, it’s that Jesus keeps widening the circles on us, always staying one step ahead of us, and urging us on just a little bit further.
“Come just a little further into my love.” Jesus seems to say.
“Come just a little further into my compassion, for it is the compassion of God.”
“Take just one more step into my realm, God’s Kingdom or sphere of influence here, one step further into God’s limitless love, one step further into God’s ability to forgive on display in my actions, just a bit further….”
Who is Jesus? To you? To me? He is the one just outside our reach who keeps extending his hand to us.
We know, we trust, he’ll catch us if we fall.
But we also know he won’t stop making us stretch.
And so, this night there will be one more reach, a hand extended with ash upon the fingertip to mark you on the spot where the oil anointed you and you were first claimed by God in baptism.
Who is Jesus? He’s the one who never stops reaching, and marking, and reminding us who we are. Dust, but God’s own dust and beloved.