God at the Movies: Jesus, Son of God

Isaiah 42:1-4; 53:1-6
Matthew 16:13-23

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

One of the things I enjoyed about our trip to Turkey was to visit the places that where key events took place in the life of the church. A PBS special called Turkey the other holy land… which it is. Not only is it the country where we find many of the churches mentioned in the New Testament… and in the letters… After Constantine converted, it was actually the center of the Christian church… before Rome.

When Constantine became a Christian… he faced… the church faced a problem. For about 300 years there were churches scattered all over their world… and not everyone agreed on everything. (Glad we are over that!) Most important, they were struggling to come to a consensus about a very important question: Who is Jesus Christ? God or Human… How is Jesus related to God? – Is Jesus God or less than God? There were many answers circulating to those basic questions. Similar to what I hear in conversations today.

So, in almost a Presbyterian like way… councils of Christian leaders were convened to make some decisive statements. Starting in 325 in a town called Nicea— they debated who Jesus was. Today’s affirmation of faith comes to us as a result of their work. But for years… I mean more than a 100 years or more… the debates continued and they kept meeting in places like Constantinople (Istanbul)… Ephesus… Chalcedon (on the Asian side of Istanbul)… all to answer the most central question of faith:

Who is Jesus? Is Jesus the Son of God? And if so, What does that mean?

If you think our debates caused division… you should have been at one of those meetings! People were branded heretics and the debates continued. Some would say they still continue to this day.

We are still trying to understand who Jesus is for us in our time and place.

One of the ways we have been carrying on that discussion since the 20th century is through the medium of movies. The latest film about Jesus at the movies was last winter’s movie, “Jesus: Son of God” , a shortened version of the 10 hour miniseries on The Bible. It was another in a very long, long line of movies about Jesus.

The first film about Jesus appeared in 1902 – a series of short tableaux illustrating scene from the Gospels. Then in 1927 came Cecil B DeMille’s, the King of Kings—a big hit… so bit that Hollywood would not make another movie about Jesus until the 1960s. And then, the movies began rolling out. The Greatest Story Ever Told came out in 1965.

But the movies that most influenced me came out in the 70s. There was Godspell, based on the theatrical production. I learned about the foolishness of Christ in the eyes of the world… and the conflict with our values… I learned about discipleship (songs like “Day by Day”) and was moved by the tragedy of his death and the ending, “Long live God”.

Around the same time came out Jesus Christ Superstar—a rock version of his story. It drew me into the pathos of his story and the agony of Judas and our cluelessness of who Jesus was. We saw Jesus struggle with his own humanity.

Which was rare in the movies or in the way we talked about Jesus in the church.

Jesus may have walked on water, but few of us remember him shedding a tear or struggling with his call… He was too divine for that in many of the movies.

As one commentator noted, a problem with most depictions of Jesus in modern film is that Jesus doesn’t blink. He is more swami than person. One exception is the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar… where we see the divine son of God live out the reality of a human life with all of our struggles and limitations. I found that to be true and was drawn to the humanity of Jesus who knew something of my struggles.

During the same period there was that great mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth” that was the first film to give me insight into the culture and practices that inform the Jesus story. You see the connection between Jesus and his Jewish culture and traditions.

And so the movies have kept coming… one a sacrilegious like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and one almost too hard to watch, like Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ”—Now we have the latest installment: Jesus: Son of God.

All perhaps leaving movie goers with the same question people must have asked themselves about Jesus in his day. Just who is this Jesus of Nazareth?

In today’s text, after watching him for months or years… you know the crowds were wondering… Jesus himself raises the same question which appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. He is talking with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi and asks”Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In other words who does the world say he is? And the answers are not that surprising…

As the disciples had mingled among the crowds and listened to their opinions, the report was divided. Not everyone thought the same thing about Jesus.

(Surprise?! Ask anyone in this congregation about who I am and you’ll find a division of opinion!) So no surprise people had different opinions about Jesus.

They report to Jesus that some thought he was John the Baptist—the fearless and bold prophet whom Herod had martyred come back to life; others thought he was Elijah—the most popular of the prophets known for his courage; others thought he was Jeremiah, known for his tenderness and for his boldness.

Others mentioned other older prophets.

It seems no one in the crowds saw in Jesus a Messiah. Of course what they did see (and what is interesting to me) was not Jesus meek and mild, an ascetic – a pushover… No, the Jesus they describe when they compare him to John, Elijah, Jeremiah and the prophets—was someone who was rugged, bold, aggressive—a person of deep faith who was fearless and bold.

And if Jesus were to come and ask the same question of people today—“Who do people say that I am?” You’d get a wide variety of answers.

Some might say, he was a good and loving person—who once lived and taught us good lessons to live by. Too bad we don’t actually follow his teachings or example very well. But they are good lessons!

People would describe him as a teacher, an example and a great religious figure from the past… in the line of Buddha… Mohammed…

Some might say what a nice person he was… (“He was such a nice guy. Wasn’t he such a nice guy?! Never hurt a flea!)

If you were to ask people of other religions who he was… our Muslim friends would describe him as a prophet… but not the last prophet. Our Mormon friends would say he was a prophet and a savior… but not the last prophet… They would add Joseph Smith and his teachings in the Book of Mormon as the last word from God. We would disagree. We would say Jesus is the living and last word on God. Jesus is the one who gives us the clearest understanding of God.

So when asked, “Who do people say that Jesus is?” – The answers are varied… most very complimentary.

In the text, after hearing what “they” say about Jesus… Jesus turns to the disciples asking the same question in a very personal way. He wants to know what they, his closest followers and students think of him. As if to say, okay, I know what “they” think, but what do YOU think. “But who do you say that I am?”

And no surprise here, impetuous Peter jumps in, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”.

Right answer… until we discover that how Peter defines messiah and how Jesus defines messiah are not one and the same. Peter is thinking Jesus is the kind of Messiah to take over, take charge, anointed by God to be the next king or warrior to take over Israel and happy days will be there again! He will make sure things happen!

But it won’t take long to discover he is wrong about that. Jesus tells them that the messiah will be suffering and be killed before he is raised. He is more like the suffering servant Isaiah described… He is a servant leader… Unlike most leaders… he does not rule with love of power… but believes in the power of love… suffering love. Not what Peter was thinking.

But let’s give Peter a break. I mean really, it is a very hard question. If someone came up to you and asked, “Who do you say he is?”… wouldn’t that be hard?

The early church struggled to answer the question. The Gospels and the letters of the New Testament were partially written to explore the answer to the question, “Who do we say that he is?” The short answer was “Lord and Savior”… but that means different things to different people which is one reason we still have divisions in the church today.

To be fair, it is a very hard question to answer.Truth is, you can spend a lifetime trying to answer that question. Who of us have not spent our lifetime trying to figure out who Jesus is… and I doubt I will ever completely understand who he is. How could we?

I have known Sharon for over 35 years… day in and day out… and I know more of who she is than I did when we first met…but I would never say I know everything about Sharon… she is more complex than that… Shoot, I’m still trying to figure out who I am! So why do some people think they have Jesus all figured out? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to learn more… of course we should. Because I love Jesus… I want to learn more.

So over the years I’ve watched the movies who give some limited answers to the questions. I keep on reading and re-reading the gospels that tell me about what Jesus taught and what Jesus did… as a way to understand who he was… from those who knew him best…

Rather than simply listen to people like me… rather than only reading books about Jesus—how about going to the source: the Gospels! There is a novel idea. Or how about reading the letters of Paul with an eye toward his understanding of Jesus… most of those letters were written before the gospels. That would be a good place to start if you want to learn more about Jesus. Go to the source!

Then you might enter into conversations with others about who Jesus is for us today. Especially people of faith who tell me who Jesus is for them. When I listen to people of faith, here is what I learn about Jesus: People find in Jesus someone who is their rock and help in times of trouble… They find someone who has the authority to forgive us of sin and set us free from guilt… They find in Jesus a Lord… perhaps we would say a mentor today— someone who knows the heart of God and how to live as God intends… Some find in Jesus a judge… who challenges us… who will not let us be complacent with living the way we are living… who has a passion for justice…

Christians will say in Jesus we meet the living God… the one who most clearly reveals the heart of God… who corrects and clarifies all of our misunderstandings about God… the one who represents God…

We also see in Jesus the one who is our representative before God… the human one who knows our weakness, our struggles and can sympathize with us.

Who do we say he is? Short answer: Lord (mentor) and Savior? Long answer… to be discovered as we follow him…

In fact, I think it is when you follow him that you discover there is always more to be learned. Don’t ever think that you or me or anyone else ever has their understanding of Jesus “nailed down”… That we have defined him which means we can confine him. That is impossible. That is arrogant.

For we always have more to learn about Jesus… and the best way I know to learn is actually very simple: follow him… don’t study him… follow him… which is how Peter and the others learned… they followed him for 3 years learning who he was…

That’s what Albert Schweitzer was saying at a time when many scholars were looking for the historical Jesus. He offered his own critique of that quest… and ended his influential book with this famous quote:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship; and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

Shall we know Jesus through study, or thinking about him, or discussion, or speculation? (We might add, “Shall we know about Jesus by going to the movies?” ) No, says Schweitzer. ‘He comes to us as One unknown’; the way to know him is to follow him.

‘To those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship…’.

Then, we will discover what it means when we say he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God… our living, loving God.