Why Church? Summer Series
“Why Follow a First Century Rabbi?”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 11, 2023
The Christian Church follows a first century rabbi. Why?
We follow a first century rabbi because of who he is, because of who we are when we follow him, and because of the hope he provides for us and for all the world.
I follow a first century rabbi because he saved my life, because he is actively saving my life, because he will save my life in the future, and because he guides my words and decisions and actions every single day, every hour.
To be honest, I have been nervous about this summer worship series. These are important questions we are asking, relevant questions, questions that, if people take the answers to them seriously enough, lives will be changed, the community could be transformed.
This first question, in particular, is so personal, so close to the heart of my being, I am not sure that I can address it from any sort of broader, community perspective.
I have a lifetime of experience of trying to follow Jesus, a shelf of theology books about Jesus, and a couple of seminary degrees, but I will only scratch the surface, hit a few highlights, this morning of why I and the Church give our lives to follow Jesus of Nazareth.
I want you to know that this sermon series is not just for you, not just for our Sunday morning and our online congregation. In so many ways, we will be “preaching to the choir” in this series.
This worship series is for our broader community – for your family and friends and neighbors who are not here this morning, and who will not be joining us on the youtube channel, or in the sanctuary, at least not unless you and I invite them to do so. So this series of sermons is meant to be received by you and then passed along, to give you words to say, perhaps, or the encouragement to invite others to come to worship, or to worship with us online.
Let me begin by acknowledging that I feel very grateful for my early experiences in the Church. My experiences in the church, throughout my life, have been quite positive. This is certainly not true for everyone. Many have been hurt by the Church. I felt the love of Jesus, the providence of Jesus, the grace of Jesus Christ from my earliest days.
I learned the love of Jesus from good people of faith, from church people, from those early days when I heard Jesus stories in Vacation Bible School and in Sunday School and Children’s Chapel, when I sang in the children’s choir.
I realize that everyone has not had the same sort of positive experiences I had in church, whether as children or adults. I realize that the theology about Jesus taught in some churches is far, far different from the Jesus I know, from what I was taught by the words and deeds of my home congregation.
I do not even recognize the militaristic, nationalistic Jesus that is taught in some churches. I am very grateful for the people who taught me about Jesus of Nazareth. They were not perfect, but they were loving and caring people, and they didn’t just care for me and for my rowdy friends, they also cared for their community, and for the world. And they cared for those international college and graduate students, mostly non-Christian, who would stay in our church building every year during the Christmas break because their dorms would close and they had nowhere to go for the holidays.
I learned the Bible stories about Jesus in my home church. I learned that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the lame. I learned that Jesus touched the leper and welcomed the outcast.
I learned that Jesus called tax collectors and fishermen to follow him, to be his closest disciples.
I learned that Jesus respected women and welcomed children and challenged sternly those in power about real problems with the status quo.
I was taught that Jesus was the Savior of the world and tried to understand what that meant, and, over time, I began to understand what it meant to say that Jesus was my Savior. He saved me. He saved me from sin. He saved me from myself. He saved me from going down destructive pathways.
He saved me with his loving forgiveness when I went astray. At my confirmation in 1977, I stood in front of my home congregation and claimed, Jesus is my Lord and Savior. Jesus was, is, and will be my Lord, the one whom I follow, the one who provides for me, the one who leads me, the One from whom I receive my deepest identity as a human being.
I am a husband, I am a father, I am a pastor.
As many will say, I am a southerner, by the grace of God.
I am a college graduate and a former CPA. I am a world traveler.
I am a soccer fan and, believe it or not, still a soccer player,
But none of those things define me so clearly as the heartfelt realization that, first and foremost, I am a child of God and I am a “wanna-be” disciple of Jesus Christ.
I say “wanna-be” because I know how challenging it is to walk in the pathways of Jesus. I know how difficult it is to love as he loved. I know how unlikely I am to offer myself as he offered himself for the sake of the world. I know how often I have failed him and lived for myself alone. I know how many times I have been forgiven, and renewed, and restored, and given a new lease on life.
In the gospel of John, chapter 6, Jesus’ teachings were becoming more poignant, more personal. A large number of people had been following him, but many were beginning to fall away. When they heard him talk about how he was the bread of life, and when they ate of him, they would never hunger again, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him,
‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
We have come to believe and to know that He has the words of eternal life, that He is the Holy One of God. To whom else could we go?
During the pandemic, one of my friends who is a college professor was in deep despair. It was a difficult time for many. Tens of thousands were dying from covid. Tens of thousands were dying from gun violence. Tens of thousands were dying by suicide. There were protests going on about the death of George Floyd and many others. There were deep divisions and ever-present fear within the country and the world.
Marriages and families were falling apart right and left. It felt like the whole world, and especially human relationships, were spiraling out of control. And my friend was worried about his children and their futures, as we all do from time to time. He asked me what was giving me hope. All I could think of at the time was Psalm 146, a prayer of hope in the midst of distress. Psalm 146 declares:
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Jesus of Nazareth, that first century rabbi, embodied this psalm. To whom else could we go? The rest are just mortals whose plans will perish. Do not put your trust in princes, in politicians, in popular pundits, in people of earthly means. Their plans will perish. They offer no eternal help. The Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, that first century rabbi, offered the world the words and the actions and the sacrifice which will lead us to eternal life.
In retrospect, years after Jesus had died and had been raised, and had been experienced in the gatherings of his followers, they realized more and more that he was not just a first century rabbi.
They came to understand him as the Son of God, the Promised One, the Holy One of Israel. They called him the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega. They shared his teachings and told of his healings and proclaimed his resurrection, and their numbers grew. They grew beyond political borders.
They grew despite differences of language and culture. The church spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Even under extreme persecution and oppression and even martyrdom, their numbers grew. The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. People were dying for the sake of his message, his message of love and acceptance and forgiveness which he proclaimed. And thankfully, they wrote down what they believed, what they experienced, what they had come to know from Jesus of Nazareth.
The Spirit of Jesus, the eternal logos of God, was and is still very much at work in the world. The Holy Spirit is at work far beyond Israel, far beyond the church and its many denominations. Wherever compassion overcomes apathy, wherever love overwhelms hate, wherever hopefulness trumps despair, wherever truth sheds light on falsehood, there the Spirit of Jesus is at work.
Wherever the lame are healed, wherever the deaf begin to hear, wherever young girls are offered equal education, wherever addicts discover freedom from their addictions, wherever the homeless poor find shelter from the storm, wherever the blind begin to see, and yes, wherever the dead are raised to new life, there Jesus and his people are at work.
The Christian Church follows Jesus because of who he is and what he does. We follow Jesus of Nazareth because of who we are when we follow him. We follow Jesus of Nazareth because he provides hope for us and for all the whole world, both in this life and beyond.
In 1926, Dr. James Allan Francis compiled a book of sermons titled “The Real Jesus and Other Sermons.” The following words come from one of those sermons titled “One Solitary Life”.
One Solitary Life
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in still another village, where He worked in a carpenter shop until He was 30.
Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house.
He didn’t go to college. He never traveled more than 200 miles from the place He was born.
He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness.
He had no credentials but Himself.
He was only 33 when public opinion turned against Him.
His friends deserted Him.
He was turned over to His enemies and went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.
When He was dying, His executioners gambled for His clothing,
the only property He had on earth.
When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today He is the central figure of the human race, the leader of humankind’s progress.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of humankind on earth as much as that One Solitary Life.
Some sixty years after his death and resurrection, the Johannine community was worshiping Jesus. The gospel of John came from within that community of early believers, and these are the words they shared in reflection upon his life.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church