Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is an exercise I undertake with confirmands during our session on the Creeds and Councils of the late-classical and early medieval church. It’s a sort of “straw poll” where I ask them to write down on a piece of paper whether they believe Jesus is more human than divine or vice versa. Usually the results are about fifty-fifty, though every time I’ve done this (about a dozen times now) at least one student is clever enough to realize this is a trick question. The point is really two-fold. Firstly, it is to show that while we believe Christ to be both fully human and fully divine, we seem to have a preternatural tendency to err to one side or the other. This, I hope, makes the Christological debates of the patristic era a little more understandable. Secondly, and more importantly, it is to begin to discuss why it is so incredibly important that regardless of that preternatural tendency, that we believe in Christ’s dual-nature. It has everything to do with how we appreciate the atonement, how Jesus’ death on the cross was, in fact, salutary. To put it as simply as I do to those confirmands, if Christ was not human it was no sacrifice at all (just a sort of gnostic play-acting like I suggested last week), and if he wasn’t God, then that straw-man I mentioned last week (where God could be reckoned capricious and vindictive) might not be a straw-man after all.

I’m not certain, but I suspect most of us are prone to this error for purely understandable reasons. Perhaps it has something to do with how we’re spiritually “wired”, as it were, or what issues we happen to be facing in life. Some may find it comforting to focus on Christ’s humanity to the detriment of his divinity because one is besieged by so many tragedies and temptations that they need to hold on to the image of the one who faced even worse but remained faithful to the last. Others may be prone to the converse emphasis because they need the reminder that Jesus is Lord of all and in his beneficent reign will make all things right because he has the power to do so.

I admit, I tend to fall into this latter category, so I’m grateful that our lesson from Hebrews this week focuses on Christ’s humanity. I need that reminder more than I need to be reminded of his divinity. Last week, you may recall, our lesson reminded us that Christ held “the stamp of divine nature”, that he was luminous with God’s Glory, that he upholds the universe by his word of power. This week we get the flip-side of the Christological coin:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Maybe I’m the outlier, here, but I tend not to think too much about Christ’s having been tempted, and I think this means I might be missing an important aspect of Jesus’ life. Yes, we hear the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert every year on the first Sunday in Lent. But beyond that, I at least don’t tend to carry that over to thinking about other times when our Lord must have been tempted as we are. We know of his agony in the garden, when he wished the cup to be taken from him, but its buried in those long passion gospels we hear during Holy Week, and we can easily skip over it.

When else must our Lord have been tempted? Perhaps his rebuke of Peter’s inability to accept Christ’s fated sacrifice was so strong, to the point of calling him Satan, because Peter was tempting him just as strongly as the devil had done in the desert. Perhaps our Lord retreated so often from the crowds who would have made him king, because he knew it would have been tempting to give into their requests. Perhaps his constant warnings to those whom he healed and exorcised about not spreading the word was because he knew he would be tempted as the miracle-workers and false messiahs before him to parlay this fame into some scheme to attain fame and wealth as they had done.

Back in 1988 there was quite a stir over the film The Last Temptation of Christ which eclipsed the controversy over its source material, a 1955 novel of the same name. Now, the movie will not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if you can’t get over Willem Dafoe as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate (yes you heard me right). So, I’m not recommending you go out and watch it. But it seems to me that those who were offended largely missed the point. While on the cross an angel (later revealed to be Satan) tells Jesus that he has done well, but that he is not the Messiah, that he has accomplished that for which he was sent, and takes him down from the cross. We then see scenes of Jesus marrying and having a family and living in peace to an old age. Finally, it is revealed that this is not really what happened, that Jesus was simply undergoing the devil’s last temptation of him. We return to the cross, where Christ has triumphed over this temptation, shouts “it is accomplished”, dies for humanity, and triumphant bells toll as the screen flickers to white (presumably a hint of the Resurrection to come).

Again, the movie is not for everybody, and some of its imagery is disturbing, but it seems to me that the overriding message is a good one. Christ was in every way tempted as we are, yet without sin. In the end he triumphed over every power which militated against the will of God, but he is the one who can sympathize with our weakness.

This may be a great comfort to many of us. For me, it is a source of conviction more than comfort. How often do I find myself saying something like “high standards of self-sacrifice are the ideal, but I am not Jesus”, rightly recognizing Jesus’ perfection but ignoring his humanity to give myself permission not even to try to follow? How often do I read something like today’s Gospel, Christ’s warning about our relationship to money and skip ahead to “all things are possible with God”, skirting past the truth that it really would have been better for the rich man, and for me, to give it all away? How often have I read Christ’s command to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, realized its impossibility, and given myself leave to not even try?

That said, and despite what I believe to be the impossibility of achieving perfection this side of heaven, the process of sanctification, of approaching the fullness of humanity Jesus displayed despite his divinity, is possible thanks to the action of Christ as the Eternal Word. We heard this promise in the first part of today’s Epistle:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

The Fathers, Chrysostom and Augustine chief among them, understood this to mean a variety of true things all at the same time. (Some of you will remember sermons or lessons I’ve given here outlining the various levels on which scripture can speak simultaneously–the literal, typological, moral, and anagogical–and I won’t rehearse all that now.) Suffice to say there is a sense in which this relates to the separation of Law and Gospel, the division between covenants.

For our purposes, though, the important distinction is between soul and spirit, that is between earthly concerns and heavenly ones. It is an intentionally violent image, the two-edged sword of Christ’s nature severing that which may distract us from our calling, because that process can be a painful one. But the perfect man has shown how iron sharpens iron; how our souls are placed in the crucible of temporal concerns to gain eternal value; how in being cleft and wounded and laid open before the eyes of God with all our imperfections we are, in a holy irony, made whole and worthy of drawing near the throne of grace with confidence.

And here we find our comfort in Jesus the human having gone before us as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Here we find that the Lord was not fibbing when he created us and said it was very good. Yes, we have fallen. Yes, we have inherited the stain of Adam’s sin and a debt which we cannot repay. But our having been redeemed on the Cross and our having been forgiven and sealed as Christ’s own in Baptism we have a chance to follow in faith where he has led the way. We are invited today again to approach the throne of Grace, to receive our Lord’s Body and Blood, his human soul and his divine substance. Let us come, as one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it, not only for solace but also for strength, not only for pardon but also for renewal.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.