Continuing the series that the 8 conservative churches have laid out for us in Fountain Hills Arizona, I want to, as a progressive Christian, explore the flip side of their claim : Why is it important that Jesus was a human being like you and me? I want to do this because I don’t think it is possible to talk about God in Jesus, or even God in us, apart from one’s humanity and the connections we have with one another.
In this I want to start with the passage from Philippians chapter 2:5-8
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
As a template for thinking about Jesus this is not a bad place to start. And what struck me is that in the various sermons given against progressive Christianity last Sunday, this passage somehow escaped notice or mention. That is unfortunate because I think it gives us a good reason on why it is important that Jesus was human.
1) We can be like Jesus. The first line in this passage is worth highlighting, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. This is possible because of the passages that follow: Jesus emptied himself, being born in human likeness.
In all the sermons I came across, Jesus was a God man, who did supernatural acts, nobody else can do. He was uniquely God and this vouchsafed the claims of Christianity. He was unlike anybody else. And the result is you should worship and follow him. But follow is an odd term for a character that no one else can be.
You can worship such a character but you cannot follow him. Aristotle notes in the Ethics that we cannot be friends with God. Friendship indicate equality which we cannot have with God.And yet Jesus declares himself a friend to his disciples, to those who follow him. That suggests a kind of equality that is had which is different from all the attempts to separate Jesus and humanity.
2) Jesus shares the human experience. It is not enough to have true words or wisdom from on high. We rarely can hear or take in such a thing. But when we relate to a friend, who has experienced similar events in their life, there is a kind of solidarity which is had. And we become open to their ideas as a result.
A God man or one merely pretending to be human, is not someone who experiences frustration, anger, love, loss, physical ailments, relationships with each other, the joys and pains of growing up. There is a fun meme which places people in authority sitting on a toilet. It humanizes them, makes them like us, reminds us that whatever claims they make for themselves, they are human like us.
But in comparison to some self appointed authority figures we have this passage from Philippians: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, So the point wasn’t Jesus at all or these other role models, it is how they related to others. Jesus pointing to himself would defeat the point of his ministry.
3) Relationships Matter. To be human means that we are constituted by our relationships with each other. Parents matter, life events matter, family and friends, our religious communities, they help constitute us. If Jesus is human then all those relationships matter to him as well and helped make him the person he was.
And that means how he related to those around him matter. If one looks at Q or the Gospel of Thomas, all we have are the sayings of Jesus.The wisdom of the four gospels is that we have stories. Stories of Jesus relating to family, friends, enemies, women, children, different religious communities, the Romans. I think we have such stories because what mattered was not just was said but how it was said, and to whom. The context of relationships is as much the teaching as the teachings themselves.
4) God is revealed in our humanity. If God is what acts to save and transform us, if it is that reality which sustains us, allows us to grow, connect, and love one another, then we can only come to see God in Jesus because of his humanity, not because he was a supernatural agent on a stealth mission.
His relationships, his friendships, his social context, his sharing our lot become a way of learning about God. When I listened to the conservative churches account of Jesus, it was not clear to me how such a God man could save us or relate to us. How we might sing songs like “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” as a response.
All I could see is how such a Jesus can be worshiped and obeyed. How he could command allegiance and demonstrate power over and against us. But such a figure cannot save us. Relationships save us. Friendships save us. Love saves us. And that happens in and through one another. When Jesus shares in that and in the life of our world, then we encounter God and that which saves us.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma