Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Was Jesus Really Human?

by | Jan 7, 2024

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Meg Peery McLaughlin
Everyone’s Favorite Heresies: Was Jesus Really Human?
January 7, 2024
Psalm 139: 1-14 and Philippians 2: 5-11

Psalm 139: 1-14

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and night wraps itself around me,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

 

Before I read this text I want to tell you about its shape.
Philippians, chapter 2, is what scholars call the Christ Hymn.
It is a poem, a confession, a summary of who we understand Jesus to be.
And it is written as a chiasm.
In that word you hear the Greek letter for X, chi.
And if you think about that X shape, you’ll hear it in this text.
Chiasms are a literary structure that repeats itself in reverse order.
Kind of like a palindrome begins and ends with the same letters,
a chiasm begins and ends with the same thought.
If I understand the text, it is trying to tell us and show how
Jesus the Christ took on flesh, came down into human life,
and how Jesus Christ was raised up and lives and reigns as Lord above all.

 

Philippians 2: 5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
8     he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly
and gave him the name
that is above every other name,
10 so that at the name given to Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 

Sermon:

I read something this week that made me chuckle.
The question: What makes us human?
The answer referenced the task that pops up on computers
to make sure we are not robots.
What makes us human?
Selecting all images with traffic lights.

When we click the boxes that show all the bicycles or buses,
we prove that we are really human,
not just pretending to be.

In the 2nd Century, some Christians had a belief
that Jesus was just pretending to be human.
The church has called this choice, this heresy, Docetism.
Docetism comes from a Greek word which means “to appear” —
as in, Jesus only appeared to be human.
Christ’s humanity was an illusion.  In reality, he was actually only divine.

Their reasoning –
was that only the spiritual was good,
and matter was evil, and thus bodies were bad.

As I was working on this sermon,
I got a text from the organist at the first church I served
telling me she’d gotten a dog at Thanksgiving that she didn’t realize was pregnant.
I asked if she helped deliver the pups at home,
and she wrote: “while I would love to witness that,
it is probably a squelchier reality than my hard wood floors are made for.”

Docetism decided that bodies are just too
too imperfect, too frail, too messy,
too squelchy for God to inhabit.

So instead they said that
Jesus appeared human, but was really just a phantom.
Or they said that at Jesus baptism, a divine Spirit entered into him,
and remained with him to enable his powerful words and deeds,
but then departed before Jesus was crucified.

 

 

But to deny the humanity of Jesus,
is to deny the incarnation.

We believe in a God who became flesh,
who had human cells and bones and organs.
A God who experienced hunger pains, belly laughs,
the wet of tears, the rush of endorphins, the depletion of energy, all of it.

Over Christmas, at bedtime,
we’d ask the girls what song they’d like before sleep.
Caroline, without fail, would ask for “that verse.”
What that meant that was that she wanted Once in Royal David’s City,
but only verse three.

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern.
Day by day like us he grew.
He was little, weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feels for all our sadness.
And he shares in all our gladness.

On Thursday afternoon,
here in this sanctuary,
was a large collection of grieving tarheel hearts.
I stood before them as one of your pastor needing words to say.
And so I said God was there, is there, in the midst of the worst grief life can deal.

I told some very tall folk who folded themselves to get in these pews
that death does not get the final word. Life does.

The only reason I could say that
is because God lived a human life and died a human death.
That’s how God knows what it feels like to have a broken heart and a broken body.

If we deny Jesus’ humanity, we deny Easter, full power of the resurrection.

I suppose I could just sit down right now—
just name what a good thing it was
that church to which we belong
called this Docetism thing a heresy so we could keep Christmas and Easter.

I mean those are the two church days that count most,
(so much so that sometimes they are the only days Christians show up).

We are starting this new year with this sermon series,
Everybody’s Favorite Heresies
because these historic church arguments
over these theological quandaries
aren’t as distant,
aren’t as cerebral,
aren’t as hypothetical as you think.

Here you sit, church,
all these centuries later—not on high holy day. Just a regular ole Sunday.
Here you sit, perfectly still, I might add.
And at 8:30 as I said that, a baby was crying
and the mom sprinted out of the sanctuary in shame.

I wonder, do you fully trust that you are fearfully and wonderfully made,
just as you are right now with no New Years Resolution to “fix” you?
Do you fully claim that your faith cannot be lived apart from your body,
your body that God calls good, and very good,
your body can be trusted, it must be loved. Do you really know that?

Look at your hands:
at your cuticles ragged from anxious picking, your joints knobby from arthritis.
Do you still find it hard to believe that the
human body is where God has chosen to dwell?

Church, we are guilty of heresy every time we forget that bodies are holy.
When we when forget that bodies are holy,
what happens is not of God.

It is 11:00 on a Sunday morning— the most segregated hour in America–
the inevitable result of our refusal to see all bodies as holy.

As I was typing these words, a news alert flashed across my screen:
a school shooting in Des Moines.
The tally continues because we forget bodies are holy.

Docetism was deemed a heresy,
but whew, it’s a hard heresy to shake.

An early theologian named Irenaeus
wrote a lot to help rid us of it. He said.
“Jesus Christ became what we are,
that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.”
These words are sometimes paraphrased,
“God became man that we might become God.”
Now, before you think we’ve just quickly traded in one heresy for another,
what Irenaeus was getting at —
is the truth that when Jesus came to us,
we were brought before God in a new way.
When Jesus came to us,
we were meant to see God in a new way,
but we were also meant to see ourselves and others in a new way, too.

Because Jesus was both fully divine and fully human,
every single human body has divine fingerprints all over it.
And how we treat bodies,
both our own, and anyone else’s,
really and truly is
how we treat God.

In the spirit of our chiasm of a Scripture reading,
let me end where we began –
with the question “what makes us human?”

It’s not actually having intelligence enough to check all the boxes with pictures of fire hydrants.  It’s our ability to respect and care for every-body – every single body.

May we be obedient to such a sacred and squelchy calling. Amen.