Sunday, February 25, 2018

February 25, 2018
The Second Sunday in Lent
(Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38)
One of the latest trends among the misnamed "slacker generation" is the growth of "extreme sports." Any sport, any activity, it seems, is better if taken to some new "extreme." Snowboarding is great; air-boarding (riding your snow-board down to earth after jumping out of an airplane) is extremely better. Mountain-biking, roller blading, skiing--everything is being taken to new, more daring extremes.

Of course, the only place most of us ever see the performances of these "extreme athletes" is from the depths of the lounge chair, safely parked in front of the TV. We watch these "crazy kids," shake our heads and preach about what ridiculous risks they are taking just to have fun. Just look back at the winter Olympics this year and see how medals went out to snow-boarders!

But do you know who's really taking the biggest risk? The most risk-laden recreational sports in the world today are the "armchair Olympics" or the "couch-potato championships." While we just sit there watching "extreme athletes," our own blood pressure slowly rises; cholesterol starts piling up in our arteries; internalized stress mounts; our lungs take wimpy, inefficient breaths; and our muscle tone deteriorates.

Contrast that with the "crazy athlete." While apparently risking life and limb, the extreme athlete keeps his or her body fit, stress levels are lowered and there is that euphoric, endorphic rush that just generally makes us feel good. In the long run, hurtling through the air may be a lot less risky than sitting there in a chair!
The church, too, is increasingly being tempted to take a safe, armchair attitude. We are just now waking up to the fact that secular society in the early 21st century isn't only not church-friendly; it isn't even church-broken! In fact, the church as a witnessing body of Christ is finding itself insidiously undermined on nearly every social, economic and political front by those who claim the old labels "conservative" and "liberal" alike. Instead of facing up to this extreme situation and extreme threat, we've generally responded by "playing it safe"-- a kind of "let's- go-along-to-get-along" attitude. More and more Christians in the public square are finding themselves engaged in rear-guard apologetics instead of front-line proclamation.

Why is it we feel we must somehow "protect" God from attacks launched by this post-Christendom culture? If God is so wimpy that the divine reputation is dependent upon an out-of-shape, overweight, soft-in-the-belly church for protection and defense, then we really are in trouble.

Christians need to stop worrying about protecting God's good reputation and instead start taking a few risks for the sake of the gospel. Guess what? We really do have a big-enough God to deal with whatever human sinfulness may try to dish out.

--We have a big-enough God to reach through the Internet.
--We have a big-enough God to break through cynicism.
--We have a big-enough God to push through the barriers of race, nation and culture.
--We have a big-enough God to wade through hatred, despair and anxiety.
--We have a big-enough God to fly through the vastness of the universe.
--We have a big-enough God to enter through the expanding possibilities in medicine and science.

Feminist theologian/novelist/Roman Catholic convert/pastor's wife Sara Maitland has written wittily about our overprotectiveness of the divine reputation. In her collection of essays, she tells a story that illustrates how ridiculously petty our concerns have become. Here is one essay as an example:

A few years ago, just a day or so after York Minster was struck by lightning, I was on my way to the local post office near my home, which is in a wretchedly poor part of Hackney, when I met an elderly woman. She was most distressed by this bolt from the heavens, this "act of God" as the insurance people call it (which alone gives you pause for thought). She was very upset. Did I think, she asked, that God had done it on purpose, as some newspapers were speculating? The post was about to leave, and I was in a hurry, but how can anyone resist such a subject? No, I said, I didn't really think so, did she? No, she said, she didn't really think that God was like that. There was a pause, and I was poised to escape. Then she added, in what I can only describe as a tone of affectionate criticism, "But he should have been more careful; he should have known there'd be talk."

God really is big enough to take the heat.

When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he finally took a leap of faith, a genuine risk. He quit being an "armchair disciple," and for just a moment became an airborne "extreme disciple", risking everything for the thrill of claiming Jesus as Messiah totally and completely. But when Jesus followed Peter's big risk by revealing the God-sized risk He himself would undertake, Peter lost his nerve.

Peter had come to recognize Jesus as Messiah as a result of the "glory days" and good times of Jesus' Galilean ministry. Peter couldn't believe that his newly confessed Messiah was "big enough" to embrace the ignominy and defeat, the suffering and ridicule, the torture and death that Jesus predicted were to come. Peter thought he had to protect Jesus from this future, shield him from exposing the divine reputation to such a high-level risk. Despite his confession of faith, Peter's concept of the Messiah, his understanding of God's power and purpose, wasn't "big enough."

God took the biggest risk in all of history when God created men and women and gave us the freedom to choose or reject a relationship with our Creator. This divine risk was so huge that eventually it necessitated another God-ordained gamble--a crucified Christ. Jesus incarnated God's risk-taking love for humanity by offering us a new way back to the wholeness God intended for creation.

Peter's worries were ridiculous. With God's help, Jesus was big enough to shoulder the cross, big enough to bear the suffering of the world, big enough to endure the scorn and rejection, big enough to accept the judgment of death. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, was big enough to endure all this, to take this ultimate risk because he knew first-hand a God who was big enough--big enough to break through the hate with love, big enough to relieve the suffering forever, big enough to roll away the rock at the tomb's entrance, big enough to break the bonds of death itself and big enough to bring about the glory of the Resurrection.

Jesus' first formal lesson on discipleship taught that there was no risk we can take that is so great it could ever separate us from God's redemption and God's love. Our greatest risk, Jesus cautioned, comes when we try to "play it safe" and avoid any risk-taking ventures--"those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Jesus wants us to be "extreme Christians." The body of Christ must become the "extreme church." We have a big- enough God, a big-enough Savior, to handle whatever risks may emerge from our extreme behavior. We have a God who risked loving us beyond all else.
Let us pray.
The whole world; that our days may truly become the acceptable time of grace, salvation, and peace. We pray to the Lord.
For sinners and the neglectful; that in this season of reconciliation they may return to Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That this season of Lent will be a time of deeper conversion for our parish and all churches. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are downhearted or are burdened with difficulties; that they may experience a transfiguring power of God. We pray to the Lord.
That terrorism and violence will be seen as a great evil and that all will work harder to curb all these senseless deaths. We pray to the Lord.
For the sick, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless, the unemployed, and the depressed; that the Lord will lift them up and give them strength and bring miraculous blessings to their lives. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, You did not spare Your own Son but handed Him over for us. We trust that You will always give us what we need. Keep us true to You. Redeemer Lord, as we prepare to celebrate the great mystery of Your dying and rising, send Your Holy Spirit to guide us this Lent. May we be led to a spirit of true repentance for our sins and failures, and gain a grateful appreciation for the gifts of salvation. May we forgive as we have been forgiven, love as we have been loved and serve as we have been served. May we trust in You at all times, confident that in Your mercy You have willed the redemption of the whole world. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

February 18, 2018
First Sunday in Lent
(1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15)
Say the words “Big Wheel” or “Schwinn Stingray” to just about anyone over 40 and they will likely pull back some thinning hair to show you a scar and tell you a story — a story that usually involves participating in some variation of a copycat Evel Knievel stunt involving cinder blocks, plywood, a hill, pavement and a trip to the emergency room. For many baby boomers, getting a few stitches in the scalp was a childhood rite of passage. My brother got stiches on his head due to tobogganing down a hill during winter in a cemetery. Headstones tend to not move.

Now that the boomers are parents, though, there’s no way they’d let their offspring be so scarred and scared by the ER doc and his needle (or worse). Many of the kids in the neighborhood are now fully helmeted, padded and protected by increasingly more high-tech and specialized safety equipment — whether they are riding their bikes or scooters or skateboards. Oh, and the formerly fearless boomers are wearing them, too — now realizing that their own bones and skulls are more fragile and are just one bad pothole away from being irreparably cracked.

And it’s not just bicycle riders who sport these multicolored brain buckets. Now there’s a helmet for just about every activity you can think of. An ever-increasing number of people are sporting helmets on the slopes — as much as 50 percent of the skiers and riders at some resorts. It makes sense to have on a helmet when you’re bombing down the mountain, though they’re probably more effective at staving off bumps and bruises than keeping you alive if, say, you have a run-in with a tree at high speed. (That would definitely be what would happen to me!)

Helmets are hip — even with teenagers, including the Tantrum Audex, a helmet with integrated headphones for snowboarders to listen to their iPods while thrashing some powder. Some models even incorporate a cell phone, though one wonders whether talking on one when skiing is even more dangerous than driving with one.

And it doesn’t stop there. Once mom piles the kids into the minivan, the day is coming when the kiddos will switch to another kind of helmet. The government has been reviewing a patent for a child-sized car helmet.

Wearing proper protection to keep your head together makes good sense. But what kind of protection do you use to guard your spirit when tempted to take some ill-advised risks? What kind of holy helmet is best?

The temptation narratives in the Gospels give us a clue as Jesus, venturing out on His own to begin His ministry, heads into the wilderness to engage in some extreme spiritual sports competition with Satan. Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, which is kind of a Reader’s Digest version of the story, gives us the sense that Jesus was prepared to take on the challenge, knowing that His thoughts and His spirit were protected.

As the passage opens, we find Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by His cousin, John. And though we do not see this in this Gospel narrative, we know from the others that a voice from heaven breaks through the sound of the rushing water and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. “You are my son, the Beloved,” says the voice; “with you I am well pleased.”

God, the Father, is the one who gives Jesus His identity, marking Him as someone special, someone who has God’s favor. In a very real sense, Jesus begins His ministry equipped and protected with nothing less than the full love of a divine parent. A child who is loved is more likely to take care of himself because parents express their love freely. They’ll put on the helmet at the parents’ request (usually) before jumping on the bike because they know that the folks have their best interests and safety at heart. Jesus goes forth into the wilderness with a similar feeling — knowing in a powerful way that He is loved.

As we go out into a world fraught with temptations and potential pitfalls, our first line of defense is to know that God loves us, too. That we are “beloved” because of God’s grace. The knowledge and experience, forged through the day to day relationship we walk in with God, are better predictors of heart, mind and soul protection than any high tech headwear. When we know that God cares for us, we can move out smartly to take on the bumps and jumps the day throws at us.
Mark doesn’t expound much on the temptations that Jesus faced out in the wilderness, but Matthew and Luke do. Foundationally fitted with God’s love, Jesus is able to switch helmets effectively to protect Himself against the tempter. Like a bullying kid standing at the base of a plywood ramp, Satan double-dog dares Jesus to do something risky. Using Scripture as a biblical brain bucket, Jesus doesn’t take the leap.

Satan says, “Satisfy your hunger and turn these stones to bread.” Jesus puts on the shell of self-denial, recognizing that everything comes from God and that God provides.

They go to the pinnacle of the temple. “Jump off,” says the bully, “and land unharmed. If you’re so great, God will protect you.” Jesus tightens the strap on the “skid lid” of common sense and knows that people who have real power don’t need to show it off or use it to suit their own ends.

Then there’s the big one — “All the kingdoms of the world can be yours,” says Satan, “if you’ll only worship me.” Jesus buckles on the helmet of humility and says that God is the only one worth serving.

Knowing who He was, what He was about, and what He had to do to accomplish his mission kept Jesus’ mind guarded and heart protected, not only in this wilderness temptation, but throughout His ministry and, ultimately, on the cross where He would again be dared to “come down” and do what a messiah was supposed to do.

Experiencing God’s love, knowing our Scriptures, and following Jesus’ example are probably the best ways to be spiritually protected as we roll through our days.

Lent is like a helmet for us. It helps us to get into a frame of mind of protecting ourselves from various temptations by fasting from them. Fasting doesn’t necessarily need to be fasting from food; maybe it is fasting from television once or twice a week; or fasting from technology on the weekends. Any number of things can be your fast. And these fasts will be your helmet to protect you from something that needs curbing. Whatever it may be, by putting on a Christian fast will always bring some good and definitely some grace from God.
Let me leave you with a Rule For Lent written by the late Arthur Lichtenberger, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, 1958-1964.
“Fast from criticism, and feast on praise.
Fast from self-pity, and feast on joy.
Fast from ill-temper, and feast on peace.
Fast from resentment, and feast on contentment.
Fast from jealousy, and feast on love.
Fast from pride, and feast on humility.
Fast from selfishness, and feast on service.
Fast from fear, and feast on faith.”
Let us pray.
That this season of Lent will be a time of greater prayer and fervent devotion for us and for all of the Church. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That these days of Lent will be marked by earnest efforts at peacemaking throughout the world. We pray to the Lord.
That we will be generous in our almsgiving this Lent, and attentive to the poor. We pray to the Lord.
That this Lent we will be faithful to fasting and to all the ways that the Lord sanctifies us. We pray to the Lord.
That God will rescue all those who live at a distance from Him due to self-absorption or sin. We pray to the Lord.
That this Lent, the Church will bear witness to the Gospel message of God’s love to those who live in material, moral, and spiritual destitution. We pray to the Lord.
That the 17 lives lost in the Florida shooting this past week, may rest in peace eternal in the bosom of God’s love. And that the family and friends and colleagues left behind; that the Holy Spirit will comfort them in their great time of sorrow. We pray to the Lord.
That senseless murders and terrorist attacks be stopped. That all peoples who are aware of any indications of any individual or individuals that plan to perpetrate these killings, that may help to bring those people to justice and save lives. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, at all times let us bless You as we ask You to make our paths straight and to grant success to our endeavors and plans. And that, You, Lord Jesus, in Your most difficult hour, You asked Your friends to watch and pray with You. We pray now for the courage to remain faithful to You, surrounded as we are by the difficulties of our own lives. Help us to learn from You what it means to take up our cross each day and to seek the will of the Father. As our Lenten prayers and actions bring us closer to You, open our eyes to the gift of Your saving grace in our lives. We ask all these things in your most holy name. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

February 11, 2018
(2 Peter 1:16-21; Mark 2:23-28)
On March 4th, actors will speak and the world will listen -- or yawn, laugh or scoff.

The Academy Awards, or the Oscars, as it's more commonly called, is the biggest night in Hollywood. It's also one of the most widely-watched events on television with more than 40 million tuning in annually to watch the world's wealthiest people, most handsome actors and actresses and our finest directors give themselves awards.

Ask anyone who tunes in faithfully to each year's telecast why they watch the event, and they'll give you a host of reasons. There's the red carpet glamour, taking note of which beautiful outfit is worn by which beautiful person. There's the opening number, wondering if this year's host will fall flat on his or her face or become the next Bob Hope or Billy Crystal.

And, of course, there's the drama of the unexpected winners and the unpredictable acceptance speech.

To receive an Oscar in many ways is a cultural anointing. To win is to be instantly inducted into the ultimate Hollywood elite -- to grab an honor that has escaped even some of the world's most recognizable talents. But when an obscure actor surprisingly wins an Oscar, his or her life is instantly changed, and the full glow of Hollywood immediately rains upon him or her. In that moment the attention shifts to what he or she will say upon being welcomed into the ultimate clique of the cool and talented.

There's no telling who will win, or what they'll say. But one thing is for sure -- one thing that all of us watching at home are thinking: They must cherish this moment while it lasts, because even an anointing into the coolest club in Hollywood is no guarantee of perpetual relevance and enduring respect. Tinseltown is littered with cautionary tales of one-hit wonders who hoisted a golden statue only to have their bright lights fade behind them.

Peter, in today's text, is writing to Christians who had their doubts -- doubts about whether this resurrected Jesus upon whom they had pinned all their hope was truly special, or if his moment was over, and his light was fading. As time passed from Christ's resurrection and ascension, as persecution intensified and as the young church became dispersed and disconnected, it's understandable that some would begin to wonder if Jesus really was the biggest star that had ever shone. How much of the stories they shared about His deity and His power was truly fact, and how much was legend? How much of their reliance upon His imminent return was inflated? Can we really trust what He had to say?

Peter's response is to assure his audience of Jesus' lasting star power, of His genuine divinity and of the enduring impact of the Scriptures. To do so, he points back to the transfiguration, the moment Jesus first fully took the stage. At the top of that high mountain, Peter, James and John witnessed the bright lights of heaven shining down on Jesus, Moses and Elijah making an appearance, and the very voice of God saying, "This is my Son. Listen to Him."

For Peter, there are two things that set this moment apart from any other so-called divine experience that your run-of-the-mill wannabe messiah or overachieving rabbi might have. To take the Oscars analogy further, there's no chance that Jesus was some fly-by-night star who grabbed a golden statue for "Best Supporting Actor." No, this is the lifetime achievement Oscar -- the biggest of the biggest forms of recognition.

First, think of who presented it. Jesus didn't make this declaration of Himself, nor was it bestowed upon Him by the latest Hollywood starlet who struggled to pronounce His name and speak into the microphone. No, this recognition was given by God -- the biggest of stars -- publicly declaring this Man to also be the biggest and brightest of stars. Think about it: They don't drag out De Niro to hand out an award to just anybody.

Second, one must consider the body of work that brought Christ to this platform. Standing on the mountain with Him were Moses and Elijah -- two men whose lives and words sat at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. Their presence was a not-so-subtle way of saying that their work was really Christ's work in disguise; that all they did was really a foretaste, a preamble and a placeholder for what this Man would accomplish. This recognition wasn't based on one good movie -- one great miracle or a couple incredible sermons. This proclamation of Christ's divinity and of His emerging kingdom which quickly spread around the world was based on the body of work that God had been doing since the beginning of time. Jesus, it turns out, was co-writer, executive producer and star of the greatest story ever told.

For Peter the implications are clear. If the Transfiguration really took place, which Peter as an eyewitness is staking his life on, then despite persecution, despite false teachers and despite a kingdom that's seen in part but still longed for in full, this Christ is worth hitching your hope to. He cannot fail us. Likewise, His truth -- both captured in what would be known as the Old Testament, and proclaimed among His first-century hearers in what would become the New Testament -- is absolutely trustworthy. After all, when someone rises from the dead, you believe what He tells you. You trust Him. And when the most respected religious figures in history come back from the dead to say the same the thing, you really, really trust Jesus and what He has to say.

But Peter goes even further. He refers to this truth of Christ, this "prophetic word," as more than a revelation in the past that we can trust today. He speaks of it in the present tense, as an active reality in our lives: a lamp currently, actively "shining in a dark place." Think of it like this: It's as if the moment Jesus stepped onto the stage to receive His rightful due as the beloved Son of God, He began his acceptance speech. But He's never stopped. His message is still meaningful, His truth is still tweeting and Jesus is still speaking. Sure, He's long since left the mountain, but, like a good classic movie that never, ever gets old, His words are still echoing, still reaching, still relevant and still cutting a streak of light into our world of darkness.

The message of Christ is alive and well, trustworthy and divine. And the reason it was important for Peter's audience to grasp this, so important for us to lay hold of, is because His words bring immeasurable and much-needed blessing.

At the 2013 Academy Awards every nominee received a gift bag. But this was not your run-of-the-mill gift bag. Each gift bag was filled with swag worth more than $47,000. It included everything from a luxury Australian vacation to thousands of dollars' worth of spa treatments and jewelry.

In some ways, the word of God, the truth of Christ, is like that. It's an opulent gift that keeps on giving way more than one would expect. It doesn't hand us Australian vacations, no. It speaks pardon to us in light of our sins. It proclaims that we are sons and daughters despite our rebellion. It guides our feet that are so prone to walking off the path. It convicts our hearts that are so easily clouded by sin. It fills our minds with peace in the face of pain and death. These are the gifts that Christ's enduring, divine and prophetic word gives.

And where do we hear it? Where do we find it? Where can we tune in to this beautiful and never-ending speech of the world's greatest star? We hear it in the pages of Scripture, for sure. But we also find it in the absolution offered by the pastor, in the baptism being performed for our nephew and in the supper being served in our churches. This is the Word at work, the light shining through and the never-fading celebrity of Christ bringing blessing into our lives. We need this Word. We can trust this Word. As Martin Luther once wrote, "We must have the light of the Word and cling to it until the last day. Only then shall we no longer need the Word, just as artificial light is extinguished when the day dawns."

Some Oscar winners, maybe knowing that their time in Hollywood's brightest light will fade, and fearful that they'll never make it onto the platform again, try to make the most of their moment.

Peter's audience was afraid that their Savior's time in the spotlight had faded. That the reason for their troubles was that Jesus had been played off the stage, or had faded into irrelevance after His moment in the spotlight. They're not alone. When stuck in stress and struggle, we often wonder if the light is still shining, if He still has a word for us. He does. Peter was there, and saw His moment of glory. God handed Him the spotlight. His body of work is unmatched and impressive.

Jesus' words are still cutting through and shining light in this world. No one has played Him off the stage or snuffed out His star.
Let us pray.
That the Church will act as mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, and the defense of human life and civil rights. We pray to the Lord.
That civil authorities will work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor. Lord hear our prayer.
That those engaged in business will serve society by working to make the goods of the world accessible to all. Lord hear our prayer.
That our parish will witness to the Catholic Faith by self-giving, service, and reconciliation with others. Lord hear our prayer.
On this World Day of the Sick that those who are sick, especially the chronically ill, may know healing, friendship, and strength. Lord hear our prayer.
For the grace this week to reach out with compassion to those who are hurting. We pray to the Lord.
For the victims and families of shootings and terrorism this week, that they may find comfort and peace, and that those of us on the outside that we will get involved in ways to decrease violence of all kinds. We pray to the Lord.
That our Olympians will compete safely, honestly and exceptionally, while representing their country with integrity and patriotism. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, You come close to us in our every affliction and bless us with new life. May we always remain true to the graces we have received. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA

Monday, February 5, 2018

February 4, 2018
Presentation of Our Lord/Candlemas
(Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40)

Today we are celebrating Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple. In the Church this day is celebrated on February 2, forty days after Jesus’ birth. It is a major feast and is variously known as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Feast of Meeting, the Purification of Mary, and Candlemas. Each name highlights a particular aspect of the day.
This day may be thought of as a festival of light. We hear about the light in today’s gospel. We see it in the candles that are blessed and carried. We receive it as did St. Simeon. That light is Christ himself, our salvation and life.
It is customary on Candlemas to bless candles. The candlelight is an outward and visible sign of Christ who illumines our heart and inner being.
And so, today we see Jesus presented in the Temple. St. Simeon is overjoyed at being able to behold the child Jesus. What he was expecting to see in this child, we do not know, but if he was like any of us, he may have had images of what he thought the child Jesus would look like.
Has anyone ever thought of Jesus as a boxer? On the web, there are images of Jesus in this way. The image is no doubt offensive to many of us on several levels. The artist, however, may have been thinking about Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil. Knocked out. Down and out for the count.

Yet, even if this isn’t your image of Jesus, and it probably isn’t, it’s also true that no two people have the same image of a man who is still incredibly popular.

In American Jesus, a book by Stephen Prothero, it’s all spelled out. Jesus is a man “nobody hates.” According to figures Prothero reports, roughly 85 percent of the U.S. population is Christian. (Obviously these figures are flawed, as an internet search pulls up various figures, but usually in the 70’s.) Sure, that includes people who may not have been to church since they were baptized as an infant, but even subtracting those, there are a lot left. In fact, according to Prothero, two-thirds of contemporary Americans say they have made a “personal commitment” to Jesus, and three-quarters of our countrymen and women say they have sensed Jesus’ presence at some time.

But that’s not all. Almost half of America’s non-Christians believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead. Here’s more from Prothero

Here [in America] atheists and Buddhists are active producers and consumers of images of Jesus, who in many respects functions as a common cultural coin. Talk to a Hindu and she might tell you that Jesus is an avatar of the god Vishnu. Ask a Jew and you might be told that he was a great rabbi. In a best-selling novel from 1925, Bruce Barton described Jesus as The Man Nobody Knows. Today he is the man nobody hates.

The same cannot be said for Europe, where Christianity isn’t showing much vigor and where half or more of the population of many countries claim no religious affiliation.

But in America, Jesus is very popular.

The only thing is, which Jesus are we talking about?

We ask that because, as Prothero tells it, we Americans have a history of continually remaking Jesus to resemble our current hero-types. Prothero distinguishes this popular chameleon savior from the living Christ of faith and the historical Jesus whom scholars seek by calling him the cultural Jesus or the American Jesus — “Jesus as he has been interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture.”

Over the years of America’s history, this remaking of Jesus gradually separated him from the creeds, from the Scriptures and even from Christianity itself — with some people claiming that the religion about Jesus and the religion of Jesus are very different things — what really matters is what Jesus did and taught, not what the Paul and the church have said about him. And once Christ was disentangled from Christianity, Americans of any religion and even of no religion have felt free to embrace their own version of him.

Prothero identifies four different ‘Jesuses’ that have shown up in American Christianity, plus several reinventions of him that some other religions have welcomed. Let’s look at what he has to say for these four ‘Jesuses.’

Those ‘Jesuses’ within Christianity itself include first, the “Enlightened Sage.” This was the Jesus Thomas Jefferson envisioned. When he was president, Jefferson spent a few evenings scissoring out of the gospels all the references to miracles and Jesus’ divinity, ending up with a slim volume he called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson’s Jesus prayed to God and believed in an afterlife, but he did not die for anyone’s sins. In fact, that Jesus did not come to save, but to teach. Many believe that in our own day, the people of the Jesus Seminar are the children of Jefferson and un-enlightenment thinking. (Frankly, I agree that the Jesus Seminar members are very un-enlightened!)

Another Jesus is what Prothero calls the “Sweet Savior” who was a product of the evangelist fervor of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During that era, the style of preaching changed from doctrinal dissertations to storytelling, and the life of Jesus, often embellished by the puppeteer, became a central subject. The call of evangelism was to an intimate walk with Jesus — so intimate, in fact, that preachers felt compelled to talk more about Jesus as a buddy whom we could come to know and hang out with, rather than either an historical figure or an object of faith.

To make this work, this Jesus had to be described as approachable and friendly, meek and mild rather than harsh and demanding. That, coupled with the fact that a lot of religious training took place in the home under the tutelage of women, led to a viewing of Jesus as one embodying the more feminine qualities — warmth, caring, humility, piety and so forth. The religion of this Jesus was not so much to be thought about as one to be felt.

A third American version of Jesus, says Prothero, is the “Manly Redeemer,” a muscular reaction to the girly-man Sweet Savior. Beginning in the late 19th century and elbowing its way into the 20th century, Jesus as a testosterone-powered hero came to the fore. Books with titles like The Masculine Power of Christ and The Manhood of the Master appeared. This Manly Redeemer was no more linked to the historic creeds of the church than was the Sweet Savior, but at least he was more vigorous — a Savior with sex appeal.  This Jesus brought with him strenuous demands, and he was the one who was ready to lead Christians to war against the social ills of the culture. 007 Jesus! James Bond, eat your heart out.

The fourth and most recent incarnation of the American Jesus is the “Superstar.” In the 1960s, a Jesus movement began among the youth counterculture, and some started to see Jesus as a revolutionary, a leader of an underground Chris-tin liberation movement. When that movement fizzled in the ‘70s, that Jesus emerged unscathed, and became the sub-jet of the rock musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. He was thereafter adopted by rock groups and rap singers and heavy metal bands as an upbeat guy who offers an experiential high that is better than drugs. Eventually this Jesus morphed into the figure on whom is built Jesus T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters and other collectables, much of the Christian music industry, as well as some seeker-sensitive mega-churches and who gets cover story treatment every Easter and Christmas by Time and Newsweek.

During Jesus’ trip through mainstream American culture, other religions in this country were looking at him, too. There isn’t room here to go into them, but suffice it to say that the Mormons have made another version of Jesus their own, as have American Jews, as did the black liberation movement, as have some of the Eastern religions that are flourishing under the Stars and Stripes. Prothero details it all.

The upshot is that while many Americans cannot agree on religion, doctrine, worship styles, the role of the Bible, the place of the church, social action, political position and a host of other things, a great many find common ground of a sort in Jesus, or at least Jesus as they picture him. Even some who cannot believe that he was divine still see him as an example to follow. Thus, in the United States at least, Jesus no longer belongs exclusively to Christians.

But is this Jesus, or, more properly, this collection of ‘Jesuses’, the person we meet in the gospels? It’s like a room full of 25 Elvises. Reminds me of the old 50’s -70’s game show, To Tell the Truth, “Will the real Jesus please stand up!” or do something? Water into wine, perhaps.

One place to think about that is in today’s reading where Mary and Joseph encounter Simeon. This devout man had been looking “forward to the consolation of Israel” — the Messiah. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and praises God, for he knows that this one he is holding is the One he has been expecting.

Now given that Jesus was still an infant, a skeptic overhearing Simeon’s expressions of praise might have thought he was inventing a messiah to fit his own expectations. But the subsequent life, ministry and death of Jesus proved Simeon right.

Note, however, that Simeon did not rely on his own hunch about this baby being the promised Messiah. Rather there were two critical things. First, when the gospel writer Luke tells us that Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” Luke is saying that Simeon was steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. The term “the consolation of Israel” derives from references in the book of Isaiah to God comforting the people by redeeming them (Isaiah 40:1-2; 52:9). So first, Simeon was basing his pronouncement about Jesus on Scripture.

And second, Luke tells us that Simeon was being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Those two sources of understanding — the outward one of Scripture and the inward one of God’s direct inspiration — still stand today as means of deciding who Jesus is. So obviously, if you are going to take a razor to the gospels as Jefferson did, you’re not going to get the whole picture. The first place to look to decide who Jesus is, is in the Bible itself.

In that regard, the question of who Jesus is isn’t that difficult. The gospels, if we look at them in total, give us some basic answers.

Three are things the Bible tells us directly. We may not understand the implications of all that we can say about Jesus from Scripture, but those things are enough to help us frame an answer to the question, “Who do you say Jesus is?”, an answer that includes the words “example,” “teacher,” “guide” and “Savior.”

We can draw some conclusions about what he might do or say if he were in the flesh today, but we should do that only with humility, knowing that such judgments are speculation at best. I have spoken to people about Jesus and shown them things about him in the Bible and received a response of, “I didn’t know that about Jesus.”

But perhaps that should not surprise us. We are all affected by the various images of and ideas about Jesus that have floated around in our culture. Those things have shaped our thoughts about Jesus, and unless we read the Scriptures thoroughly, we may find ourselves confusing the American Jesus with scriptural Jesus, or, more likely, mashing the two together. The Bible is still the primary outward guide to who Jesus is and what his life means for us.

The other source of understanding Jesus, the inward inspiration of God’s Spirit. It is, however, something we can ask God for in prayer. To be a Christian means, by definition, to be a follower of Christ, and so it is important to perceive all that we can about who Jesus is, what he expects of us, and what he gives us.

Thus, asking for God’s guidance to help us see to “see the light” - Jesus as clearly as we can is never wasted effort for us who bear the name of Christ. In fact, it is necessary for our spiritual growth.

Simeon held the Child in his arms and saw the salvation of Israel. Whom do we see?

Let us pray.
Light from light, give the light of hope to those who seek Your face; give the light of faith to those who dwell in unbelief; give the light of the Gospel to those who live in ignorance; may the light of Christ triumph over every darkness and give the light of love to the aged, sick, and dying who await You in patient faith. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That the church will preach and teach with authority, winning many to the Gospel. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism in the world and for the healing of all hatred and division among peoples. We pray to the Lord.
That those who have material, political, or scriptural power may resist any lure of corruption. We pray to the Lord.
For those suffering from depression or mental illness; that the Lord will draw close to them and free them from their pain. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to grasp the hand of those in need and raise them up. We pray to the Lord.
And as always, we ask that the healing Archangel Raphael will be sent to our family and friends who are ill and raise them up in spirit and body. We pray to the Lord.
That those who perpetrate, whether in mind or act, any sexual assault, physically or verbally, will stop doing so immediately and follow the true Law of God and that those who have been victims of such, may find healing and peace in the bosom of Our Lady. May this evil and injustice be eradicated from society. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, in You we take refuge. Incline your ear to us and save us. Be our fortress and our stronghold. Oh God, true light, who created light eternal, spreading far and wide, pour, we pray, into the hearts of Your faithful the brilliance of perpetual light, so that all who are brightened in Your holy Temple by the splendor of these candles here may happily reach the light of Your glory. We ask all these, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA