Possibilities from a New Humanity
Southminster Presbyterian Church, December 15, 2019
In Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, a mean-spirited capitalist named Ebenezer Scrooge has a series of visions. The first was the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, dead for 7 years, who drags a bunch of chains around the earth because of his greedy life. He warns Scrooge to avoid the same fate.
The next vision is the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the memories that are stirred up are a mixed bag for Scrooge. He remembers the Christmas when his sister convinced the family to bring him home from boarding school, but he remembers Christmases spent alone at the school when the other kids had gone home. He remembers the festive Christmas party where he got his first job as an apprentice, but he remembers his fiancee Belle, who broke off their engagement because he was too obsessed with money.
I think that’s probably where most of us would be if we encountered the Ghost of Christmas Past—a mixture of positive and non-so-positive memories. Most of us probably weren’t left alone at boarding school for Christmas or had someone break off an engagement at Christmas. But many of us have experienced the first Christmas after the loss of a spouse or a parent or a child, the first Christmas after a divorce, a Christmas while unemployed, the first time one of your children is not home for Christmas. At Southminster this year, we’re facing the first Christmas after a traumatic community experience.
And we may not all have an office Christmas party as one of our cherished memories. But we have experienced the first Christmas that you brought your spouse or future spouse home for the holidays, or the first Christmas after your son or daughter was born, or the first Christmas in your own home rather than your parents’ home. And at Southminster, I think we have a lot of cherished Christmas memories and traditions—from the advent faire to the candlelight service.
I grew up in a very religious family that, interestingly, celebrated the secular side of Christmas but not the religious side. The tradition we were a part of traditionally did not favor celebrating religious holidays. The rationale was that we only did things commanded in the Bible: We didn’t use musical instruments but sang acapella. We didn’t celebrate religious holidays but did take communion every week. Every Sunday was Easter Sunday, and that was enough. So the Sunday before Christmas was just as likely to feature a sermon about Jonah and the whale or the book of 1 Corinthians as anything involving Jesus.
But at home, we put up a Christmas tree with a star on top, and we exchanged gifts, and Santa Claus gave us gifts and left a long letter for us every year about how much we had grown. And we would usually go to one of the grandparents’ house for part of the day. Every year, Mama Girl put up an artificial tree that she had made herself out of clear plastic bags stuffed into on a frame that Daddy Boy had welded together out of metal poles and chicken wire. And it was a really nice looking tree.
By the time I was in junior high, we had moved from the small town of Sweetwater, Texas, to the metropolis of Lubbock, and we had joined a “liberal” church that was saved by grace and not by works. But we still didn’t really have an observance of Advent and Christmas.
So I went to college with a hunger to explore the spiritual side of Christmas. I was a Bible major as an undergraduate, and a bunch of us would sneak over to the early service at Church of the Heavenly Rest, Episcopal—which had a very tall, Gothic-style sanctuary. We’d get our fix of high church Anglican liturgy before going to the late service at our Church of Christ—toe-tapping Stamps-Baxter gospel songs sung acapella.
So it was there that I experienced my first real observance of Advent and my first Christmas Eve service. At the same time, my parents’ church was discovering Christmas too, and my family’s observances went from very secular to overtly religious over just a few years.
So as I encounter the Ghost of Christmas Past, I have mixed feelings, and I know that many of you have a similar story.
I really appreciate Don’s Advent theme of “possibilities.” Advent is a time of anticipation, a time when we almost expect miracles—or at least really want to believe in them. Advent embodies the vision that we as humankind really can make the world a better place. Yet today’s reading from Matthew seems pretty dark. It’s one of the lectionary readings for Advent this year— actually for the first Sunday of Advent. At first glance, what we see is sort of the opposite of possibilities.
The coming of the Son of Man is going to disrupt life as we know it, Jesus says. It kind of reminds me of the old saying that good preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—except this passage is all on the afflicting the comfortable side. And what we at Southminster need this year is to comfort the afflicted side.
But I think one term that occurs over and over in this passage—and throughout the first three gospels—is one of the keys to unlocking possibilities.
Of course, the title for Jesus that most Christians think of first is “Son of God.” But when you look at the gospels, Jesus only calls himself “Son of God” in John—the latest gospel, written some 80 years after Jesus’ death. The historical Jesus almost certainly didn’t call himself the Son of God.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the term that you see repeated is Son of Man. And in our English Bibles, the term is capitalized, which implies that it’s a title. That’s an assumption, and a lot of folks add a couple of other assumptions on top of that—the assumption that Jesus was giving this title to himself only, and that Jesus used this title to communicate that he was the Jewish Messiah.
Problem is, there is no evidence for any of these assumptions. “Son of Man” doesn’t seem to be used as a title anywhere in ancient literature. The term is used in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, a passage that some ancient Jews for whom the Messiah was a big emphasis latched onto those references as references to the Messiah. But in reality, these passages are portraying a human being who stands up to empire as it was manifested in that time.
So what does the term really mean? Son of man. In our gender-neutral emphasis here, we might say “child of humanity.” A member of the next generation of human beings. In today’s software-speak, we might say Humanity 2.0.
I would encourage you to go back and read the gospels sometimes, and every time you come across the words “Son of Man” capitalized, just mentally substitute “the new humanity” uncapitalized, and see how that changes the meaning of what you’re reading. Suddenly Jesus is talking less about himself and more about the transformation of a critical mass of humanity.
There’s no doubt that there is a lot of apocalyptic imagery in Matthew 23-25, and it’s clear that some sects of Judaism used this term as a reference to a Messiah that they were waiting for. For what it’s worth, the Jesus Seminar scholars don’t think any of this material goes back to the historical Jesus. But how does it best fit into our Christian tradition and our life as progressive Christians today?
I think the key is to step back from this idea that “Son of Man” is some exalted title for Jesus, and think about what the world would be like if “the new humanity” arrived in a full way on this earth—if a critical mass of people started emphasizing what Jesus emphasized. Just think of the joy we’d feel if a critical mass of people started pursuing peace instead of war, equality instead of discrimination, justice instead of injustice, allowing all people in the world to have basic economic resources like food, clean water, shelter, human rights, respect for immigrants— rather than the state of affairs we see today.
If a critical mass of people really adopted these principles, the world really would be a better place. And some people would be left behind. It would afflict the comfortable in some ways. Some people might still live with greed and jealousy and malice, but their voice would be squelched by the critical mass, and they would no longer be able to manipulate people for their own gain. If Humanity 2.0 was really downloaded and installed around the world, everyone would benefit, but not everyone would recognize that benefit.
So here we are, celebrating Advent. The time when the church focuses on anticipation— anticipation of the coming of Jesus, past and present and future, literal and figurative. The church knows something great is going to happen, but we await it in quiet anticipation. But what exactly are we waiting for? We’re waiting for the new humanity, but what does that mean?
I think it means a lot of things, but I want to focus on one thing this morning. And to do this, I want to read a pretty long passage from a book by Diana Butler Bass called Christianity for the Rest of Us.
Not long ago I was at Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of the oldest churches in the United States, and the church that sits at the edge of the World Trade Center site. Since September 2001, more than two million visitors a year have passed through its historic doors. The clergy and I were talking about spiritual tourists, the throngs of people who journey to the church to understand the devastating events of September 11. They are the unmoored, nomads in a fractured world trying to make spiritual and theological sense of the changes—the violence, suffering, and war—that have engulfed us.
“I’ve got tourists galore,” sighed the Reverend Dr. Jim Cooper, Trinity’s senior clergyperson. “They come. They come in droves. But I don’t want them to leave as tourists. I want them to become pilgrims. I want them to connect, to know that there is something more.”
Although not many other churches have two million tourists a year, Trinity is not completely unique. In effect, Jim Cooper’s words speak to all religious communities. Every church, synagogue, mosque, and temple in the United States sits among a throng of tourists; each is surrounded by people on a journey of self-discovery and meaning. But simply being on a spiritual journey does not necessarily mean that people will find meaning. Rather, as Jim suggested, they need to “connect,” to discover that journeys can become pilgrimages. Tourists can become pilgrims.
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith, 216.
Allowing spirit to transform us from tourists into pilgrims. The book of Numbers describes two generations—what I like to call the tourist generation and the pilgrim generation. And it was the pilgrim generation that made it to the promised land. It’s the way they unlocked possibility. And it’s the way the afflicted get comforted.