21 March 2012

Jesus is not equal to God

4th Week of Lent (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Jesus heals a crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda, ordering him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” The Jews who persecute the Lord accuse him of breaking the Sabbath Law. When Jesus hears these accusations, he answers them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does, the Son will do also.” This is Jesus' answer to persecutors' question, but what is the question? What do the accusing Jews ask of Jesus? Implied in the accusation is the question: just who do you think you are. . .healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, and ordering others to break the Law?” Jesus answers, “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” This answer only adds to the fury of his accusers “because he not only broke the sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.” The sheer audacity of Jesus' claim to be the Son of God is breathtaking b/c no creature can ever be divine, no mere mortal can embody the glory of the Creator. Breaking the Sabbath Law is crime enough to warrant severe punishment, but to claim divine sonship is beyond the pale, beyond anything these religious folk have ever heard. It violates the First Commandment of the Ten. Of course, as Jesus makes abundantly clear, he is no creature; he is no mere mortal.

Had Jesus' persecutors fully understood what he is claiming about himself, they would've been really, really upset. According to John's Gospel, the accusers charge Jesus with the heresy of proclaiming himself “equal to God.” Jesus does no such thing. He never claims to be equal to God. He claims to be God Himself. Does this seem like a distinction w/o a difference to you? Well, let me ask you: two nickels equal a dime, right? But would you say that those two nickels are the same as one dime? How many of you would say, “I am equal to myself”? Americans claim that men and women are equal, but we do not claim that they are the same. Being equal to someone is not the same as being identical. We can be “equal under the law” while being very different in every other way. The claim that Jesus is making about his person, his mission, and his ultimate destination are all bound together in who he is as the Son of God made flesh. When he acts, speaks, and thinks, we witness the acts, speech, and thoughts of God. It took us a few centuries to wrestle this insight out of revelation, and it matters a great deal that we guard it well. 

Why does it matter how we think about the identity of Christ? We need to get this bit of theology right b/c we place so much of the weight of the faith on the person on Christ. We claim to follow Christ. To do and say all that he did and said. This means following him all the way to the Cross, into death, and on to the resurrection. Imagine how different our understanding of salvation would be if we had concluded (wrongly) some 1,800 yrs. ago that Jesus was just a man with a really deep insight into the divine. He died a criminal and so would we. He didn't rise from the tomb and neither will we. Our whole faith would be limited to being nice to one another, doing a few good works, and sharing a communal meal once a week. Is that worth dying for? Would you give your life to imitate an executed 1st century Jewish heretic? Instead we have this, “. . .whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.” That, brothers and sisters, is why any of this matters.

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