Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
When you picture Jesus in your imagination, what does he look like? Warner Sallman, the son of Scandanavian immigrants, painted a portrait of Jesus in 1940 that is the most reproduced religious painting ever – over a billion reproductions that include prayer cards, clocks, calendars, and nightlights. He produced other paintings of Jesus – one that was especially popular is “Christ at Heart’s Door”, an illuminated, white-robed Jesus, knocking to be let in to the firmly closed, oak door of the human heart – but nothing has equaled the popularity of the “Head of Christ”. The Eli Lilly Endowment, which funds support programs for clergy and study of religious trends in America, commissioned a major study of the impact of Sallman’s art upon religion in America. In 1996, art historian and socio-religious critic David Morgan, published a book on the impact this painting has had upon an entire generation of Christians (University of California Press, 1996). Morgan’s study of this one painting illustrates some of the complexity and mystery surrounding any attempt to paint a clear picture of Jesus. During the course of his study, Morgan interviewed hundreds of people about their feeling for Sallman’s “Head of Christ”. Most frequently, the response was summed up as in the words of one interviewee -"it’s just what Jesus looked like.”
The painting hung in the sanctuary of the first church I served. Large and framed in an ornately carved oval, directly in my line of sight from the pulpit, the “Clairol Jesus”, as my seminary friends and I used to call it, watched me as I preached about prophets and greed, political confrontation and sexism, and the early stirrings of the Christian Evangelical movement’s profound impact on social and political life in the establishment of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
When I was in high school, I had another depiction of Jesus on my bulletin board. It was the black Jesus that had appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine. He had the broad features and kinky hair of an African American. Another painting of a black Jesus had circulated at the time, painted in the style of Sallman’s Head of Christ, his hair long and wavy, albeit black, and the features resembling a person of Middle eastern descent. Then there is the laughing Christ, head thrown back, eyes closed and mouth open in joyous laughter. There are some truly magnificent depictions of Jesus, images that pierce the romantic shroud. One I particularly remember is Jesus on the cross, a wood carving from South Africa, in which Jesus is suffering the physical agony of torture. You can practically hear the cry from his lips. And there are some depictions that are just, well, not my cup of tea. Jesus kneeling on the battle field next to the medics treating a wounded and dying soldier, or Jesus with a little battery-charged light shining in place of his heart. When our kids were very young, we had a Jesus nightlight some sassy clergy friend had given to us. One night, the bulb had burned out, and Joe announced to us “Jesus isn’t shining any more!”
I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe that he lived, that he knew God better than I ever will, that he was steeped in Jewish mysticism yet still understood the impulses of the human heart as few ever have. I believe that miraculously, who he was and what he taught have survived the centuries, the obscene and shameful attempts to twist his integrity into something more self-serving than God-serving. I believe there is profound truth at the core of his identity - truth about God, about justice and oppression and political maneuvering, about changing one’s life and the world, about being human created in the image of God. I know I will never do justice to who he was or what he taught by my sermons or my life but I believe it is my life’s purpose to become the best disciple I can be, which, parenthetically, is why I’m going to law school.
I’ve long since stopped apologizing for not believing the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, the physical transfiguration, the walking on water. When I made peace with not believing the magical things, my faith grew exponentially. All the worry I carried over what I didn’t believe kept me from truly believing. It was a complete waste of time. Worse, it took time away from the aspects of faith in Jesus Christ that are so much more important, critical, actually, if Christianity is to regain the place of honor it once held in our culture. People are suffering because of their faith and they are tormented by doubts and they are struggling to be accepted and feel acceptable and that is so much more important. When Christianity is used to bludgeon hearts and souls, we all ought to rise up in righteous indignation. I am convinced that Jesus himself would find as much if not more in Christianity today to critique, challenge and grieve as he found in Judaism at the beginning of the first century.
Why is Christianity so fractured, so judged and judgmental, so trivialized and so maligned? In part, it is because the question of Jesus’ identity and authority, and his relationship to God is such a vexing one. It is also because Christians do some really stupid things, motivated, they claim, by their Christian faith. The gospel writers each had an answer to the question, who is Jesus Christ, and they were all unlike the others. Luke wrote that the unique and miraculous relationship between God and Jesus happened at his conception when Mary was over-shadowed by the Holy Spirit and became pregnant. Matthew was more concerned with Jesus’ Jewish credentials than the circumstances of his conception, seeking to demonstrate in the opening verses of his gospel Jesus’ biological connection to David, the beloved ruler of Israel. Mark, who was not concerned with what happened before Jesus became an adult or what happened to him after he died, described the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist as the moment when Jesus’ messiahship was publicly identified. And then there is John who wrote of a pre-existent Christ, an expression of God that would take form one day but that was from the beginning with God. It was the Word and “the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.” Which one of the gospel writers had the truth?
There are the miraculous stories of what happened to Jesus and to his followers after his cruel, politically-motivated execution. How did he appear and to whom? What was his message after his death? Were his words in life truer because of his death? Scholars and deeply religious people, and disciplined thinkers and brilliant minds and faithful disciples have worried the question for years. Who was Jesus? What was his relationship to God? What difference does he make in the life of the Christian disciple?
In 1948, not long after Sallman’s “Head of Christ” made its debut, Albert Schweitzer wrote The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a ground-breaking book that opened up the possibility that who Jesus was historically may not be as the Church had come to understand him religiously. It marked the beginning of what is called historical criticism, an approach to Scripture that studies the historical, sociological, political context of all the gospel writers. It’s probably difficult for us to realize what a monumental shift this new scholarship about Jesus represents, but, placed in contrast to the romantic strand of Christian expression represented by Sallman’s “Head of Christ”, it’s like the difference between what’s-his-name of Gainesville, Florida, and Marcus Borg, a preeminent Christian scholar.
The story I read before I began this sermon is one of the more difficult of Jesus’ parables. Was he saying that the first century Jews were to compromise their Jewish principles to appease Rome? Or was the story about economic pragmatism? Or a slippery way for a dishonest manager to gain favor and save his job? Whatever its meaning, and I believe its meaning is elusive, one of the conclusions Jesus drew was that the dishonest manager gained the favor of his rich boss by acting shrewdly. Further, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Perhaps Jesus meant, that all the tools available to us are necessary for understanding what is right and good and effective in this age. Perhaps he meant that the children of light are just a little too naïve to grapple with the harsh realities of an economic system that has become profoundly disproportionate and unjust. Perhaps Jesus meant that you better get savvy and shrewd if you’re going to keep your commitment to God’s justice alive.
Whatever Jesus meant, one thing is certain, it takes more than the eyes of faith to understand him. It also takes our intellectual faculties, a disciplined practice of study and prayer, and a constantly updated process of discernment than Sallman’s “Head of Christ” tends to provoke. We need to be savvy and shrewd, and savvy and shrewd are not the antonyms for faithful. Amen.