Text: Mark 1:1-8
Bob Poerschke is a person that often shows up in my sermons. Sometimes by name and other times in my thoughts and ideas about God, theology, and faith. Some of you knew Bob. He was a member of this church for a number of years—he and his beloved wife Katherine. Bob was a loyal member of the Grope Group Sunday school class and loved to engage his fellow Pullenites in provocative theological discussion. For those of you who have heard me talk about Bob, you will recall that he was one of my major professors in seminary. I was his grader and teaching assistant; and he was the person in my life who pushed the boundaries of thought, especially when it came to God and theology.
Bob was one of the smartest people I have ever known. He was at least twenty years ahead of his generation when it came to progressive thinking. He would often tell me the story of how he wanted to be a doctor—and he would have made a great doctor. He loved the biology of life and nothing made him happier than breaking something down to its most basic form in order to understand its complexity. But his mother had other plans for him. She told him he was going to be a preacher. So Bob made a compromise—he became a seminary professor.
Most students found his teaching somewhat frustrating. He would say to me, “Nancy, they just want me to tell them how they should think so they don’t have to. They want me to pour information in their heads so that they can simply repeat it back to me in a paper or on a test and make an A in my class. Well,” he would say, “I’m not doing it. People need to learn to think for themselves and decide what THEY believe; not what someone else tells them to believe.” Bob was like Flannery O’Conner in the classroom. When a student would respond to a question, there would be affirmation, but not content with the depth of thinking or feeling she would say to those same students, “Now, go deeper. Go deeper.” Bob went deeper and he expected his students to go deeper.
For the most part, even as our roles changed over time and I became his pastor, I remained a student of Bob’s. Our conversations challenged me. They made me think outside the box. (To the phrase “thinking outside the box,” Bob would have said, “Is there a box?”) I will admit that I didn’t always get what Bob was thinking or saying at first but our conversations would stay with me. And I don’t just mean that I would think about them every so often. The things he would say were so provocative, I couldn’t not think about them. And that’s why almost thirty years later, I am still thinking about a conversation that Bob and I never finished—a conversation about Christology. And at this time of year especially, when we celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, I think about Bob’s theological presupposition that we, too, are Christ in the world.
Bob believed that, we too, are divine beings—that God is incarnate in us just as God was in the person of Jesus. He believed that there was no difference between our own humanity and divinity and that of Jesus. He would say to me that, we too, are Christ in the world. He would point to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and other social gospel reformers to make his point.
As we would have this conversation over and over, I would say to him, “But there’s a difference. We can’t be Jesus. We can’t be Christ. We’re not Jesus. We’re not Christ.” And Bob would say, “Why not?” I would take the position in our discussion that we, as people of faith, can prepare the way for Christ, that we can even be Christ-like in our actions and interactions but I couldn’t bring myself to the place of saying that we, like Jesus, stand in this world as the Christ figure. And Bob would say, “Why not?”
You see, I took Mark’s theological position. The position that says we are here to prepare the way for Christ. We baptize with water; but Jesus, the Christ baptizes with Spirit. I concurred with Mark’s theological position: we can proclaim, give witness to, and be priest to one another but there is one who is more powerful than us that comes after us. It was what I had been taught in church and what I believed to be true. But at some point, along the way of this ongoing nearly 30-year conversation, I realized that my position, unlike Bob’s, was a safe place. As long as I saw myself as different from Jesus I could make different choices about how to live my faith. As long as I could see myself as more human and less divine, I could take less responsibility for loving my neighbor as myself or for feeding the hungry or healing the sick or welcoming the stranger or forgiving those who hurt me. As long as I could see myself as different from the Christ-child I could ignore the voices of those crying out in the wilderness—young black men crying out in the streets of urban America asking for their lives to matter; young Latino students who are crying out in the wilderness asking to be citizens of the only country they have ever known; the working poor whose voice is crying out in the wilderness of poverty asking for a living wage. As long as I see myself as different from Jesus I don’t have to respond to these voices as the Christ-child did. I can stay in my safe place relying more on my humanity and less on my own divinity. But then I have to ask, especially this time of year, what does the incarnation really mean? Was there only one Incarnation, capital “I?” Or is the incarnation something that is happening within each of us every time we say “yes” to the God who dwells in us?
As we move into this second Sunday of Advent, I invite you to think about your own understanding of Jesus and of Jesus the Christ. Who is this baby Jesus to you? Who is the Christ-child to you? What does that word “Christ” even mean to you? Are we simply to be preparers of the way, like John the Baptist? Or are we as Bob Poerschke suggested more than preparers. Are we called to stand in our world today as the Christ figure—offering our very bodies as a bridge between the suffering of our world and the redeeming love of God? Instead of talking about the emerging church, might our time and energy be better spent talking about the emerging Christ within us and around us?
There is still inside me the young Nancy, who stands with the gospel writer of Mark: we are to prepare the way of God—to make straight in the wilderness a highway for God; to do all we can to sow love where there is hate, to forgive where there is vengeance, to seek justice where there is injustice, and to replace greed with generosity. And, there is an emerging part of me who increasingly stands with Bob Poerschke—committed to living into my own divinity as fully as I live into my humanity. There is a part of me who longs to stand with him and say we are no different from Jesus. That, we too, are the Incarnation—that God dwells in us as in Jesus. Why? Why do I want to believe that Bob was right? Because I believe that if we saw within ourselves our own divinity—if we understood the profoundness of God with us, dwelling within us, if we could accept that all the love we have for the infant Jesus includes us from the moment of his innocent birth —then I think we would finally be able to accept ourselves as the beloved, and we would have no choice but to love our neighbors.
In all honesty, I am not yet there; I am not yet where Bob was in his understanding and belief about Christology. There is still a cradle Baptist in me who hears heresy in these statements. In the fullness of my humanity I know how easily misused such an understanding can be. And yet, I cannot put down the idea. And I am grateful that the conversation Bob started almost thirty years ago is still challenging me to define who Jesus is for me and who this Christ-child is whose birth we prepare to celebrate. And I choose, for this season, to reconcile myself to this understanding. We are called to prepare the way. To cry out in the wilderness to tell the world of one who is coming. To begin to live, in ways big and small, as we know that the Christ would. To baptize with water. And I believe in that in so doing, we make way for the Christ who was born in a manger, and for the Christ who is emerging today within each of us. Be that voice crying out in the wilderness and “prepare the way” for the Christ-child who is still being born in us.