First century theology was less sophisticated than that we have inherited through our creeds and traditions. The ideas and dogma we now take for granted either did not exist or did so in a much more primitive manner.
Marks gospel for example has no birth or resurrection story in it’s original form. Writers such as the one who penned the Letter to the Hebrews knew nothing of the trinity, penal substitution or of Jesus being without flaws. Their theology was a reflection of their Jewish traditions and of their personal experience, and much of it would fail to pass muster in various schools of theology today.
Yet it speaks clearly to us of a simplicity of thought and practice we have long let go past. Complicating the simple seems to give it an aura of truth and credibility – try reading some academic papers before you go to bed tonight and I think you will see what I mean.
Both Mark and the writer of the Hebrews understand Jesus and his message in simple terms. Here was a man for whom the love of humanity stood over and above love for self or some particular individual. He looked with compassion on the state of people in the world around him, not because he was divine and above them, but because he was human and one of them.
Jesus found himself in the place of the priest, acting on behalf of other because he was aware of his own humanity. The writer to the Hebrews highlights this by saying he was chosen to be God’s represent not because he sought that position, put up his hand or filed an application for the role and attached his cv. He was chosen because of his lived and embraced humanity.
He writes: “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4And one does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 5So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Hebrews 5:1-10)
This is far from the idea of Christ being predestined to be sinless and therefore the only one who could fulfil God’s economy in the world. He was chosen because he made no attempt to avoid his humanity or to pretend to be better than he was. He was human and understood the struggles all humanity were, and are, muddling through.
Jesus muddled through by ‘prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.’ He waited on the hesed, the everlasting compassion of God, and remained faithful to humanity in all he did.
The constant theme of Mark’s gospel is one of Jesus challenging those who put themselves above humanity and calling them to become subservient to the will of God for all people. His was a life lived for others, despite, in the eyes of the first century writers, just being human himself.
In Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:35 – 45) he became a ransom for humanity, not because of a sacrifice of blood, but because of his faithfulness to the cause of humanity, the reign of God in the world. This is not about claiming the blood of Jesus as the means to wipe away my personal sin. It is to claim the obedience of Jesus to sacrifice himself so that others may have the capacity to live for the kingdom of God despite the suffering and pain that comes with that.
‘Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,..’
And many people have continued to obey ever since, even many who would not claim him for their own. Anyone one who gives up the sense of entitlement to possess Jesus, life, position, power, and lives in solidarity with the greater mass of humanity, shares in that quality of life called eternal salvation.
It is interesting that the writer of the Hebrews asserts he learnt obedience through suffering and therefore can speak on our behalf to God. William Loader, writes: “This is first century theology finding its way of asserting that right next to God there is a voice urging compassion for those hard up against it. Later generations will develop trinitarian doctrine and find ways of asserting this primitive idea in more integrated ways, speaking of solidarity as something which God does not need to be told about but which is central to God’s being.”
James and John epitomise the desire to rise up. Jesus in both Mark and Hebrews epitomises the need to grow down. Growing down is growing into the lives and experiences of others, of becoming one with those who have had to accept their place in the world and the rawness of their humanity. Refugees, children in detention, victims of addiction, those suffering mental illness and more call not for the transcendent but the immanent, a human being who can say “all shall be well’ if we remain in unity with each other.
James and John sought to rise above unity into an individual play for divinity. They wanted the special place of power, to have the ear of Jesus in glory, able to influence and bask in the reflected glory of JesustheChrist. Jesus did not seek that position. In Hebrews and Mark it is clear they understood him as an exemplary man, different in his humanity than any others they had seen. It was only later that this was confirmed as divine. Here he is simply the very best a man, a human, could be. He was given the ear of God as a result of learning wisdom and compassion though suffering in the same way as the rest of humanity.
There is something valuable here for us to grasp, something we often fail to understand. You do not need to aspire to be somebody other than yourself, your lived humanity is sufficient. Each time you work at the pantry or op shop, help out the grandmothers stall, march for refugees rights, visit your neighbour, cook a casserole for another, make a phone call to someone who is lonely, drive someone to and from church or just welcome each other at church you are living out your humanity in just the way Jesus did. These are acts that cost you something, that reflect your understanding of the important things of life learnt through your own suffering. As my daughter would say, ‘It’s not rocket science Dad”.
The writer of Hebrews brings us back to basics, it is the human that matters, and the human that matters most is the one who has learnt though suffering how to be obedient to the needs of the kingdom of God in those around them.