The Sinful Savior

I was a sophomore in college when I began a journey back to being a Christian.  I had left a few years before, in part because that this person, Jesus of Nazareth, was portrayed by the conventional Christian Church as so different from me.  Jesus was so God-like, so “perfect,” I didn’t think he held any relevance for my life.  One of the many events that triggered my “re-conversion” that Fall was seeing the movie, and reading the novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”  In this film and book, Jesus is portrayed as a very human being, struggling just as every person would with God’s will for his life.  In the end, he finds that he has done what God wanted him to do, culminating in his death on the cross. One scene that struck a nerve for me, and that has stuck with me, since it really captures Jesus’ humanity well, is when Jesus talks a bit about his sins: “You know, I’m a liar, a hypocrite.... I don’t tell the truth, I don’t have the courage....I don’t steal, fight, kill, not because I don’t want to, but because....I’m afraid.  I want to rebel against you, against God but....I’m afraid.  Satan lives inside me, and if you look inside, all you’ll see is fear.”  Earlier in the movie, when Judas, his closest friend and companion, asks him how he will pay for his sins, he responds, “With my life, Judas.  With my life”.

This is the kind of Jesus I came to believe in, and struggle to be a disciple of, to this day.  He was a human being in every way, even sin, despite how people with a too-simplistic interpretation of Hebrews 4:15 and other texts might want to refute this.  This salvation (soteria) that Jesus brings into all of God’s created order (kosmos) takes care of all sin (hamartia), all brokenness, even Jesus’.

I have come to find several textual sources to explain and support my own faith experience here, of a Jesus just like me, a broken human being, who also happens to become God’s catalyst for this brokenness.  At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) [1].  Jesus then appears and is baptized (v. 9).  It seems very clear to me that Mark sees Jesus as a very human Messiah.  He begins his ministry and is energized by the Spirit once he has repented, and is cleansed of his own sins, just like everyone else that comes to John.

Now, other Gospels and narratives may try to “clean this up” a bit, as is done in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 3:13-17).  But I’d rather not try to read Mark as edited and explained by Matthew.  I’d rather just try to read Mark on his own terms, with his own text, and see that his Jesus looks very different from other Jesus-es, within the Christian canon and beyond.

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15)

Hebrews 4:15 needs to be read on its own as well, but this one verse of scripture cannot determine the entire Christological outlook for every other part.  The author of Hebrews has her own reasons for claiming a Jesus “without sin,” and her claim is used quite frequently throughout various Christological traditions.  It makes it all the way into a definitive declaration of the Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, to which I am deeply attached.  But these claims just don’t completely reflect the Sinful Savior that I see in my own experiences, and in other texts such as  Mark.  The “Chalcedonian definition” reads: “[Jesus] is of the same reality as God (homoousion to patri) as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we are ourselves (homoousion hemin) as far as his human-ness is concerned; thus like us in all respects.”[2] This definition strays into a different kind of Christology, as does much standard interpretation of Hebrews 4:15, when it then states that Jesus can be fully human, “sin only excepted.”[3]  I submit that sin cannot be excepted, and that the Church needs to admit that Jesus was a sinner like all human beings, in order to authentically describe the complete human being Jesus was, and is; in order for Jesus to be fully human, like us in all respects.

This is the Jesus that many people like me know and proclaim in the world today.  We do not think of the world the same way that many people did in the ancient Church, expressed very clearly in texts like Hebrews, Matthew, and Chalcedon, the “majority report” of what becomes Orthodox Christology and philosophy.  We do think more like Mark does, a minority voice in this Orthodox community of voices.  I believe Mark’s presentation of Jesus at his baptism is an indication of a different anthropology, one that is best captured by the ancient and contemporary Jewish recognition of the good and evil impulses that God creates in all human beings (the yeitzer tov and yeitzer hara).  Mark also describes Jesus as do subsequent Jewish views on “the righteous ones,”ordinary people who can and have “overcome sin” (cf. Genesis 4:7).  This Jewish hermeneutic doesn’t apply to Cain in this early scene, but does apply to later figures such as Moses, Job, and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.  Although these people “committed no sin” (hamartian; 1 Peter 2:22, adaptation of Isaiah 53:9), this claim does not carry over into every moment of these “sinless” people’s lives.  This same righteousness can be applied to Jesus, according to Mark’s very Jewish way of thinking.  It sounds hyperbolic on its face--e.g. Moses clearly sins by murdering an Egyptian and hiding the body (Exodus 2:12), and then becomes God’s sinless servant by the very next chapter, and throughout the rest of Torah.  But this is the nature of much biblical expression of such human beings, and their place with God in the world.

This “righteous person” framework carries over into other Christian claims about the entire community of faith, the community that proclaims this Jesus and lives on as Jesus’ presence in this world.  This Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) now imitates Christ in the world (1 Corinthians 11:1; cf. also Galatians 2:20).  We Christians clearly are not sinless; yet we are, because we are Jesus now, through our Baptism and participation in the Eucharist.  Because of our faith, and our participation in the work of the kingdom in the world, for the sake of this Jesus that we now are, we are sinless.  “No one who abides in [Jesus] sins, no one who sins has either seen him or know him” (1 John 3:6).  It’s clear to me that I still sin!  And I hope and pray that I’m still one of these that abides in Jesus.  And I am.  Because of Baptism, because of Eucharist.  Because of faith, because of work.  In that, I am sinless as well.  Just as Jesus has become.

The heights that Jesus climbs in his own life reach into the depths of every person’s life, including my own. If I can become sinless through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as a sinful human being, well, simply put, so can Jesus.  And so he did, as a fully human being.  If the truth is otherwise, then Jesus wasn’t fully human.  I proclaim that he was, even in sin.  It’s the truth that brings salvation and healing (soteria) to all the universe (kosmos).

Rev. Dennis Teall-Fleming is Pastor of Open Hearts Gathering, Gastonia, NC (www.openheartsgathering.org), and part-time Religion Instructor at Gaston College, Dallas, NC (www.gaston.edu).


[1] All scripture quotations are from The New Revised Standard Version, © Division of Christian Education, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, 1989.

[2] Leith, John H., ed.  Creeds Of The Churches, third edition.  Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982, 36.

[3] ibid.