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What Do You Mean When We Say Jesus?

Quick history trivia: What is the significance of the name James Irwin? Well, James Irwin was one of the first astronauts to walk on the moon. He was on the Apollo 15 moon mission. After James Irwin returned a Spanish journalist asked him this question: “What did you feel when you stepped out of that capsule and your feet touched the surface of the moon?” To everyone’s surprise, Irwin answered, “It was one of the most profoundly disillusioning moments of my life.” Irwin said, “All my life I have been enchanted by the romance and the mystery of the moon. I sang love songs under the moon. I read poems by moonstruck poets. I embraced my lover in the moonlight. I looked up in wonder at the lunar sphere. But that day I stepped from the capsule onto the lunar surface and reached down at my feet, I came up with nothing but two handfuls of gray dirt. I cannot describe the loss I felt as the romance and mystery were stripped away.”

For me, this illustration is fascinating not only for what it says about humans and the mystery of space, but for the reason this illustration appeared in a commentary I studied for this Sunday – Trinity Sunday. The purpose of the story was to illustrate a point which goes something like this: The more we get to know about God the less we experience the wonder, mystery, and awe of God. I’d like to challenge that assertion on this one Sunday of our church year which is named for a theological concept: The Holy Trinity; the day we proclaim our experience of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Trinity is a theological concept and the commentaries warn us pastors to preach Jesus instead of theology. I think this sets up an unfortunate and false dichotomy – as if there is faith and experience and emotion on one side and academic theory and theology on the other side. Let’s stop thinking that way. Theology simply challenges us to know what we mean when we use words – what we mean when we say “Jesus.” When some people say “Jesus” they mean a great teacher who lived a long time ago who is on the same plane as Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammad. That’s not what Lutherans mean when we say “Jesus.”

To know what it is we mean when we say “Jesus” and to discover something about God in the process is not to lessen the mystery of God, as the moondust lessened the mystery of the moon for James Irwin. Instead, it is to take a peek at the infinity of God and to marvel more at the mystery and awe. It’s like finally being able to stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon rather than seeing pictures of it. Our creed, our theology, is not a prescription of how we ought to go about experiencing God. It is a DEscription of how we have experienced God and continue to experience God. Now theology becomes witness. Our trinitarian creed becomes more than a statement of belief, more than a “pledge of allegiance” to be patriotically recited in the middle of the service It becomes a witness to (a report of) how we have experienced God – and to continue to experience God – in three ways: as a father, as a son, and as a holy spirit. Or, if you prefer, as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.

The creed becomes a way of verbalizing the mystery of the Holy Trinity … that something can be both one thing and its opposite at the same time. Unapologetically we can say that Jesus was fully divine, truly. God. Wholly other – while at the same time confessing that Jesus was fully human, entirely subject to the fear, the pain, and the grief which surrounds the same deaths which you and I will one day face.

God doesn’t become any less awesome when we all agree what we mean when we say “Jesus.” For instance, in our Apostle’s Creed, we have that part where we say that, after death, Jesus “descended into Hell.” The preferred translation is “descended to the dead.” Some have said that during that time Jesus’ body was in the tomb he went to Hell to save all the people who had lived before him and who had not the opportunity to be saved. That’s an interesting theory, but it isn’t exactly the witness our church fathers were trying to give when they used those words. What the church fathers were trying to say was that, if hell is complete and utter separation from God, then this was a part of what Jesus experienced in his own dying. In this dying, the death was total. It wasn’t sleep. It was total nothingness. Separation. And can you begin to imagine the suffering of a father who lost his son. On the cross, both the father and the son suffered and died.

Now, this may sound like just so much “thology” to you, but it is the very core of what we mean when we say the simple and profound, “God died for me.” “God died for me.” God gave the ultimate sacrifice and died for me. That is why the cross is the focus of our faith. That is why, when you look at the front of the church you see a cross. That is why, on high holy days, the congregation stands and faces the processional cross as it come in and goes out. That is why it is perfectly appropriate for Lutherans to mark themselves with the cross of Christ at times during the service. That is why it is perfectly appropriate for you to dip your fingers in the baptismal font on the way in and out of church and mark the cross of Christ on your forehead. Because it was on the cross that God faced the same death that you and I face … so that we may live … with him … throughout all eternity.

No, finding out about God isn’t like touching the lunar surface and discovering that the moon is just dust. Each time we experience God through scripture, through communion, through the movement of the Holy Spirit as we worship together – each time we experience just a little piece of God we see how much bigger and greater God is. It is, indeed, like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and knowing that there is more up around the bend farther than your eye can see. It just keeps going and going. In God’s case, it goes forever and ever.


Text: John 3:1-17

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