Are you ready for some fooootbaaaalll…? Super Bowl Sunday is so exciting. American football makes me think of modern-day gladiators entering the arena to do battle. It’s epic. The players are larger than life to begin with: tall men with huge physiques, big attitudes, game faces, and above average speed, agility and toughness. Then they put on all that equipment which makes them look even bigger and more powerful. These are powerful men who’ve spent the better part of their lives training for this sort of gladiatorial combat. Whatever we might think of these athletes, they qualify among the elite. We give the presence of these teams among us great import. They represent our home cities: Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, or wherever you’re from. They convey their power to us as our champions. Their victory is our victory regardless of our ability to play the game for ourselves. They are our champions who fight on our behalf.
The NFL is flashy, to say the least. Pro football is the money sport of all sports in the US. It’s designed to make men larger than life, to make heroes and champions for us to hang our hopes of victory on. Quarterbacks and wide receivers have taken the place of gladiators as our heroes. We fans willingly endorse this fan/player relationship. We like having heroes. When it comes to sports entertainment, that’s ok. But hat the writer of our second reading, the letter to the Hebrews, sees a problem with heroes. He writes to Christian communities about the flaw of making a larger-than-life hero out of Jesus.
Jesus was flesh and blood – just like us, the writer to the Hebrews says. We share the same human condition. It’s not that God was being sentimental about the incarnation or salvation; being fully human is a critical component to the action of salvation. If Jesus wasn’t fully one of us, then his life, death, and resurrection would be pointless. The problem isn’t simply a question about either our understanding or misunderstanding of what the incarnation is, or salvation, or even the idea that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine at the same time. The problem that the author to the Hebrews sees is not that simple. The problem is us. We get in our own way. That’s why we’re looking for heroes and champions.
You see, we know at the very deepest parts of us that we need help – divine help. Somehow over the course of life and history, we’ve fallen victim to the power of death. The author of the letter to the Hebrews uses terms like death, the power of death, the devil, and fear. These are fairly loaded terms, so let me give you a perspective that might help unpack these terms.
When we talk about death what we’re really talking about is loss; and not just losing some things – or even some really important things – we’re talking about losing everything. Everything that we have or are, whatever we’ve been given or have worked for, all of that is lost. Death is the ultimate loss. Death is equated with a failure – the failure to hang on to our things. Some losses we can recover from or get over, but death – well, there’s just no coming back from that one. When we talk about death in Hebrews, we’re talking about the ultimate loss; the ultimate failure to hang on ourselves.
The writer of Hebrews also talks about the devil, and the power of death, and fear. What’s more powerful than death? The fear of it. Fear is that thing that has the power to disarm the strongest of us. Fear has the power to make us doubt ourselves and undermine our own agency for life. The devil is a good personification of fear. To anthropomorphize death in the figure of a devil is to give us all a common reference point. The power death – the power of loss – is the fear of it. At some point we understand that humanity is in a lost state. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ gives us the hope that the fear of death can be overcome. But because Jesus shows up as one of us, it means that he’s subject to the same fallen state that we find ourselves in. And that ends up amplifying the fear of death.
We don’t want Jesus to be human like us, because we don’t want to lose him in the same way that we lose ourselves. The Church has always struggled with the insistence of Hebrews that Jesus had to become like us in every respect. We know what we’re like, and we hesitate to admit the Messiah into our ranks. We are terribly flawed. Our flaws sometimes lead us to do awful things. Some among us find it impossible to overcome their flaws. We don’t want Jesus to fall into the conundrum of being human. Because of this we add lengthy caveats to explain what the writer of Hebrews meant when he said that Jesus was just “like us in every respect.” Well, maybe not every respect.
Some early Christians denied Jesus’ humanity, saying that he only seemed to be human. They argued that when Jesus was on the cross he was given a strong potion on a sponge at the end of a spear that put him into a deep sleep. He didn’t actually die on the cross. He only appeared to be dead, and was taken down from the cross, and awoke three days later. Others said that when Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross there was a mystical exchange of person. They traded bodies so actually Simon was crucified, and Jesus escaped unharmed. These and other theories are heresies that people of genuine faith will cling to in order to keep Jesus from being like us – because we know what we’re like, and we want to protect Jesus from the pitfalls of being truly human. It was to help get us past ourselves that the Creeds were written to state explicitly that Jesus was born from a woman, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. Sometimes it takes reciting our creeds to drive home the reality that Jesus was strong enough to endure the human condition.
There is great importance for Jesus “getting” what it’s like to be human. A distant and apathetic god, like the ones of the ancient world, can never truly connect with what it’s like to live from day to day as a mere mortal. The pantheon’s lack of concern only feeds the fear of death – the fear of loss of what little human beings were able to pull together to make life worth living. The culture at the time invented heroes to mitigate the power of death.
Human history is filled with the stories of mythical heroes who faced death and freed people. Hercules seemed like a good mediator. The product of a union between god and human, Hercules performed many great feats of death-defying power. He defied the odds to overcome the limitations of mere mortals. What’s not to like about Hercules? When Jesus comes along, the people may have understood him with the same human/divine duality: the product of a union between God and human. But the difference between the mythical figure and Jesus is that Jesus is not half divine and half human. Jesus is fully both. In Christ, God’s divinity is not diluted by the encounter with humanity. Jesus’ divine nature is not subsumed by being fully human. Therefore Jesus is able to walk the paths we walk, experience the things we experience, and feel the things we feel, and still rise above it.
Jesus starts out by walking the path that we walk, but then he begins to show us the Way. And then, Jesus goes from showing us the Way, to creating a new path for us to walk right behind him. Because Jesus is fully human, he can show us the way to overcome our human shortcomings, and get beyond ourselves and those fears that keep us stuck in our fallen state. Because Jesus showed us how to be unafraid of the power of loss, we too can choose to no longer be held back by our fears. So unafraid was he, that he went through what we consider the ultimate loss: his own death – to demonstrate that the fear of loss only holds us back from experiencing the abundance that God has for us.
Jesus isn’t a hero – some mythical, larger-than-life supernatural being whose life is unaffected by the daily trials of being human. He’s flesh and blood, just like us. In his humanity, he was able overcome the hardships of everyday living, rise above the difficulties, and show us how to do the same.
We don’t need heroes to be victorious for us. We don’t need champions to suit up and take the field in our place. Jesus calls his disciples off the sidelines and take our places in the game. God shows us that we can rise above the opposition, our failures, and fears, and devils. We don’t have to be slaves to fear. We no longer have to fear the loss of anything.
On this Super Bowl Sunday, let us hear the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who persuades us to reconsider Jesus as a player/hero/champion who uses his larger-than-life abilities to win victory on our behalf. Instead, we ought to understand Jesus more like the coach who trains us up, shows us the way, and encourages us to get out there and do our best no matter what the opposition. And that’s good news.