For surely it is not the angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way… Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.16-18)
Has it only been a few years since “gay” gained widespread usage as a non-pejorative adjective? It feels like it’s been with us always. But prior to the mid-1990s, it was a label—typically an unkind one. Before it shed much of its derogation, gay people regularly resorted insider slang. Gay men were often called “friends of Dorothy” (presumably alluding to The Wizard of Oz heroine and its star, Judy Garland) or “members of the choir.” Lesbians were “sisters of Sappho,” named for the Greek poet who lived on the isle of Lesbos and scribed love songs to women. Bisexuals were “switch-hitters” and, to our shame, argot for transsexual/transgendered people in our community was too charmless and abrasive to repeat. Collectively, we were “PLU”—People Like Us.
The acronym was heavily weighted with subtext. To describe someone as PLU flagged more than same-sex orientation. It indicated he/she belonged to us—was one of us—whether or not she/he was out or involved in community life. The strains and astonishments of being gay were what made People Like Us people like us. While none of our stories was exactly alike, the sentiment behind PLU declared “we’ve all been there.” (One of the truest generalizations about our community is our fondness for generalizations.) And though slang for dozens of LGBT stereotypes lard the “lavender lexicon”—yes, we even have slang for our slang—one need not fit any mold to qualify as PLU. Having survived, and continuing to survive, the gay experience was sufficient.
Now that the “gay” stigma has softened, “PLU” has fallen from usage. Yet the phenomenon of basic inclusion persists, as with all communities built on shared culture and experience. The PLU principle applies to any collective, including the Body of Christ. Which is why it’s no surprise to open Hebrews 2 and read that God found it necessary to become like us in order to belong to us.
The Jesus Puzzle
Strange as it seems, the Early Church’s biggest dilemma is pinpointing where Jesus fits into its radically unorthodox beliefs. To the Apostles—who served with Him, learned from Him, and witnessed His life first-hand—it’s a no-brainer. Jesus is The Christ, God made human to atone for our failures and free us from fear. To newcomers, this is a brand new, completely foreign construct riddled with contradictions no one can logically resolve. Jews, Greeks, Turks, or Romans, they’re part of a global culture with very rigid ideas about deities and mortals. Their texts and legends stress logical divides that separate supernatural forces governing nature from human submission to their will. So the question troubling many first-century believers is, “Was Jesus human or divine?” While they could accept Him as one or the other (and doctrines that lean either way start popping up in no time), the notion that Jesus was/is both doesn’t compute.
It doesn’t compute because early Christians see no reason why Jesus should be God and man. God’s role is unique to God. Our role is unique to us. That God would choose to be like us makes no sense to them. Of course, it makes sense to us because it requires faith and faith is what Christianity’s all about. In its dawning days, however, with the concept of faith in God’s grace and acceptance still in its infancy, the Jesus puzzle is a brain-buster for everyone but the Apostles. It’s particularly hard for converts from fear-based, legalistic religions like Judaism. The author of Hebrews comes to their rescue with a splendidly logical rationale for Jesus’s coexistent humanity and divinity. Pulling a verse here and there from his/her deposition on Christ’s humanity deprives us of its full impact. Here’s why it was essential that Jesus become people like us:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.14-18)
When we can’t say why we succumb to fears and temptations, we reach for the age-old, one-size-fits-all excuse: “We’re only human,” as if we’ve tapped every ounce of will and strength to defy fear and temptation. But it’s no excuse because Jesus gave lie to the ruse. God decided to become like us—and belong to us—to demonstrate the vast capabilities imbedded in our humanity. Jesus wasn’t only human. He was fully human in every way. His flesh ached at times and tingled at others, just like ours. His blood boiled with rage, cooled with disappointment, and flowed with ardor, just like ours. He battled the same fears we battle, subjecting Himself to hunger and thirst, exposure to poverty and disease, hatred and anger, pushing Himself to the brink of exhaustion. He didn’t stop being fully human until death broke His body in excruciating pain. Only then did He retaliate, breaking the power of death and its terror for our sake.
Jesus gave Himself to the whole of mortal experience—its joys, sorrows, worries, and wonders—to show us what being fully human in every way looks like. He set the standard for people like us, who’ve decided to follow His example. Had Jesus been God alone, His life would hold no relevance for us. Had He been nothing but a man, faith we confide in His compassion and understanding would amount to hero worship. What we see in Jesus is more than enough to persist in our quest to be fully human in every way. He became people like us so we could become people like Him.
In being fully human in every way, Jesus set the standard for people like us, who’ve decided to follow His example.