One of the controversies that troubled the early church and still divides Christians today is the full understanding and acceptance of the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Folks who say doctrine doesn’t matter and “All that really matters is how much you love Jesus” miss the obvious previous question, “Yes, but who is Jesus?” In other words, “Are you sure that the “Jesus” you love is the Jesus of the gospels, the New Testament, the Jesus who was worshipped and adored by the first Christians who were, after all, two thousand years closer to the historical Jesus than we are?”

In the first four centuries of the church the Christian theologians hammered out the true identity of the mysterious prophet of Nazareth. They argued, excommunicated one another, fought and took sides over the identity of Jesus. Heretical opinions of all sorts were bandied about and sometimes imposed on others by force. Before discussing this further, it is worth remembering that a heresy if rarely 100% false. It is more often mostly true, but a distortion of the truth by omission or admission–by adding to the truth of neglecting one aspect of the truth of distorting the truth by over emphasis of one truth to the neglect of another.

Docetism is one of the Christological heresies from those early centuries. Those who were pondering the identity of Jesus found the prospect of God taking human form to be too much to swallow. How could God all powerful, all divine, beyond our human comprehension come into the squalid human form, get sweaty and smelly, eat and drink and urinate and defecate? How could the divine stoop to conquer in such a way? It was impossible. So, they theorized, God only appeared  to be human. In fact his divinity held back from that full human flesh. Jesus, therefore, was a kind of flesh robot that God manipulated and spoke through. Or, some supposed that the seemingly human Jesus miraculously appeared on earth through the channel of the Virgin Mary. He grew up and did miracles and had supernatural powers because God was working through him.

In other words, Jesus was Superman. Comic book fans will remember that Superman was born on the planet Krypton as Kal-El, but he was sent to earth by his parents just as the planet was about to be destroyed. Kal-El landed in Smallville, Kansas where was adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent who raised him as Clark Kent. Mild mannered reporter Clark grew up to be the outward identity of Superman.  From time to time Clark would step into a phone booth and exchange his spectacles and cheap suit for the famous blue and red spandex and zoom off to exercise his super powers to save the world.

Now transpose this to the Jesus story: The Son of God is sent by his father to planet earth to the small village of Nazareth where he is brought up by his adopted parents Joseph and Mary. He grows up and has the outward identity of the small town prophet and preacher spreading the good news (like a journalist) but from time to time he slips into a first century phone booth to change into the miracle worker who walks on water, feeds multitudes miraculously, raises people from the dead and heals the sick.

Call it parody if you like, but this comic book, superhero version of Jesus is actually what many contemporary Christians believe–certainly without some proper correction, this is what many children will believe about Jesus. They hear that he is the Son of God and has supernatural powers and that he “came down from heaven” and they put two and two together and think Jesus is the real Superman. I think, in fact, it is not only children, but a good number of adult Christians who believe this. Furthermore, I think there are a good number of clergy and well educated laypeople who have a foggy understanding of Christology and lapse into the “Jesus as Superman” heresy.

But this is a form (one of many) of docetism. It is not the historic Christian doctrine as expressed in the Nicene Creed. The true, historical identity of Jesus is that he is “God from God, Light from Light, True God of true God, Begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made.” This  logos took human flesh of the Blessed Virgin. As St Paul teaches, “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son born of a woman.” (Gal. 4:4) Note that he says the Son was born OF a woman not THROUGH a woman. The Blessed Virgin Mary was not simply a channel or a kind of water slide for a Hebrew Kal-El to zoom to earth from Krypton/Heaven. The Son did not appear on earth fully formed from heaven like Kal-El. Instead, Nicene Christianity affirms that Jesus is the God-Man not Superman. He is fully God and fully man two natures united in one person.

Does it matter? Yes. What you believe affects how you behave. If you say you are a Christian and you “love Jesus” but you do not know who Jesus really is how can you properly love him? If you have a faulty understanding of Jesus, then you will relate to him in a faulty way. So, if you have the notion that Jesus is kind of like Superman–that he zoomed down from heaven through Mary the water slide, then you have a solid idea that he is divine, but your understanding of his humanity is deficient. This leads to a perception of Jesus as Superman–the divine miracle worker on earth who isn’t really a full human being.

How does this faulty Christology work itself out in life and worship? This kind of Christian is apt to live in a kind of religious fantasy land in which the reality of life and the reality of being human is ignored, denied or denigrated. The subtle, complicated reality of being a human being is ignored, denied or denigrated in two different ways  which seen contradictory, but (when analyzed) prove to be two sides of the same coin.

First is the “Puritanical” response in which the “flesh” and everything associated with it is considered unworthy, sinful and dirty. This sort of Christian (and they exist in all denominational forms) will favor asceticism, extreme physical mortification, self denial and suspicion of all aspects of fleshly pleasure. If Jesus was Superman, then to be Christ-like is to shed the soiled and sordid flesh and rise to divine sanctification.

The second also treats the flesh as insignificant, but in this case, (because the flesh is insignificant) you can do whatever you like and it doesn’t matter. If Jesus is Superman than what really matters is his divine status. So this second type of Superman Christian indulges in the fleshly pleasures knowing that his true identity–his true self (like Superman) is divine–redeemed.

Nicene Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, and it is through this congruence of divinity and humanity that the bloody sacrifice is made which redeems the world, saves humanity and ultimately unites humanity with the Godhead.

How does this work out in worship? In Catholic worship we celebrate every day the Eucharist and we believe in “The Real Presence of Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity” in the Eucharist elements. In other words, we worship the Lord Jesus Christ–true God and true man–under the form of bread and wine.

This Sunday we celebrate Corpus Christi–The Body of Christ–remembering that the Lord Jesus was not Kal-El come down from Krypton, but he was the Son of God–the second person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity who took human flesh of his Blessed Mother to redeem a fallen race and restore us to the Kingdom of the Father.