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The Real Jesus is Not on TV

by Drew 4 Comments

During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus.  (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.)  This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar.  Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.

From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus.  We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one.  Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure).  In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?

The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.  According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:

When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.

In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection.  Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction.  This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word:

For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all.  Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)

Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!

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The Only Free Person: Jesus

Only truly free person who has have lived is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.water and spirit

In the 21st century West, we tend to think of freedom negatively as freedom from: from constraint, morality, obligation, limitation.  Our icons are lone rangers like Rambo and the Marlboro Man.  One person against the world, without care, without accountability to anything outside (much less above) the self.  This is freedom as it is commonly spoken of today.  If you don’t believe it, ask 6 out of 10 millennials what their relationship status is or what they think about having children.

Jesus offers a different model of freedom altogether.

Jesus was free because he was obedient.  His liberty was based not in freedom from all outside constraint, but because his life was forfeit to the Father.  His was freedom for: for the Father, for his mission to Israel and the Gentiles, for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, argues that the one who bows is the only one who is free:

And how truly noble, truly human and genuinely free are those who still know what it means to bow before the High and the Holy, the True and the Beautiful, who know what reverence and respect are; who know that bowing down before God is the true condition of freedom and dignity. Indeed Christ is the one truly free man, because He was obedient to His Father to the end and did nothing but the Father’s will. To join the Church alway has meant to enter into Christ’s obedience and to find it the truly divine freedom of man. (Of Water and the Spirit, 34)

To be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, is to participate in “Christ’s obedience” and discover that true freedom is to incandescent with God’s grace. “He must increase, and I must decrease” is not a figure of speech, it is the via salutis (way of salvation). (John 3:30)

The radical call of the gospel is that any other freedom is merely shadow and illusion.  In bowing before our Creator, we discover the only freedom that is not self-negating, because we are imitating the one truly free person.

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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.

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The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative

The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture.  I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance.  I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.  Here it is:

When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail.  Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state.  When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself.  Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus.  Father James Schall put it this way:

“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.” (1)

The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it.  Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World.  I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.”  That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other.  The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…

The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither.  The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions.  Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things.  None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly.  The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable. 

A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes.  They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up.  They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole.  Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car.  One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle.  He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.”  Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car.  All they are going to do is damage your car.

Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage.  In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation.  Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God.  All of this does great harm to the gospel.  It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power.  It renders unto Caesar what is God’s.  On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.

Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:

“…Christians should never have a political party.  It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)

Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology.  We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it.  The world needs Jesus.  Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love.  But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it.  People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable.  The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories.  It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death.  So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ.  The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him.  To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist.  However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business.  In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.  Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp

2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.

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Things I Never Expected as a Pastor: Jewelry Parties

After a meeting this evening, I was invited (unbeknownst to me) to a jewelry party.  One of my members was throwing a Mary-Kay-esque jewelry party and needed a 10th person to get some kind of bonus prize from the company rep.  She asked me to come by the room afterwords but didn’t say why.  Upon entering, I learned that I had filled out the magic number and she got a prize.

At first I was annoyed.  “This is what my time is being used for??”  But then I paused.  I was being arrogant.  I’ve been arrogant.  To an extent, I think, I’ve let an elite seminary education get in the way of my ministry.  After all, the Christian movement gained much of its momentum by the one who wrote,

I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Cor. 9: 22b-23)

Sometimes being a pastor means being a counselor.  Other times a teacher.  Sometimes it might mean babysitting, or video games.  Sometimes it is as high and lofty as Holy Communion.  And maybe, just maybe, sometimes being a pastor means being a warm body at a jewelry party. 

Why the hell not?

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