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Preaching the essentials: The person of Jesus

Posted by Ron George on September 26, 2011

Depravity

Depravity (artist unknown)

Let it not be said that the preacher isn’t ambitious.

An English professor once advised me – then a sophomore trying to write poetry – not to take on the big issues before I’d mastered the little ones. I’d concocted some lines about “patches of now,” eternity, tomorrow and yesterday (time always has fascinated me) and, well, it sounded more than a little pretentious, especially considering the source, and especially to the ears of a middle-aged scholar of modern British and American poetry.

The preacher is no sophomore, and Sunday’s sermon was in no way comparable to the inept overreaching of would-be bard; it’s just that, well, as a sermon topic, “The person of Jesus” sounds a little overbroad. As it turns out, though, it wasn’t about the person of Jesus at all but an astonishingly Calvinist discourse on the depravity of humanity and a repudiation of the postmodern idea that there’s more than one way to God.

The preacher apparently believes that stemming the “slow, downhill slide of the church into irrelevance” (his phrase, but Google it and see what pops up) means reviving a species of evangelism that passed out of the mainstream decades ago. Simply put, as outlined in five steps by the preacher, it goes like this.

  • Humanity is utterly depraved.
  • Jesus Christ is God’s best and only answer for sin.
  • Jesus is the one and only savior.
  • We need look no further if we know Christ.
  • Jesus is – and I like this image – the “plumb-line,” the standard of fulfillment by which all humanity is judged.
Salvation by Janet Hickey

Salvation, by Janet Hickey

What is often called the mystery of the Incarnation is no easy piece of preaching. Never has been, not in the first century and not now. Skeptics always have wondered aloud and challenged the Christian kerygma with its implausibility and even its crudeness. All the more reason, then, for evangelists from the beginning not only to proclaim the good news but to insist on even its most improbable claims as the truth itself, without qualification, without modification; otherwise, it was likely that the whole edifice of Christianity might have crumbled into so much dust along the Appian Way. Christianity hung on by the skin of its teeth for almost four centuries before a Roman emperor began promoting it – centuries of theological dispute and refinement through which orthodox Christianity became steadfast.

Jesus, it was asserted (and still is), was very God of very God, begotten not made, born of a virgin; a Jewish man totally human and yet totally divine (an idea utterly repugnant to Judaism), who walked on water, raised the dead and was raised himself after being ignominiously executed as an enemy of the Roman Empire. He ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God (a strange image, if he, himself, was truly God incarnate) and will return at the end of time to judge the the living and the dead. This improbable story is said to be historically factual and true; and, to top it all off, Christians also claimed (and many still do) that belief in Jesus the resurrected God-man is the only way one can be saved from eternal damnation.

Way, truth and life by Spencer Williams

The way, Truth and life, by Spencer Williams

A variety of historical dynamics have intruded upon these claims since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, which ended the empire’s official persecution of Christianity, at least for awhile. Among other things, Christians have disputed with each other for centuries over the meaning of supposedly bedrock Christian doctrines; but more than that, world history has encroached upon Christian doctrine in myriad ways that make its claims seem not just archaic but irrelevant. Generations of Christians have sought to “rethink” Christianity in order to make sense of its bedrock claims in light of developing philosophical, scientific and historical knowledge, but over time, these efforts have failed; instead, time and again, Christians have retreated into defensive postures that simply repeat those old improbable propositions as though they were indisputably true.

That, it turns out, is a very popular course, for nothing rewards Christian outreach in the 21st century more than the hallmarks of theological reaction to modernism: The Bible as God’s word (literally), Jesus as God’s son (literally), salvation as God’s promise to those who believe aright, and judgment as God’s punishment for those who don’t. It’s a matter of fact that Christian congregations grow when these core beliefs are affirmed without compromise, and that congregations decline when these matters are subject to thoughtful re-interpretation.

The preacher is certainly correct in the way he’s chosen to maintain and rebuild a struggling mainline Protestant congregation. Reinterpreting Christian myths is the farthest thing from his mind, even though that’s what’s required, unless Christianity in general chooses to erect the walls of its own intellectual ghetto by pretending that the past 500 years of intellectual and social history never occurred. 

Jesus Christ artist unknown

Jesus Christ (artist unknown)

Humanity is utterly depraved

The preacher maintained that we can accept Jesus only by acknowledging that we are depraved. We may well be depraved, but it’s not because we’ve fallen from our innocence by an act of disobedience, the so-called sin of Adam. That’s a myth, and it’s true as long as we choose to believe it as such; moreover, it made sense 2,000 years ago to argue among believers that it was a compelling reason for becoming a Christian, especially since the world was about to end (it didn’t). Nowadays, however, there are other ways of understanding and interpreting the human condition that don’t make us dependent upon God as the answer to the problem of evil.

Humanity has evolved from lower forms of life through several distinct gene pools, all but one of which are now extinct. As we have developed as a species we have despoiled the earth’s resources, its creatures and its very environment. Even now that we know this is true, we seem incapable of using our vaunted intelligence to stop; or, in theological language, to repent or turn away from self-destruction. It doesn’t require theology, however, to interpret either our current condition or how we got here. We are on a self-destructive path, but it’s due not to sin but epochal ignorance and contemporary lack of courage to act on our own behalf.

Maybe we are less depraved than we are craven, but in any case, it is in our genes – but so are our nimble intelligence, perceptive consciousness and instinct for survival. We do not need God to show us what is right and wrong. The jury’s still out on whether we will choose to change; and frankly, I’m not optimistic. We are capable, however, of discerning these things for ourselves: We may choose to believe that our capacity for moral choice is God-given as a matter of faith – our desire and willingness to let God love us – but it simply defies common sense in the 21st century to maintain that only God can save us from sin. We need salvation of a sort, but it’s from ourselves by ourselves. Religious faith may or may not help us interpret our predicament – and this always has been true – but it will not in and of itself be a remedy.

Jesus is God’s best and only answer for sin.

It’s the exclusivity that makes no sense. The world is not mono-cultural. Never has been, but 2,000 years ago it made a little bit of sense to see it only in terms of the (multicultural) empire within which one lived. That’s the world within which exclusive claims were made – and, frankly, it made almost no sense then, either – but these claims were strategic in setting the Christian community over against the non-Christian world. It was a matter of survival. People were willing to die for these beliefs; as the saying goes, the blood of martyrs was the seed of faith, although not all Christians – in fact most Christians – were not willing to die for their faith. (This became a major controversy among fourth-century Christian bishops.) In any case, it is simply untenable that Christian faith is the only answer to sin, which Christian theology understands as that which separates one’s self from God. There is a multitude of cultural answers to this question as embodied in the world’s other great religions. If there is a God – a big if to many of the world’s inhabitants today – then it is logically implausible that only one of the many religions of the world – all of them, presumably, responses to “the Holy” – is true and correct.

Jesus Christ, by Serhiy Kolyada

Jesus Christ, by Serhiy Kolyada

Jesus is the one and only savior.

It’s a bit redundant to make this claim, but the preacher argued that there were not many paths to God, as popularly believed; moreover, he said, Christianity was not a “path” to God. Jesus was “a person not a path,” he said.  Well, OK, but Christian biblical tradition has it that Jesus described himself as “the way, the truth and the life.” Sounds like a path to me, at least metaphorically. (It’s likely that Jesus never said any such thing about himself. That tradition is found in John’s gospel, which is notorious for quoting Jesus in preposterous terms that the carpenter’s son from Galilee would not have known. It’s significant, too, for this expansive sermon that the preacher quoted the gospels almost entirely from John, from which we learn the least about the person of Jesus. Mostly, it’s theological speculation put into Jesus’ mouth.)

The last of the preacher’s assertions – that we need look no further if we know Christ and that Jesus is the plumb-line – are absolutely true from the standpoint of faith (which not everyone shares, by the way). There is certainly a sufficiency in knowing Christ the way this is described by centuries of generations of Christian spiritual writers. It seems like an inexhaustible well of – OK, living water that nourishes and refreshes the soul and calls it to plunge ever deeper into the mystery of Being Itself. Which is not to say that other religious traditions are not equally inexhaustible, worthy of a lifetime of devotion. As for Jesus being the plumb-line, I would have to agree – for a believer. If Jesus is nothing else, he is an exemplar of fulfilled humanity, which within the household of faith is certainly a form of the divine nature. We can not measure up – but we can try, and it’s the trying that makes us perfect, even as the Father – if such there be – is perfect. Again, though, there are other such exemplars in human tradition, not all of them divinized as Jesus has been, but no less a kind of incarnation of all that is fulfilling in our remarkably evolved species.

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2 Responses to “Preaching the essentials: The person of Jesus”

  1. aripi de foc…

    […]Preaching the essentials: The person of Jesus « The pelican papers[…]…

  2. urbantruthnetwork said

    Great Post! Nice page! This needs to be heard!

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