The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Jesus and the kerygmatic Christ

Jesus portrait by J. Jewell

A portrait of Jesus by J. Jewell

It is important for Christians to know Jesus of the gospels, but it is only a first step toward knowing the Risen Lord here and now and present with his church in the power of the Holy Spirit. The teachings of Jesus are part of our knowledge, but it’s the arc of his life, his willingness to live wholly and completely into his relationship with God that is most likely to have an effect on our own formation. Following Jesus’ teachings is a rational decision, but letting ourselves be shaped by Christ’s own faith in God is a spiritual decision, something of the heart and not just of the mind. Theologically, Jesus Christ, Jesus the Anointed One, is God showing us how to be human, and he did that not only by teaching but by showing us the measure of God’s love for us as well as for all creation. Jesus became God by living into the “greater love” of self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. (See, for example, John 15.12-17.)

Spiritually, the risen Lord becomes a composite for each of us, individually, and for the community of faith of what we know from scripture and our experience of Christ in the teaching and fellowship of the church, the breaking of bread and the prayers. No single portrait of Jesus from scripture, no single account of his teachings, is adequate to the task of “knowing Christ” in the sense of Philippians 3.10, where Paul writes, “I want to know Christand the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death …” Such knowledge is not about the rational acquisition of information but the discipline of faith, the willingness to let one’s self be loved by God – and in this case, by the love of God in Christ. (Note: There is not just one way of faith, of letting one’s self be loved by God. Christian faith is about the love of God in Christ; however, Muslim faith obviously would not be articulated the same way.)

Early Christians spoke of being “in Christ” (for example, Romans 6.9-11, 8.1-2, 1 Corinthians 1.1-2, Galatians 2.4-5, Ephesians 1.11-12, Philippians 4.6-7), and by that they meant at least two things: corporately, it meant being one among many in the community of faith, the Body of Christ, the church (see 1 Corinthians 12.12-27); and individually, becoming one with God in Christ through baptism, the sacrament of becoming “a new creation.” (See 2 Corinthians 5.17 and Galatians 6.15.) It is vital, then, in Christian spirituality to make a connection between Jesus in the gospels and the Risen Lord present with his church. Anglican Christianity proposes specific, discrete ways of doing this, as we will see later. It’s not the only way of being a Christian, but it has the merit of being a clearly stated “rule of life,” an invitation to lifelong spiritual growth.

Portait of Luke drawing Madonna

A portrait of St. Luke drawing the Madonna (1435-1440)
by Rogier van der Weyden

As indicated above, there is a distinct difference in Christian scripture between the gospels – stories about Jesus – and all the rest, which express faith in Jesus. Where the gospels are stories about Jesus of Nazareth, the rest of Christian scripture is about what might be called “the kerygmatic Christ,” based on the Greek term “kerygma,” or “proclamation.” The kerygmatic Christ is the good news of Christ – that he died and was raised “that we might live through him,” as in 1 John 4.9 – rather than the good news proclaimed by Christ: Repent, for “the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1.14-15) A somewhat stylized but clear image of this change is found in the two-volume work attributed to Luke the physician in which the author composes a gospel in volume one and then an account of the early church, Acts of the Apostles. From the very beginning of Acts, we see how the first-century community of faith remembered the creation of the church in Jerusalem 10 days after the ascension of Jesus into heaven – and especially, how the spirit-filled apostles were transformed to proclaim the good news of salvation in the name of Jesus.

Acts is the story of the spread of the church “to the ends of the earth,” namely throughout most of the Roman Empire, from Pentecost to the arrival in Italy of the apostle Paul, who had appealed his case to the emperor after being falsely accused of disloyalty. (Paul’s appeal apparently did not go well. Tradition tells of his martyrdom in Rome about 65 BCE, but there is not a word of this in Acts.) Most of Acts is an account of Paul’s missionary journeys, and it is clear that he was not the only Christian apostle in the field. We know, moreover, from his letters that he was being tracked by Christian missionaries with whom he disagreed; for example, over whether gentile converts must first become Jews before being admitted to Christian communities.

Paul’s journeys probably were of paramount importance to the author of Acts – and, at least in part, I believe Luke’s hand was on the writing of this book – because Paul’s letters, which were written at least two decades earlier, had become powerfully authoritative among Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. (By the time Acts was written, Jerusalem, its temple – and its Christian community – had been destroyed by the Romans.) Paul’s missionary journeys were a paradigm for all Christian missionary activity in the first century, and from Acts we learn how Christianity spread so rapidly through the empire – because there were Jews and synagogues almost everywhere. Christianity in those days was a reform movement within Judaism, and its missionaries bore strong resemblance to Jewish “proselytizers” – and it is likely that Paul was one before his conversion – who had founded all those synagogues not only to serve Jews living apart from Palestine but also the significant number of non-Jews, called “God fearers,” who found Judaism an appealing because of its ethical values and respect for law. (Acts 10, in fact, tells of such a God fearer named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, whose household became Christians.) Christian missionaries circulated among synagogues with the kerygma of Christ and, according to Acts, were met with a variety of responses, not all of them pleasant.

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