Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More On "Why Jesus Matters" From My Book CONVERSATIONAL THEOLOGY

Some emphasized passages are in bold

Jesus Christ As Reconciler of God To Man

I have suggested that the central conversation in the New Testament surrounds the question of what it would mean for Jesus to be savior, and that the question of what a messiah must be is the question Jesus struggled with, as did the majority of those who came after Him. It is, indeed, a question we must continue to struggle with today. One common practice is to try to go back and discern what Jesus and His immediate followers thought about this question, and try to adopt that view, trusting Jesus' self-understanding over and above later commentators. I would argue that this is a massive mistake, at least from a conversational point of view. The point is that whatever God was saying and doing in and through Jesus, whatever it means for Jesus to have salvific significance is something that remains huge, difficult, and mysterious. Jesus self-understanding was the first, not the last, important word on the subject. Jesus struggle within Himself and with His followers began the process, began the conversation, and every thing that has come since has been important commentary, and often has been grounded in God itself. We can only understand who and what Jesus Christ was when we look at the entirety of the New Testament, and consider much of what has come since. A wide array of influences plays a role in my own comprehension of Christ, and I will be bringing much of it to bear as I give my own understanding of what it means to say "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior."

Let me say that I think that Jesus sowed the seeds of His identification with God Himself within His own self-understanding of Messiah. To be sure, Jesus did not think of Himself as Divine, and He always put the focus on The Father rather than Himself; but in some ways Jesus' own convictions led logically (when put into the context of what happened later) to the idea of Jesus' divinity. Jesus' rejection of political messianism and His own adoption of the "Man From God" and "Suffering Servant" messianic theologies are of supreme interest here. Jesus' conviction was that God and God alone could save mankind. The moral community Jesus sought to form was never going to usher in the Kingdom by it's own power, rather it was merely setting the stage for actions Jesus thought could be accomplished by God alone. He believed military and political power to be a satanic temptation, which in theological terms translates into the idea that there is no moral or human answer to the problems of evil or the intractability of sin. Put simply, Jesus contended that people could not save themselves. The repentant 'remnant' He hoped to form was more like an attempt to fulfill scripture so that the rest of the transformation could then proceed. His own role was to proclaim that God alone could bring about the change His followers wanted to see, and to represent God's call to perfect faith, obedience and repentance. In short Jesus' role was to clarify God's place in human salvation, and to remove from his disciples any trust in man's own power to usher in The Kingdom.
Of course, the usage of the "Man From God" theology naturally conjured up the image of a semi-divine individual, since that is how we see the man from God presented in the words of the prophets. Jesus probably thought that the miraculous healings that were taking place around Him were fulfilling this aspect of scripture (Matthew 11:4-6), anyone who read those writings would notice that the Man From God or the Son of Man spoken of in the prophets had power of cosmic proportions. But its not clear to me that Jesus emphasized this cosmic element in His own self-understanding, and rather focused on the cosmic consequences of His work. In other words, He kept the cosmic power in the hands of God, while still appropriating for Himself the special mediating role of the Man From God or Son of Man.

More important in my view, Jesus seems to have adopted the Suffering Servant idea after John's arrest. I suspect that He expected His suffering to culminate with a fulfillment from God Himself. The humble acceptance of the cross was an act of obedience to God' perceived Will, but nothing ended as Jesus originally suspected. As we move on, we'll see that this juxtaposition of the suffering servant idea with political messianism will be vital to my own addition to the conversations about Jesus' significance. For now, let me say that I find the insistence on God alone as savior to be compelling, and the doubts about any political or military solution to the human problem reflect my own feelings about sin.

The resurrection event, in my view, is the Rosetta Stone to understanding the nature of salvation. I don't pretend to have any notion about what the resurrection is or isn't beyond a direct revelation of Christ's continued presence with the disciples and confirmation of His place as savior. But whatever it amounts to, without this event, without God making Jesus' salvific significance clear to the early followers of Jesus, His story would be one of ultimate failure, and deserve barely a footnote in history. But in and through that confirmation of His significance, we can cast His entire life in a new light. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus is our savior; it functioned as proof that He was Messiah and that through the Messiah God had begun the work of Redemption, and that The Kingdom had started to take form. But Jesus' conviction implies that God alone could do that. The move from Paul onwards towards assigning Jesus a position closer and closer to God, was a natural outgrowth of those convictions looked at through the lens of the Resurrection. In Jesus the man, we have God Himself acting decisively to grant mankind salvation, but only God can save us. So whatever else is true of messiah, and thus of Jesus, He must in some sense be God, for God alone can be our Savior.

This reasoning isn't explicit in Paul, but I suspect Paul's own moral pessimism and his general metaphysical picture is part of the reason why he winds up associating Jesus more and more with the Divine in a special way. I have already commented that I myself find a lot in Paul's views that are concomitant with my own experiences...the cosmic nature of sin, moral pessimism, etc. I also think that Pauline and Johannine emphases on the cosmic drama involving Jesus is vital to our own understanding of what it means for Jesus to be Messiah. And while I agree for reasons I'll state in a moment that Jesus death and resurrection are central to His salvific power, I do not think they are solely what matters, and can't imagine why anyone would. God's confirmation of Jesus as Messiah, and thus His implicit self-identification with Jesus is about Jesus in toto, Jesus the man from birth to death and resurrection. In fact, if we didn't glean anything from Jesus' teachings that had salvific import, we wouldn't have been able to run down the logic that gets us to the conviction that Jesus is Divine, a conclusion that buttresses Paul's overall view. Here the Gospel writers I think got it right. With John I also find a lot of value in his emphasis on the Logos, for reasons I've stated before and for reasons dealing with messianic theology I'll deal with in a moment.

So why did God identify with Jesus and save us through Jesus? Put simply, there was no other way to do it. What we really have in the conversations about messiah are continuations of conversations we found in the prophets, particularly surrounding the prophetic problem and the problem of evil, or put another way, we have two kinds of sin we have to find a cure for, in order to effect salvation for mankind: moral sin and metaphysical sin (notice how all our earlier conversations now seem to come into close contact in these New Testament messianic dialogues). Metaphysical sin, the not rightness of the universe, makes belief in God difficult. How can we believe in God in this evil world, how can we love Him if He abandons us to this terrible darkness? Paul's answer is eschatological, John's is to make Jesus' death the beginning of a cosmic transformation, an idea I think has merit and I'll return to later. But none of these answers is really satisfactory to the question of theodicy. I find more substance in the Church Fathers' fascination with God's kenosis, His self-emptying (Philippians 2:1-11) into the man of Jesus Christ, as a central reason for maintaining Christ's Divinity. Certainly, they did not posit this as the answer to cosmic evil, and instead adopted eschatological answers as did the prophets and Paul did, but for us it can serve as an answer to that pressing problem. Paul sees the darkness in the world, and posits Jesus as central to answering the question 'why is everything so bad'...the answer I glean from that meditation on the man Jesus is this: God is far different than what we expected Him to be. God is not like the Babylonian king, but is much more like the suffering servant, the Crucified Carpenter. God reveals to us this: I identify with this man Jesus. If you want to understand Who and What God is, and how God operates in the world, look at the whole of Christ's life. No doubt, the resurrection represents triumph, an act of creation and redemption. But look at what it takes to bring that creation and redemption about: suffering and death. God is that which exposes itself to the evils of the world, shows it undeserved love, and thereby ultimately transforms it. God's acts of creation are in and through His self-exposure to suffering and evil, and the taking on the consequences of evil into Himself. God is more like the woman in labor pains, than the sculptor or clock maker. God's power is suffering love, and that being the case, there are some things we just cannot expect God to be able to do. One of those is to ensure that we will be able to escape life without suffering.

We cannot expect more from existence than God gets. Bonhoeffer said once "cheap grace is grace without the cross...costly grace is the gospel. Grace cost God, it cost God the life of His only Son, and nothing can be cheap to us that is costly to God". I would expand this to say that we cannot expect to exist, to be, especially to exist in the midst of goodness, without suffering, since even God cannot exist without it. Jesus could not have known it, but even in His greatest moment of defeat, when all He thought was going to happen failed to, He was fulfilling a salvific role. I have already mentioned the moment on the cross when Jesus cries out "Eloi Eloi, lama sabacthani", or "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Traditionally, Christianity has tried to paint this moment as a moment of Jesus greatest humanity, but I say no, in this moment you get the clearest image of what Divinity really is all about. Understand God as a man turning to God in defeat, and you'll understand the whole of the gospels. We now can get a clear view of how Jesus can be all God and all man. Jesus is God's Word come to life, God revealing who God is through a human being. In much the same way I can give you a diary that will show you who I am and what I'm about...a way of getting to know me perhaps even more effective than direct contact with me, God gives us a human being who shows us what it really means to be God. So in one sense Jesus is, just a man, just as my diary is just paper and ink. But in another sense, it is the very heart and soul of God revealed, as well as God's activity in the world explained. Just as that diary in a real sense is my very self, my very soul, poured out on paper.

In this context, the juxtaposition between political messianism and Jesus' messianism takes on an important role. Christ's appearance was not incidental, He came at a time when many had adopted the view that Caesar was Divine, and Roman Power was something like "The Kingdom of God" made manifest. God's decision to self-identify with the carpenter on the Cross is a decision also to DIS-identify with the Caesar and with all political and military power. It is as if God said "is that what you think God is? I'll show you what God is, but you're probably never going to be able to accept it fully". Jesus' self-identification with the suffering servant was His living out God's Nature within Him. It was His revealing who God was, however unconsciously. And there is also a lasting moral relevance to all this. One can find it in Matthew 25. God's identification with the lowest and the weakest brought with it a call to treat these people as continued manifestations of God on Earth. To live in service to the weakest is to live in service to God, in that sense Jesus death also reinforced His call to a new moral community, which was radically different from the other human communities He encountered. This is what is known as the 'transvaluation of human values', the transformation of rational ordering of values into something IRrational, where the lowest is made highest, and the least important is made most important, it is an inevitable result of God's decision to reveal Himself in Christ.

This kind of Being, One who creates through suffering and by self-exposure to evil and danger, One who redeems us by taking the consequences of evil into Himself, is not one we can rightly get angry at for the evils of the world. To do so is to blame the victim. Now we understand the prophetic insight that we can discover God through our sufferings without resorting to the absurd formula that therefore God sent our suffering. Reconciliation after the prophets had to be two-sided, we needed God to be something we could accept and love, and we needed to be made acceptable to God. This kenosis idea is a hint of the answer the first half of that formula.

Before I begin talking about the second half, our own reconciliation to God, I want to address one issue that probably is bubbling under the surface. Often I am asked how we can worship a God that is not omnipotent, not like that Babylonian King in terms of power. I have had some put the question this way: well in what sense is that God at all, in what sense is such a god "worthy of worship"? Whenever I hear these comments I cannot help but think of the Romans putting a crown of thorns on Christ's head, and mocking the idea that He is a king. I do not know what 'worthiness of worship' amounts to, what I do know is that knowledge of a love this great forces me into a position of worship, and prayerfulness, even more than the idea of some omnipotent Divine potentate. "Amazing Love, how can it be, that you my King would die for me?" God doesn't have to bother with us, He doesn't have to relate to us intimately, and share in our own pains, but He does, because He loves us and wants to help us make of ourselves something meaningful and valuable. God as Christ is the source of all love, and the very ground of meaning and value. The very idea commands my worship, the very thought of this suffering love calls me to worship and prayer. Indeed, God as this man also means more responsibility for me, and less guarantees in life, it may mean that life in a world with God is harder, rather than easier, than the alternative. We must now take up our cross and bear it. I think we get angry at Christ; we get angry that God isn't what we thought He would be. We wanted someone who would give us political prestige, a Divine Potentate who could tend our every whim and smite our enemies. Christ frustrates human concerns and desires...a fact that is in itself concomitant with the important prophetic experience. Christ just isn't the kind of king we wanted. But, I would argue, He's the King we need. The God we yearn for, in our deepest hearts.

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