Arrogance isn’t hard to find in Christian circles. It comes from believing that I, or my church, knows better than you know what you need. And this is based on some belief that I’ve been authorized by God to speak not only to you, but about you. I know you better than you know yourself.
In the last blog I suggested that this comes from believing we Christians have a grasp on a universal human problem called sin. Or more properly “Sin,” the spiritual force that separates us from God and gives rise to all the little sins that hurt our fellow humans and offend God.
The arrogant thing about our doctrine of sin is that it explains not only Jesus, but the apparent ignorance of sin we find outside our Christian culture. Because sin itself blinds others to its existence. We can believe that only the enlightened even realize that they are living in darkness.
To at least suggest an answer to how we can talk about Jesus without indulging in this arrogance let me suggest that we meditate on the cross. Of course our first Christian response to the cross is precisely to associate it with a theological anthropology centered on sin. Jesus died for our sins, right? And not only that, but was killed in one of Sin’s purest acts of rejecting God.
Yes, but I want to suggest that Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, which is clearly the center of Christian preaching of the good news, is much richer than these dogmas.
We can get at this by looking at the initial responses to the cross found in the gospels.
In Matthew this response comes in the words of the centurion, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” It is fascinating, because here we have a Gentile speaking to a Jewish audience in the language that, a chapter later, will be specifically Trinitarian. The Gospel of Mark has essentially the same ending, but without the specifically Trinitarian language.
Luke’s account follows that of Mark and Matthew, but with a significant difference. In Matthew and Mark both of the men crucified with Jesus join the crowd in mocking him. In Luke one of the criminals rebukes the other, and in asking Jesus to remember him also affirms that Jesus is a righteous man. And in Luke the centurion does not say “Surely this is the Son of God” but rather “glorifies God” and says “Surely this was a righteous man.”
John displays even greater differences, primarily by making Jesus the key actor and initiator on the cross. The only immediate response to his crucifixion is for two righteous Jewish men to take his body and give it a proper burial.
In Matthew and Luke the slightly longer term response to the crucifixion and resurrection is that the disciples are sent on their mission, which is characterized as:
Matthew: “Go into all nations preaching the gospel and teaching all that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Luke: Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah will suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In John there is no announcement of a mission, but then the gospel presents itself as the fruit of Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to his beloved disciple. “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.”
Note that only in Luke is repentance and forgiveness of sins the specific content of Christian preaching.
Also note that in all these cases the witness to Jesus places him into the great and complex story of God’s life with humanity. Call Jesus a righteous man and suddenly you are recalling Abel and Noah and Abraham and all those who followed them from all the nations of the earth and struggled with them to be righteous. A “great cloud of witnesses.” Call Jesus the Son of God and you recall that none of those righteous lives were lived on their own. All were lived within the Divine life and became part of God’s struggle to reconcile within Divinity perfect holiness and utterly inclusive love; to live not apart from a free creation but with it.
In all these gospels the cross and resurrection are finally the story of God with God’s creation compressed into a single event. The cross is the story of God as Trinity, not just a sourcebook for atonement theory. It is the story of how the Divine life of Lover, Beloved, and Love itself is constantly drawing us all into the possibility of loving, being loved, and becoming love. And I would suggest that telling this story, rather than specific theories of atonement built on specific theological anthropologies, is the place to begin formulating a gospel that isn’t arrogant.
This is done in scripture through the use of narrative. That narrative does not exclude, but gathers a whole host of very different persons in very different situations around Jesus, allowing us to see all the facets of what the incarnate God means for human persons. It does not limit us to explaining sin so that people can understand salvation, or talking about the law so that people can understand grace. The actors write their own scripts in this story.
But preaching Jesus Christ, whose identity as the Son of God incarnate emerges in a story does have a danger. Right now many converts to Christianity are actually converts to dogmatic systems in which they find enormous security in a chaotic world. They want someone to write their script for them. And this makes them easy to integrate into existing church structures, which they will defend in order to protect their new-found security.
If we offer them stories, rather than a dogmatic system that both tells them who they are and who he is for them, then the results will be unpredictable, and may well result in new communities and commitments. We will find improvisation and self-discovery and new understandings of what Incarnation and Trinity can mean. Indeed that is a probably result. This isn’t necessarily good for existing church structures, hierarchies of power and control, and in particular for anybody’s sense of security. But it could happen. It happened once before 2000 years ago.