As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself? Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:
“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”
“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)
These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD. More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus). Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:
“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)
With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice. Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all. We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.
The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message. To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.