Tag Archives: Revelation

Jesus: The Face of God

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.
Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29

Who is Jesus?

I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question.  There are all manner of open questions in life.  Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such.  When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).

But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value.  Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).

Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus?  William Placher recounts:

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”

With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity.  While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these.  God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so.  To see Jesus is to see God.  This is Christian confession.  This is the Good News.

Placher concludes,

“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”

Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together).  Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.

But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living.  Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)

To see Jesus is to see the very face of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.

The Oppressed Do Not Care if You Are Progressive or Conservative: Making Our First Family First

iraq Christians symbol
The symbol ISIS is using to mark Christian homes in Northern Iraq.
 

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”

-Revelation 6:9-10

A False Choice

Do the oppressed care about my ideology?  My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS.  My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.  By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.

I’m not sure why this is.  My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be.  There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about.  Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative.  If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal.  I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.

Since  both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong.  It’s more ping-pong than discourse.  So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.

But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice.  We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.

Reclaiming Our First Family

Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself).  In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern.  When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is:  “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)

Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.”  We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10)  After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church.  It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and  “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV)  The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.

In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him.  Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state).  Let charity start at home.  As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.

In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb.  They cry out, “How long?”  How dare we pick and choose among them.  All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy.  Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer.  God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious.  If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by  God.  And it should be by us.

Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them.  Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression.  Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which  is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.

The Seed of the Church

I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon.  He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague.  Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese.  Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics  on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women).  Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified.  Diocletian would be proud.  Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass.  Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.

The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church.  But let us not make martyrs of each other.  What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border?  If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed.  Sounds like a good start.

In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done.  Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten.  And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those  whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.

And, finally, let us take heart: as the words the words of Samuel Stone, drawing on Revelation 6, remind us:

Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

 

1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.

A Prayer to Remember the Last Supper

Artist’s rendering of a triclinium, the table Jesus and his disciples would have used to celebrate the Passover Seder. Da Vinci was way off.

I wrote the following prayer to open the service today, as we began a series based on Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World:

Gracious God,
Who fills our plates with good food
and our cups to overflowing:

We thank you that your Son eats with sinners, even those like Peter
who deny him
and like Thomas
who doubt him
and like Judas
who betray him.

We thank you that Jesus still prepares a feast for people like us.
Help us to take our place at his table now,
that we may feast at the great banquet to come. Amen.

It also occurred to me (and I’m probably not the first to notice this, though I haven’t heard it before myself) that this event recorded in the gospels is misnamed.  If it were actually the “last” supper, then we would not be worshiping Jesus as the Christ and the Second Person of the Trinity.  Jesus conquered death and went on eating and drinking; in fact, the disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke the bread (Emmaus).

We look forward to what John the Revelator calls “the marriage supper of the lamb,” in which the bride of Christ shall rejoice to see her savior face-to-face in unbroken communion in that Kingdom which is breaking in even now.  Amen.

Oliver O’Donovan on Context and Theology

https://i1.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41SPC06PRSL._SL500_AA300_.jpg

In one of the most interesting chapters of Oliver O’Donovan’s  remarkable Resurrection and Moral Order, we find a brief meditation on the relation of moral theology to culture.  Here he shows sympathy with Karl Barth, who ran afoul of the vast majority of German theologians that chose uncritically to make “the great new cultural fact of their time and place” the starting point for the theological task.  What follows is a discussion of Barth’s conflict with Brunner, with a sidebar to Tillich.  O’Donovan concludes:

It is hard to see how such an approach can become more than a work of ideology, in which the gospel is proved to be ‘at home’ in our favoured cultural setting, whatever it may be…What has now become painfully clear is that the theological tradition which springs from such thinkers [does this include Barth??] is unable to deal convincingly with those liberation-theologies which most blatantly subject the theological enterprise to the sectional perceptions of a single cultural group (‘black’ theology, ‘feminist’ theology, etc.).  It can show embarrassment at them, or it can be patronizingly interested in them; but it cannot now complain at being excommunicated, and assert the universality of theology, since all the time it has understood the theological task as a discreet exercise in cultural accommodation. (90)

O’Donovan, as you may have ascertained by this point, is not an easy read.  As little sense as it makes, it appears to me that he is including Barth alongside these other, clearly accommodated, theologians.  I’m happy, however, to be corrected by keener readers of O’Donovan.  It’s worth noting that this conversation takes place within his chapter entitled ‘Knowledge in Christ’, which is a meditation upon epistimology.  He is attempting to carve out a space somewhere between the classic defense of natural law in Aquinas (though he does no like the term ‘natural law’, preferring created order) and the  “Nein!” of Karl Barth.   Thus he ends up both appreciative and (con cajones) critical of these two powerhouses.  He seems to clearly stand with Barth epistimologically, though not ontologically.  In other words, he affirm’s Barth’s sole reliance on the Word of God for Christian knowledge, and yet he critiques Barth for not appreciating the usefulness of created order (redeemed at the Resurrection) to the theological and moral task.

The above quotation was from one of his small-print, “Barth-esque” sidenotes.   A sampling of what precedes this sidebar may help illumine the whole, and help us understand O’Donovan’s qualified appreciation of the created order to theology:

…revelation in Christ does not deny our fragmentary knowledge of the way things are, as though that knowledge were not there, or were of no significance; yet it does not build on it, as though it provided a perfectly acceptable foundation to which a further level of understanding can be added….the Christian moral thinker, therefore, has no need to proceed in a totalitarian way, denying the importance and relevance of all that he finds valued as moral conviction in various cultures and traditions of the world….But neither can he simply embrace the perspectives of any such culture, not even – which is the most difficult to resist – the one to which he happens to belong and which therefore claims him as an active participant.  He cannot set about building a theological ethic upon the moral a priori of a liberal culture, a conservative culture, a technological culture, a revolutionary culture or any other kind of culture; for that is to make of theology and ideological justification for the cultural constructs of human misknowledge. (89-90)

There seems to be an important distinction here between what is “useful” and what is of first importance to theology.  While theology can and should make use of the insights gained from various cultures, no single culture can ever be an uncritical basis of the theological task.  That distinction belongs, as we learn from Barth, solely to God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

I quite enjoyed O’Donovan’s description of liberationists as those who “subject the theological enterprise to the sectional interests of a single cultural group.” My own feeling is that the experience of those various cultural groups is important to critical thinking about Scripture and tradition, and to theology.  As O’Donovan insists, theology does not have to be indifferent to these various perspectives.  For instance, my courses in black church theology and history taught me to appreciate the Black Christian experience in America as instructive for what it means to live “on the underside of modernity.” (The phrase is J. Kameron Carter’s.)  But such experience, valuable though it is, is rendered into sand when it is forced to be a foundation for theology (Matthew 24:27).  The Logos, after all, God in the flesh, is the only ground that theology can take without being merely another culturally-conditioned construct of “human misknowledge.”

The Pope on ‘Biblicism’

Reading through more of (then Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger’s brilliant Eschatology, I came across a dandy of a quote:

One must be very cautious when using biblical data in systematic theology.  The questions which we ask are our questions.  Our answers must be capable of holding up in biblical terms…[but] this complicating factor in the theological appropriation of Scripture is in any case something demanded by the structure of the Bible’s own affirmations…the Bible itself forbids biblicism.

I just love that closing line.  The occasion for this quote is a discussion of the New Testament’s teachings on the resurrection, with its various and sometimes cryptic statements that often do not gel.  On this particular topic, though, of the Bible itself forbidding biblicism, I think especially of the “synoptic problem.”  This, of course, is the recognition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a great deal of material and structure in common (with Mark being a major source for the other two).  But the three get small details different, or tell things in different orders. 

      Thus Scripture demands exegesis.  Harmonizing these differences (making all the pieces ‘fit’ at the expense of the particular narratives of each gospel) has been ruled a heresy for a reason.  Only God is perfect – the Bible is indeed Holy, the absolute source of faith and practice for the Church universal – but it is not perfect, at least, if ‘perfect’ means completely in agreement with itself at all times.  But then, God’s ways are not our ways.  Our idea of perfect and God’s idea of revelation may not be identical.  And we can thank God for that…