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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What Do You Say That I Did?

In Dr. McGrath's Sunday school class this past Sunday, we moved on from discussing who Jesus was to discussing what he did, and how it relates to the Christian experience usually placed under the heading of "salvation".

We began with the story of a child who, in church on Good Friday, asked her parents why anyone would crucify a 3-month-old baby. Apparently the church's year, celebrating Easter a few months after Christmas, was being taken somewhat too literally. The reason for telling this story is that, for some Christians, if Jesus had died at 3 months old it would apparently not have much of an impact on their understanding of what Jesus had come to accomplish. He had come to die, and between birth and death Jesus was simply "killing time" waiting to die. Any view of the cross that ignores the life that preceded it is going to be problematic.

It is not surprising that some Christians view Jesus in this way. On the one hand, since Paul had not followed Jesus in the pre-Easter period (although he may have become aware of the movement centered on him as soon as it reached Jerusalem, whether before or after Easter), and because he was writing to individuals who could be presumed to have had Christian tradition passed on to them, Paul never fills his letters with stories about Jesus' life. The cross was also the part of the story of Jesus that was potentially the most troubling, and thus the early Christians had had to make it central, and come up with an explanation that would regard the cross as a necessary and intelligible part of God's plan, and so they had found a way of interpreting it as salvific.

Another key focus in the Sunday school class was on what theologians call the "penal substitution" view of atonement. It is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is based on a view of justice that no one would otherwise accept. If the U.S., failing to apprehend Osama bin Laden, claimed that it had nonetheless accomplished its mission because they executed some other innocent individual in his place, I doubt if anyone would be happy with this as a resolution of the matter.

It is also a view of the cross that is not found in the Bible. Sure, it can be read into it, but it cannot be found there unless one is already looking for it. For Paul, the key meaning of Jesus' death is summed up well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: "one died for all, and therefore all died". That's almost the exact opposite of the popular Evangelical message, "one died instead of all, so that they might not have to die". Even if we conclude that Paul's language of "dying with Christ" is just another way of talking metaphorically about denying ourselves and self-sacrifice, it nevertheless makes clear that the Christian view of "salvation" expressed here is not about Jesus doing something instead of us, but of something that involves us and happens to us and in us. Ironically, while some feel they are glorifying God by making atonement something that involves no action or effort on our part, they've also radically departed from a central component of early Christian belief.

There has never been a single creed defining for all Christians what the cross means. Many have agreed that no one image or metaphor will do justice to its significance. But it certainly is important to ensure that the element of challenge and its transformational effect on our lives is not relegated to the margins or neglected altogether.

Next week we'll begin a new topic, spending some time in the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 and discussing matters of creation, cosmology, evolution and science.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Different Views of Jesus

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday School class, we moved beyond our discussion of the varied portraits of Jesus found in the Gospels to begin to answer the question posed in Mark's Gospel, "Who do you say that I am?" Dr. McGrath's own personal answer was to focus on Jesus as crucified Messiah. Historians may debate (as illustrated by the book by Tom Wright and Marcus Borg mentioned in class, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions) how Jesus viewed himself and how various Christian understandings of Jesus developed. But one thing seems clear. Christianity continued, while other messianic movements disappeared after the individual who was their focus was killed, because instead of concluding that Jesus was not the Messiah because he had been crucified, instead they reinterpreted what was meant by Messiah, leaving us with the challenge of following a path that does not lead to our own personal gain. It is the power of that message that has changed countless lives, and it does not ultimately depend on historical reconstruction in detail of all that Jesus said and did.

Other subjects came up which will be the focus of our discussion next time. It is common in a Christian context to speak about Jesus as "God". But what does that mean? When Jesus behaves humanly, is that "just his humanity at work" at that moment? Did God accept human limitations in the incarnation (the term for that being kenotic Christology)? Was Jesus striding the earth getting the answer to every question right?

That last question led to an interesting side debate about whether Superman could get a haircut.

O Holy Night

From our Christmas Eve service:

Sunday, January 4, 2009

From John's Gospel to the Creeds

Today in Dr. McGrath's Sunday School class we arrived at the last of our classes on the ways Jesus is presented in the canonical Gospels, focusing on the Gospel of John with its unique features such as the notion of Jesus as the Word-become-flesh and the pre-existence of the Son of Man. Dr. McGrath gave a brief overview of his book and his conclusion that the developments in the Gospel of John result from an attempt to defend Christian beliefs, during which process developments and expansions to Christian though take place.

We discussed whether the aim of Christians ought to be to combine the Gospels or to pick one that resonates with us; whether our aim should be to repeat what the Gospel authors said or to follow their example in using language of our time to address questions and issues of our time, just as they did in relation to their own historical setting.

The subject of the creeds came up, and as one might expect in an American Baptist context, voices soon were heard that said, in essence, "Whoa, wait a minute, what are these creeds you're talking about exactly?" The classic creeds of Christian orthodoxy have no precise or official authority for Baptists, and yet they are part of our heritage, ignored and unknown but there as historical influences nonetheless.

Those interested can find the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds here.

Our next subject will be sharing our own answers to the question in Mark's Gospel: Who do we, each of us, say that Jesus is?