Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

After two weeks of intensive preaching, lecturing, and teaching from the Bible "on the road," I am more convinced than ever that people need (and want) to hear from the Epistles, not just the Gospels. (Not to mention the Old Testament--my new book And God Spoke to Abraham is intended to be a strong protest against its neglect). There has been for some time a strong tendency in the mainline churches--certainly in the Episcopal Church--to preach exclusively from the Gospel lesson appointed in the lectionary.  One problem with this is that there is, over time, a certain sameness. People become inured to the shock value in the teaching of Jesus, especially since the sermons of today generally tend to be bland and inoffensive. (Theologian Joseph Mangina, in a recent article in The Living Church, refers to "mind-numbingly dull" sermons).

Another serious problem is that today's sermons on the Gospel readings tend toward a "low" Christology. It is virtually impossible in a brief sermon to interpret short passages in their full context. It was quite a surprise to me, some months ago, to read the Gospel of Matthew all the way through (for the first time in a while) and to realize how "high" its Christology is. If Matthew is taken only in segments, the overall design of the Gospel disappears. It used to be taught that Matthew was a minature Torah, divided into five "books" of teaching. Now, with the more canonical and literary approach that is once again favored, it is recognized that the structure of the Gospel includes the genealogy and the birth narrative. This raises the ante considerably and throws into high relief the Christological affirmations that occur all through Matthew's Gospel.

The most conspicuous passages of high Christology in the New Testament are the Prologue of John, the second chapter of Colossians, the first four verses of Hebrews, and the so-called "Christ-hymn" of Philippians 2. Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, has written a small book with a clever title,  How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans) I read it recently. It's a condensation but also an expansion of some of the ideas in his massive study,  Lord Jesus Christ. His essential argument is that we can trace the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as pre-existent Son of God and Lord of the universe to the very earliest years of the Christian movement, immediately after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Philippians 2 is a particularly compelling example, since Paul clearly expects the Philippian Christians to recognize the hymn that he quotes in praise of the crucified and exalted Christ.

During my travels I had a conversation with a married couple, devoted members of their Episcopal church, who have been listening to Bishop Spong's tapes in their car. I was startled; I keep thinking that Spong is long past his sell-by date. His notions, marketed as cutting-edge, are in fact so far behind current scholarship (not to mention the needs of the church) as to be almost ludicrous. Yet the influence of the Jesus Seminar and its many affiliates, which many of us foolishly thought could be safely ignored, have made deep and lasting inroads into the faith of the church, and the results are clearly visible. People no longer know what they are supposed to believe about our Lord and Savior, and are made to feel foolish if they cherish the age-old affirmations.

There are many reasons for the decline in church attendance and fervor, but this uncertainty about the original confessions of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and only-begotten Son of God is the most potent. Moreover, unlike the other factors such as demographics, competition, distractions, the new atheism, cultural shifts, the Internet, etc., this particular factor undermines the church at its very center and core.

Will Willimon, the celebrated preacher of the Duke University Chapel, is back at Duke after a decade as a Methodist bishop. He is now teaching homiletics at the Duke Divinity School. In his best (in my opinion) book, Conversations With Karl Barth About Preaching (Abingdon), he declares that preaching must become much less "evocative" and much more catechetical. Younger Christians and seekers don't know anything at all about the Bible, the church's traditional confessions, or the history of doctrine, and he thinks that they know they don't know. In fact, he writes that "the younger the congregation, the longer the sermon" needs to be. I wonder if the Episcopal Church hasn't made a serious mistake in moving toward services with three Scripture readings (plus a Psalm). No one can absorb more than two at a time. By the time music, announcements, and a full communion service are figured in, there is almost no time left at all for a sermon. Bishop Sisk of New York (not the most likely person to offer this thought) recently mused that the American Episcopal Church experienced its greatest growth during the period when Morning Prayer and longer sermons were the norm in many parishes. Tim Keller's remarkable Redeemer Church (of which the Bishop of New York had never heard until as recently as three years ago) has grown by preaching, and its church "plants" (50+ and counting) have grown by preaching. The African-American church has always lived by preaching.     

The Christian gospel swept the Roman Empire through the apostolic preaching. It displaced the religions of the Ancient Near East by its proclamation of who Jesus was. The Eucharist by itself would not have accomplished this. Opening the Lord's Supper to the nonbaptized, as many parishes are now doing, has the whole thing backwards. A good prayer for the church would be that God would raise up more preachers--more people going into ministry who love to communicate the great news about Jesus of Nazareth, who he was and what he did, and his identity as the Son of the One God, the Holy One of Israel that Isaiah proclaimed in such elevated and unexcelled terms. Why would we want to dilute this message into a tasteless, bland, nutrition-free brew instead of the potent, nourishing, living water of the gospel? The subject of our preaching is the greatest news the world has ever heard.