Through Many Lenses
Gospel of Thomas, saying 91
"They said to him, 'Tell us who you are, so that we may
believe in you.' He said to them, 'You read the face of
the sky and of the earth, but you have not recognized
the one who is before you, and you do not know how to
read this moment.'"
Tao Te Ching 1:1, "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the
true Tao; the name that can be named is not the true
This morning I want to explore with you one of the most important aspects
of the resurrection as the earliest Christians understood it. As they
viewed it, what had happened on Easter was the enthronement of Jesus at
the right hand of God. He had received a great honorific name, in fact, a
whole cluster of titles. These various titles of majesty are so many
laurel wreaths bestowed on the Risen One in view of his victory over
death. Strangely, I suspect, they both enshrine faith and obscure it at
the same time! I believe a brief examination of a few of the most
important of the titles will show you what I mean.
First, the most familiar
of the titles, "Christ." This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew
"Messiah," and both mean "the Anointed One," or "Anointed King."
The title "Son of God"
comes in here, too, because originally "Anointed One" and "Son of God"
were both simply titles of the current reigning monarch of Judah, whoever
he might be. Solomon, Rehoboam, Hezekiah, Josiah, even the idolater
Manasseh were all Messiah and Son of God, which was just to say, they
were, as Judah's king, God's chosen favorite and right-hand man. So
whenever God saw fit to restore Jewish independence, he would raise up
another Davidic heir as royal Son of God and Messiah as in the old days.
When Jesus rose from the dead to take the throne at the right hand of God,
this is what the early Christians meant: he had now been duly inaugurated
as Messianic King, and he would soon return in power to crush Rome.
Of course, in later
Christian thinking, "Son of God" began to attract connotations of divine
nature. Conversely, "Christ" came to be used merely as a surname: "Mr.
Christ." Paul already seems to use it this way, since his non-Jewish
converts knew little and cared less about Jewish Messianic hopes.
"Wisdom" or "Logos" or
"the Word of God" are equivalent titles applied to Jesus. They have been
borrowed from Jewish Wisdom books like Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon,
and Sirach, all of which describe God's Wisdom as a semi-independent,
personified being who assisted God in the creation of the world. Wisdom
was also pictured as having entered the world to educate human beings, who
however wanted nothing to do with her, and so she returned to heaven where
she was appreciated. Early Christians saw that Jesus, too, had taught the
wisdom of God and been rejected, at last ascending to heaven. So they
concluded the Word had been made flesh and dwelt among them.
"Lord" was a title Jesus
already enjoyed on earth as a healer. He and other healers were addressed
by respectful Jews as Mar, or "Lord." But as the gospel moved on
into the Greco-Roman world, Jesus became known as Kurios, "Lord,"
in a new sense. The Kurioi were beings worshipped by various
mystery cults along with gods, to whom they were subordinate. People
worshipped Asklepios alongside Zeus, Serapis alongside Ra. Paul tells the
Corinthians, who were surrounded by mystery cults, "there are indeed many
gods and many lords, but for us there is one God, the Father from whom are
all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ through whom are all things."
The Canaanite god Baal
was also called "Lord," and in fact, that's what "Baal" means. Here is the
most fascinating of all these bits of ancient Christology to me. The great
myth of Baal was that he was the son of El, the high God, but that he had
been killed by the monster Mot, or Death. However, Baal rose from the dead
and received divine sovereignty from his Father. He was enthroned as Lord
of gods and men. I suspect that here we see the germ of an idea that was
to become central to Christian theology in New Testament times. Dare we
recognize that the ancient Baal worship fiercely combatted by the Old
Testament Prophets made a comeback, supplying the central category for the
New Testament understanding of Jesus? "Let every tongue confess that Jesus
is Baal to the glory of God the Father!"
Let me tell you what I conclude from these facts. First, it is clear to me
that all of them were drawn from ancient religious categories and
conceptualities that no longer fit so well. What are we to make of them?
To do with them?
First, I am in total
agreement with Bultmann that we dare not demand of modern men and women
that they suddenly stop thinking in modern categories and start thinking
in ancient ones when it comes to the gospel. To demand literal assent to a
creed framed in the first or the third century is to require the
performance of "good works." "I can believe the whole nine yards! What a
good boy am I!"
But before you go
laughing off the strange-sounding Christologies of the ancient church,
hold on for a second! Don't miss the forest for all the trees! Years ago I
read Huston Smith's useful but oversimplified book, The Religions of
Man. One thing that has stayed with me from that book over the years
is the opening of Smith's chapter on Buddhism. "How many people have
provoked this question: not 'Who are you?' with respect to name, origin,
or ancestry, but 'What are you? what order of being do you
belong to, what species do you represent?' Not Caesar certainly. Not
Napoleon, nor even Socrates. Only two: Jesus and Buddha." Don't you see:
all those Christological titles, Lord, Logos, Wisdom, Son of God, Messiah,
were people's best attempts to answer that question!
They were lenses through
which they sought to gain some perspective on this Jesus of Nazareth, to
put his blinding light into some kind of manageable focus. Now it may be
that our attempts to answer that question, "What is Jesus?," would be a
bit different today. But let's please not take the central question for
granted: what kind of person must this man have been for his
contemporaries to have said these and a thousand other things about him?
There is but one way to
find out: read the Gospels and take a long look at the picture of Jesus
contained and conveyed there, and let him make upon you what impact he
will! You cannot predict what it will be, or what form it will take! It is
a great risk you take to step thus into the den with the Lion of Judah!
We do not any longer have
direct access to the historical Jesus. Even in his own day, very few
did.But the picture of Jesus has survived the centuries with saving power,
snowballing as it hurtled down the ages! It is a potent force! Tillich
testified that that picture of Christ brings New Being to the faithful
reader. Schleiermacher attested that the preaching of that Christ creates
something of the Redeemer's own God-consciousness in us as we behold him
in imagination. Paul Van Buren said that the one who dares look at the
Gospel portrait of Jesus will find himself having caught an infectious
sense of freedom and will never be the same. It is the picture of Jesus,
the encounter with Jesus that inspired so many picturesque ancient titles
and modern theologies. And it is for that reason that it is Jesus,
not the titles and conceptions of Jesus, that we must encounter!
Carl Michaelson said this
rather well in a book called The Witness of Radical Faith. He said
that for all their glory, the ancient titles carry a hidden danger. All of
them in effect tend to subsume Jesus under an already-existing category.
We know what a Messiah is; if we say Jesus is the Messiah, soon we start
to conform him to the image of that concept, and we end up with an
abstract idea, not a living savior. We plug him into a theological
formula, and soon the formula comes to replace him. Soon it's not enough
to love Jesus or to believe in him. The thing on which your eternal fate
hangs is whether he is homoousias or homoiousias!
Do you doubt what I say?
Can anyone ever have gotten so exercised over titles and definitions of
Christ that they forgot to be Christian? Let me tell you a bit of history
about John Calvin. He had a little difference of Christological opinion
with Michael Servetus over whether Jesus Christ was a divine member of the
Trinity or not. Do you know how they settled it? Calvin had Servetus burnt
at the stake!
What do you think
separates Christians and Jews? One of the major dividers is whether we
should use a particular title of Jesus. Is he the Messiah? The irony is
that we don't even mean the same thing by that word any more. So we're
arguing over nothing! And how much blood was spilled over that
The Nameless One:
The question we have been considering this morning is put powerfully in
the text from Thomas I read. The disciples are eager to give their faith
to Jesus. But they think they can't do that until he gives them a
Christological title of some kind! It is not enough for them to believe in
Jesus himself; they must have a category to place him in, they must be
told what familiar terms to understand him in! But Jesus will not play
that game! Jesus sees that if he gives them a title, it is the title
they will believe in, not him! They will become disciples of a
doctrine about Jesus, not disciples of Jesus himself! They have
ignored him, for they see in him only raw material out of which to erect a
new creed alongside other, competing creeds! But one creed is like
another. There is no point in inventing a new one! If only they knew their
real opportunity! To recognize the Living One who is before them! If only
we knew it!
I suppose what I am
driving at is what Juan Luis Segundo attempts in his book The
Historical Jesus of the Synoptics: "I am trying to free [Jesus] from
all the false pretensions of human beings, of Christians certainly, to
grab hold of him, box him in universal categories, and thus strip him and
his cross of their bite and scandal."
Let me bring this sermon
to a close with some words of Albert Schweitzer: "The names in which men
expressed their recognition of Him..., Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God,
have become for us historical parables. We can find no designation for
what He is for us. He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of
old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to
us the same word: 'Follow thou me!' and sets us to the tasks which he has
to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether
they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the
conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship,
and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who
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