Being Christian in the World We’re In
Session 4: Jesus & Theology
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5
This passage from the book of Deuteronomy is the foundation of Christian and Jewish theology. It is known in Judaism by its first words in Hebrew: Shema Israel, “Hear, O Israel.” It is what the people of God should hear and listen to. God is one, God alone, and loving God is what we are called to do.
In our Book of Common Prayer, the Rite One version of the Eucharist, and other older versions, quotes Jesus’ version of this in the beginning of the service: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” BCP p. 324 quoting Matthew 22:37-40
Theology is words about God. It’s about who God is, and about what God does, and about our relationship with God—that is, how we should be living. Some have the impression that theology comes from abstract principles, but it doesn’t. Good theology describes what we know and how it fits together: all of our experience and knowledge, our know-how and our values. Theology brings together our experience of love and faithfulness, of doubt and pain, of loyalty and betrayal. Theology brings together the wisdom of ancient traditions, the experience of people who have been through it before, the newness of our current experience, including science and technology, and all the ways that people are connected that are the same and different from how they have been connected before.
On knowing God
We don’t know God in the abstract, but from what God has done. God has loved and delivered his people. The book of Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch or Torah. It takes the form of Moses’ address to the people of Israel at the end of their forty years wandering in the desert, before they are to enter the promised land. Moses tells them how God delivered them from Egypt and continued to guide them and protect them in their wanderings. Moses tells them the story of the giving of the law and repeats the Ten Commandments. Then it comes to the giving of the Great Commandment: “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” God does something: God protects and guides God’s people. The scriptures give an account of this and it is up to us, God’s people, to hear that—that is, to understand how it is that God has loved his people and how God is one, coherent and not a multifarious chattering of different opinions and interests.
When we talk about Jesus, we are talking about someone who knew and affirmed this: the Lord our God is one. Christians have always affirmed this, from the very beginning. God is one—monotheism as a practice was not common in the Roman Empire of the first century, though, even back then, people educated in philosophy acknowledged that somewhere behind all the other gods, there was likely a single god in the background. Unlike the Jews and the early Christians, however, they didn’t think this god had anything to do with human life.
The Jewish people believed that God had done important things: Delivered them from Egypt, Brought them into the Land, Rescued them from Exile, Gave the Law through Moses, Commanded the Building of the Temple and its sacrifices.
The early Christians believed God had done one more thing, which we looked at last week: “For, among the very first things, I delivered to you what I had also received: that Christ died because of our sins, in accord with the scriptures, And that he was entombed, and that he was raised on the third day in accord with the scriptures, And that he was seen by Cephas, then by the Twelve.” First Corinthians 15:3-5 (D.B. Hart translation)
God had acted in Jesus, and raised him from the dead. This Jesus, then, made all the difference in how we live and understand our existence. God’s action was not limited to Israel, but applied to all people, to the whole cosmos. And this Jesus character was not just some better than average guy, “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” Colossians 1:19-20
Somehow, in this Jesus, the fullness of God’s presence dwelt on earth. In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we’re talking about God. So how does this fit together with “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one?” Most of Christian theology is a working out of that issue. The Doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally about how our experience of Jesus, God incarnate, and the God who delivered Israel, and the Holy Spirit which enlivens and guides the church in the present are all one, not three, though our experience is that they are at the same time distinct. The doctrine of the Incarnation is that God has come among us, living in this world, as a completely human person from beginning to end, but simultaneously divine. “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”
*** A sermon on the Trinity ***
Over the centuries, there has been a lot of fighting over how to get these things exactly right. There have been many who take things like a passage from the Nicene Creed and spin out great and abstract theories and applications of these concepts. Some are helpful and insightful; others fall far from the mark.
I believe that the best way to be closer to the mark is to do what the Christian communities did when they wrote down the Gospels. Remember that when that happened, few of those churches, or their leaders, knew Jesus during his lifetime. So they collected stories about him, and sayings and stories that he told, and traditions that had been shared through the community. Most notably, the story of Jesus’ last days, crucifixion and resurrection. When we look at what they wrote down, we get a picture of Jesus, seen through the eyes of faith, of his preaching, “Thou shalt love the Lord your God,” heard along with the people of Israel. The picture we get of Jesus is pretty clear when we look at it as a whole, open to listening and being changed by his words, rather than focusing on the differences in the portrayals of him.
It’s not possible to give a full account of him in such a short time, or even to describe all the sorts of books that were written about him. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written to give a context and to help us understand that proclamation that we have through St. Paul in first Corinthians: “that Christ died because of our sins, … that he was entombed, and that he was raised on the third day.” How did he come to be killed, how do we understand him, what does his resurrection mean?
Some things are clear, he preached the Good News to the Poor in Galilee, he healed people, he had controversies with his religious contemporaries. It appears that those controversies were due to his preaching and teaching in the tradition of the prophets of Israel. He both interpreted the law as tougher on those who had piety and religious pretensions, and was more merciful toward sinners and those who were less observant. His proclamation was of the Kingdom of God, which was very expansive, but it required repentance of everyone.
The Teaching of Jesus
His teaching is best known in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. Chapters 5-7 More than anything he teaches about having humility about our own pious achievements while expecting everyone to live a life of generous and loving action. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Matthew 7:1-3
Jesus taught with stories that we call parables. Many of these stories raise situations where people are challenged, morally, spiritually or ethically; or they find themselves in a situation where they have to respond or make a choice. The stories themselves are simple, but the teaching is very sophisticated. They don’t convey information so much as put you into a situation where you can see or choose how it might be to enter the Kingdom of God.
Jesus in history and theology
So how DID Jesus come to die? He was executed for sedition. “The Kingdom of God,” implied that only God was king which called into question whether the Roman emperor was either king or god. What brought Jesus to the attention of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Syria and Judea and got him crucified was that he spoke fearlessly: good news for the poor and healing in a society filled with hurt and hate. Many interpreted his words and actions as critical of them and they probably were. Jesus wouldn’t coddle people who caused hurt to others, especially those who were weaker and had no power. Jesus didn’t spare the religious authorities and other leaders who accommodated the Roman rule in ways that benefited themselves to the detriment of the poor and the weak.
Jesus was not that much different from John the Baptist or the prophets who denounced the abuses of the powerful, and the descriptions of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion sounds like the various factions in power got together and disposed of Jesus. The demons of human sin that are dependent on power, were released and Jesus was killed.
The world of power and cynicism takes Jesus’ death as its vindication.
The theology of the Gospel is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Nothing is as before. Those things that he taught continue. Compassion continues. God’s presence guiding God’s people continues. Life and not death reigns.
Christian Theology in the Real World
Theology tells the story of God’s redemption of God’s people. But if it tells a fake story it is fake theology. Evil exists in this world. It cannot, it must not, be ignored. But the love of God, and real compassion and freedom are also in this world. It has always been the teaching of the Christian Church that God’s creation is good, and we are redeemed, not by escaping from the world, but by living lives in Jesus. Jesus lived a human life, as it can be lived, from God’s point of view. Our theology helps us discern how, in this real world, we can each live a human life, guided by that life of Jesus.
That theology and that guidance happen chiefly through the church, as it has lived and spoken in all times and places. Next week we will talk about how we do that in the Episcopal Church in our time and place.
Questions for reflection and discussion
What interests you or what questions do you have about the wording?
4) Can you think of other terms we can use to describe the three persons in the Trinity besides Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? How else might the Trinity be described?
For further reading
Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham (Oxford 2011)
New Testament theology: exploring diversity and unity by Frank Matera (Westminster-John Knox, 2007)
Short Stories by Jesus The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine (Abingdon, 2018)