More Palm/Passion Sunday Ruminations: Have we preachers asked people to believe too little?


This Sunday may be the best opportunity of the Church year for a preacher to get at the fundamental questions of Jesus’s identity and its correlate Christian identity.  Many Churches read the entire Passion Narrative tomorrow, and that should give the preacher plenty of grist for his or her homiletical mill.  It is an opportunity not to be squandered.

The simplest answer to these big questions is to look to Jesus Christ, but like all simple answers there is more to be said. The variety of witnesses to Jesus in the Bible create a complex and intriguing portrayal for the serious inquirer. But it is more like a portrait gallery than a single portrait.

Where among the various portraits shall we look for our answer? Do we look to the Incarnate One, the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms as the Word made flesh? Or do we look to the wise rabbi of the Synoptic Gospels who teaches his followers with wise and paradoxical parables? Or to the pre-existent Christ of St. John’s prologue, the Son of the Father who was at the beginning of creation, and through whom all things were made? Or do we look to the healing Jesus who made the lame walk, and gave the blind their sight? Or to the prophetic Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, threw the money changers out of the temple, and said he came not to bring peace but a sword? Or to the “Alpha and Omega” the beginning and the end, the Son of man coming from the clouds to bring a new heaven and a new earth to our fallen world at the end of history, as Jesus is depicted in the book of Revelation?

And the answer is of course “Yes!” to all of these, for they are found in the church’s book and all of them together with many other aspects give us our portrayal of this figure who is our living Lord and Savior, and who is more even than all these things, more than even the scriptures that witness to him, or the creeds, confessions and doctrines that give articulation to the truth about him, more even than all the experiences of the faithful who have known him in Word and Sacrament as well as in other experiences: in prayers, visions, dreams and high moments of personal revelation.

But who Jesus Christ is goes beyond all these. His is “the name above every name, the name before whom every knee should bend and every tongue confess that he is Lord.” And why is that?

Is it his teachings? There is a school of thought that says the thing that was the most distinctive about Jesus was his teachings and that we should regard him as a great teacher, indeed the greatest teacher ever, and that what he has left to posterity was his unique teachings. There is a partial truth here, for his teachings have their place in our hearts, but his teachings alone do not make him who he is for us. P. T. Forsyth puts it like this:

The difficulty we have to face, if Christ was mainly a teacher, or even but a personal influence, is this . . . He was a failure with those who came under him at first hand. His personal influence through his doctrine averted neither his unpopularity, his desertion, nor his cross. It did not prevent the people it was turned on from disowning him, nor the disciples from leaving him, nor the authorities from killing him. Indeed, it provoked all three.” (The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, p. 14)

No, it was not what Jesus said that makes him who he is, it is what Jesus did. It is not the words of Jesus, but the act of Jesus who is himself God’s Word to us. It is above all else Jesus’ obedience unto death, in short it is his cross, where he died for the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine, and where he unleashed a power that still today is changing the world, in fact the whole creation.

It wasn’t the wisdom of his message or the eloquence of his preaching or the drama of his miracles that led his early followers to go out and change the world as if their lives depended on it, which in fact it often did.

No, it was the personal power of his cross, the cross that judged and redeemed their nation and indeed the whole world, the cross that set them free from bondage to sin and death, the cross that had made them right with God and with one another, the cross which had seemed to be the deadest of dead ends, but in fact turned out to be the divine strategy for overcoming the lost sin-sick world that could do nothing for itself.

Unfortunately the modern church has often been embarrassed by the cross and has sought to improve the manners of the Gospel so that it is an offense to no one. As long ago as 1915 Forsyth wrote,

We have gone too far . . . in the attempt to put Jesus into modern categories, and make him the grand agent and congenial denizen of modern culture . . . The present state of the Church, the poverty of its influence on the world . . . shows that we have gone much too far in the effort of liberalism to interpret Him as the expression and patron of what is best in the world, as the tutelar of civilization, at the cost of his work in renouncing, challenging, overcoming, and so commanding, the world. The Jesus of the cross has succumbed, even within the Church, to the Jesus of society, the Jesus of culture, or the Jesus of the affections. We are trying to act on men [people] with a Jesus of distinguished religion, or a Jesus the sanest of all the deep saints, with Jesus the historic character, or the fraternal, or the pietist, rather than with Jesus the Gospel power, the living dynamic of the Kingdom of God. And the result on the world is disappointing.” (The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ, p. 43)

I am convinced that the problem is not that we have asked people to believe too much about Jesus.  Rather we have asked them to believe too little. A good man, an inspiring preacher, a wise teacher, a moral example, even a martyr held up as the highest example of sacrifice; none of these will do to save us. None of these are deserving of our worship, and none of these do justice to the biblical story of what Jesus was all about. But in the cross of Christ we see both the power and wisdom of God, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25)

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