Simply Jesus

Donald Richmond:

“And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip…saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.”                                                     –St. John 12: 21, KJV

Simlpy-JesusThe greatest need today is for people to see Jesus. Individuals, local assemblies, denominations and the Church Catholic all ache to see and know him. Christ is the hope of ages and help to all who call upon him in faith. The wise seek Christ.

Individuals need to see Jesus revealed to and in them through all of the complex machinations of what it means to be fully human in a broken world. Families need to see Jesus in and through all of their ardent loves, trying ambiguities and painful losses. Local assemblies, with all of their worshipping blusters and blunders, with all of the complications of living in and as community, need to see Jesus. Regardless of our positions and our postures, whether well-or-ill-conceived, Jesus needs to be seen in our denominations. The Church Catholic must see Jesus or we have absolutely nothing to say. We, in fact, have no being (or purpose in being) without a vision of Jesus. He is revealed, or our existence is ridiculous.

The Church, in all of its expressions, is about Jesus or it is about nothing. Oddly, altering this perspective only slightly, the Church is about Jesus or it is about everything and anything that is non-essential and divisive. If we do not see Jesus we speak what we want, constructing our own Babel. Of course, as we know and have seen, the absence of clear sight (seeing Jesus) has resulted in a massive amount of cluttered speech (speaking Jesus) that is highly confusing and conflicted.  We each go our own way, doing our own thing, because we do not see Jesus.

This is our greatest failure. We do not speak Jesus because we do not see Jesus. As such, we do not communicate Christ, we communicate Christianity. There is a difference. At its best, Christianity is Christ seen, spoken and lived. At its worst, Christianity is man-made religion. Although we can stretch an emphasis beyond the point of reasonability, our failure comes down to making choices between Gospel or Epistle (Letter), Christ or Church, Relationship or Ritual and Encounter or Evangelism. Of course I must emphasize that these polarized choices are slightly exaggerated to make a point.

There is a difference between Gospel and Epistle. The former, Gospel, communicates the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, return and overarching priorities and purposes of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is, so to speak, about him. Epistles, on the other hand, outline inspired yet interpreted understandings of how the living Christ intersects with specific church communities within fixed historic and cultural contexts. Although both communicate the word of God, Gospel suggests an immediate perspective, whereas Epistle suggests an interpreted perspective. Christ, while culturally relevant, is of cosmic importance. Epistle, on the other hand, is culturally conditioned with current applicability. Gospel, over simplifying, discloses Christ whereas Epistle discloses community. One of the critical problems of the Church is that we have lost sight of Christ and, while seeking to communicate his person, we have inadvertently communicated (at best) his message. Of course, a message that exists apart from the person who communicated the message, who in fact is The Message, compromises both the proclamation and the person to whom it was originally attached. It does not work. When we lose sight of Christ, we all-too-frequently communicate church. Epistle is Church, whereas Gospel is Christ. People need Christ, and church only as an extension of his Holy Spirit in the community of believers. “What would Jesus do?” is a far better question than “What does Paul say?”

There is also a difference between Christ and Church. Christ is the message of the Church. There is no other message, and there is no other purpose or power for our existence, beside Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles is, in fact, a history of the actions of the Holy Spirit through the community of believers. The Epistles are little more than inspired Christological interpretations as applied to specific church settings. The Church is therefore the Spirit-infused body of Christians whose calling is to communicate Christ through word and deed. We do not share Paul, or the church, we share Christ. All too often we bring people to meet the Pastor. All too often we bring friends to church to meet the people. All too often we bring people to church to hear some measure of well-delivered and orchestrated proclamation. But what we should be doing is bringing people to church to meet Jesus Christ. To be sure, pastor, people and proclamation are important. In fact, given the economy of God’s mission and method, they are vital. Nevertheless we do not come to church to be Christianized, we come to church to encounter Christ — to “see Jesus.” We come for encounter with God! Without such an encounter, Church is excruciating boredom.

Differences also exist between relationship and ritual. Certainly there are rituals involved in any relationship. The marital relationship has a set of rituals by which we generally abide because, in fact, good rituals revive and renew romance. The Church in its relationship with Christ also has its rituals, Holy Baptism (more later) and Holy Eucharist (more later) being but two of many. However, rituals can also replace relationships. We can maintain structures of relationship without having the substance of romance. This is when ritual becomes dangerous. One church in which I served had so many rituals, with a set time, place and process for these rituals, that the relationship with Jesus Christ was almost entirely lost. People went through the entire process without ever getting to the heart of the matter. I found it darkly humorous that this church never came to understand why their membership was so spiritually ignorant and that so much backsliding occurred. The reason was clear: They had catechesis without Christ. CATECHESIS was written so large (process) that Christ was minimized (Person). They at best knew the Catechism, but knew very little of Christ. They had a philosophy of Christianity but did not embrace the person of Christ. Ritual can have the same dangerous and damnable impact. Ritual can renew romance or it can retard romance. And, sad to say, any and all Church ritual – even God-ordained ritual – can become a relational retardant.

Differences exist between encounter and evangelism, and our current emphasis on evangelism has become highly problematic. Over the past number of years we have harped upon “seeker sensitive” and missional mindsets. (It must be noted, as well, that recent trends in Worship have often emerged from these misguided mindsets.) The “seeker sensitive” mindset is wrong on at least two counts: (1) its grossly misguided theological underpinnings that communicate little more than concessions to our “me-centered” contemporary settings and (2) to “come as you are” almost invariably means that you will “leave as you were.” With “me” as the focus, Christ cannot be found. If I focus on “me,” there will be little room for “He.” Similarly, the function of our evangelistic practices often overlooks having a sustained encounter with Christ. Evangelism is a Christian imperative. It is not a new idea. It does not need “missional” repackaging — with business model orientations and strategies. The “New Evangelization” should, in fact, not be “new” at all. Sharing our faith IN CHRIST is a result of an encounter and relationship WITH JESUS. Evangelism is a response to WHO WE KNOW, Jesus, and his imperative for us to “GO” (Matthew 28). Evangelism is an expression of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Our greatest need today is for the Church to see and speak Jesus; nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Without seeing Jesus, we have nothing to say. Without seeing Jesus, proclamation is purposeless. Without seeing Jesus, proclamation is poisonous propagation.

And seeing Jesus provides us with our greatest opportunity. IF Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, if he still lives and speaks, Jesus can continue to be revealed (even in the midst of our shortcomings and sins), people can be redeemed, churches can be re-formed and nations re-claimed.

7 Responses to Simply Jesus

  1. Joe Godal (RES '75) January 6, 2014 at 10:59 AM #

    Very thought provoking article which I intend to chew on some more. I agree with your point regarding the importance of a relationship with Christ first and foremost but I’m not sure about putting the gospels above the epistles. The epistles are the divine interpretation of the Fact found in the gospels. I do not see them as something lesser or inferior to which was the sense I was receiving but I may be wrong. I need to study your article further. I did greatly appreciate the thought you have put into the subject and wish to thank you for the article. I am reading your article on the Benedictine church model, as well. Quite dangerous for a Reformed Baptist! Christ’s richest blessing to you.

    • Donald Richmond January 6, 2014 at 11:16 AM #

      Joe:

      Thanks so much for your generous reply. I had, however, anticipated such a response. Think of my assertion in this light: The NT selectively prioritizes OT references in its assertions. Psalms and Isaiah are prominent in the NT, while others are not mentioned. Similarly – as with discussions between Reformed and “Catholic” thinkers, and between Reformed (Geneva) and Reformed (English) thinkers – the question faced was not “shall we cite tradition,” but, “what tradition shall we cite.” As such, Augustine was preferred among Protestants and other “fathers” were preferred by “Catholics.” Selective citing of tradition was common. In like manner, Luther preferred Romans and Galatians above James’ “straw epistle.” In short, such selectivity (GOSPEL ABOVE epistle) is biblically warranted and, within certain guidelines, affirmed by reformers and counter-reformers alike. As for my Benedictine article, see Dr. Greg Peter’s (Biola)wonderful book called REFORMING THE MONASTERY. Monasticism was in some way embraced by both Luther and Calvin. Pax et bonum. Don

  2. Joe Godal (RES '75) January 6, 2014 at 12:36 PM #

    Don:
    Thank you for your prompt & gracious response.
    I agree that the biblical writers in the NT, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, selectively quoted from the OT. I do not think this is in the same category as traditional preferences or Luther’s questioning the canonicity of the epistle of James. Neither the church fathers nor Luther were divinely inspired although their writings and traditions certainly shed light on the scriptures. What are “the certain guidelines, affirmed by reformers and counter reformers alike” and where are they found? I do not see how you arrived at your conclusion that there is biblical warrant for elevating the gospel accounts above the epistles.
    I have always had a soft spot for monasticism & have used a Rule of Life for many years based on a monastic model.
    Pax et bonum to you, as well.
    Joe

    • Donald Richmond January 6, 2014 at 2:49 PM #

      Joe: Many thanks again. I appreciate the exchange, and the thought given to your words. The “certain guidelines” to which I made reference are the guidelines of Holy Writ. That is: If Scripture upholds a priority of texts, NT above OT or Psalms and Isaiah above Ruth or Ecclesiastes as examples, than it is entirely legitimate for the Reformers (and us) to prioritize Gospels above Epistles — although both share the grace of “inspiration.” The “guidelines” are, therefore, the priorities set in the Gospel: Christ the Living Word above, or only attested to by, the Written Word. Jesus himself said that “these words [Scripture] speak of me.”

      • Joe Godal (RES '75) January 6, 2014 at 8:27 PM #

        Don, Thank you for clarifying the “guidelines.” You have given me much to think about. My wife and I had a discussion about your article. She enjoyed it and appreciated the emphasis. Is there any further reading you could recommend regarding prioritizing the gospels over the epistles? I don’t recall reading about this before.
        Fraternally in Christ,
        Joe

  3. Donald Richmond January 6, 2014 at 9:20 PM #

    Joe: I am not sure that I can, in this regard, commend “further reading.” Not that I am “right,” but to me the primacy of Christ (as Logos) who is the Message, outweighs the Apostle Paul (although “inspired”) who is simply an appointed witness to the Message. If Christ IS the Message, than everything else is subordinate. Although I do not accept everything Barth has said, and he has himself gone through more-and-less acceptable transitions (according to Evangelicals like me), I may have been influenced by him. See George Hunsinger’s (A Reformed guy at Princeton) Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture. Glad I sparked some discussion. If Christ is glorified I am most willing to be proven wrong. 🙂

  4. Jerry Hancock May 13, 2014 at 12:23 PM #

    A wonderful article, tooo many of us are not followers of Jesus, that’s because most hardly know how he lived poor, oppressed, along with his little community. Jesus snuggled up with “the least of these” healing, feeding, forgiving(all); Jesus showed us the path but we have lost direction, proof is in the steep decline of the Christian Faith. folks, his table, the supper, that’s where we need to gather, bringing everybody with us. Call it love your neighbor!!

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