Encountering Jesus

 

A Sermon
Presented to the Youth of the Broadway Church of Christ
Lubbock, TX
October 4, 2017

A Living Lord
Jesus is often tamed, no less in our churches.  I think, however, that we like it that way.  When we relegate Jesus to “the before time”, the “back then” we do not have to worry about him showing up today, right now.  When we confine him to stories bound in a book we do not have to worry about him making too many demands.  He becomes a static idea that we can manipulate and skirt around by mental and hermeneutic gymnastics.  But throughout history Christians have confessed their faith in a short summary called The Apostles Creed.  Within that creed there is a confession which reminds one of the most dangerous, terrifying, even rebellious things that we could ever say.  After confessing Jesus born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, crucified under Pilate, and buried, we continue with this subversive confession: “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Jesus is alive.  This means that he is active.  He still speaks.  He still shows up in the world.  He still meets us unexpectedly, and that’s a terrifying thought.

It’s terrifying because I can read about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to leave their jobs to follow him and I remain untouched by that command (cf. Lk. 5:1-11).  “Jesus spoke to them”  we say.  And when we get to work interpreting the text we ask, “But what does it mean for us?” as if we are sure it means something different.  We transform this radical call to leave one’s livelihood and we dumb it down and tame it.  We read this passage and we say, “Well, obviously Jesus is not calling us to leave our jobs.  The text only means that we are supposed to have a kind of inner detachment from our work.  It is not to be our god.”  And so we allow ourselves to remain in our jobs and our lives more or less untouched.  That is because we are dealing with a text.  We are not dealing with a living Lord.  If Jesus were to appear to you and me as he appeared to Peter, James, and John there would be no escape.  Sitting in our boats with Jesus upon the shore, our interpretation could not save us.  When Jesus issues the command to leave behind our nets and become fishers of men it would do us no good to turn to our companions and say, “Worry not, friends.  He doesn’t really mean for us to leave our work.  The world needs fishermen too.  He only means for us to carry on our work in a new spirit.  We are to fish as if we fished not.  Our hearts are to be with Jesus while our hands are with our nets.”  Who could imagine Peter, James, and John saying such a thing?  And so we are comforted when we begin to think that Jesus will never meet us like he met them.

Or perhaps we read about Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in John 4.  We read about how Jesus revealed unto her all that she had ever done, and we breathe a sigh of relief that he will never meet us like that.  That was “back there”, “back then”, and now Jesus is way away in heaven.  We don’t have to worry about him meddling in our business today like he did in hers.  But we can only hide when we are hiding behind a text.  We can only take that kind of comfort if we forget that we are dealing with a living Lord.  If we thought that Jesus might actually appear to us, as he did to this woman, while we went about grocery shopping or going to the post-office, we might feel quite differently.  If I really thought that I might meet someone around the next corner who would reveal to me “everything I have ever done” (4:29), I might feel a little more timidity about this Jesus whom we worship.  But, thank goodness I’ll never meet him.  Or will I?

Very often, I think, we are like those children C.S. Lewis describes in his book Miracles.  “There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?  There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back.  Supposing we really found Him?  We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”1 . We have been playing make believe. All this church stuff is fun, sure. But we never expected to actually meet Jesus. We never meant it to come to that. Why? Because then we might have to actually do something about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that he is exactly the God you have to deal with.

The Present Christ in the Powerful Spirit
Luke writes his gospel to one Theophilus.  He says, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  So we read on and we hear about all the grand things which we applaud and at which we stand amazed.  We read about the things which, while they are fantastic, we are a little glad that they are “back there.”

The disciples, however, felt a bit differently about Jesus’ presence being a thing of the past.  In his upper room discourse with his disciples they worried that he was going to leave them.  So much so that he had to offer them comfort.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he said (Jn. 14:1).  He continues, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” (14:18, 28).  Even though Christ was going away, we would not leave them orphans.  He would not leave them alone.  He would come to them again.  In fact, he says, it is even better for him to go away and come again.  “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit; 14:16, 17] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).  After Jesus ascension he returns in the person of the Holy Spirit.  This is why he is able to say, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  This is not metaphorical.  It isn’t the “pretty talk” of cliché bumper sticker religion.  He means it. He will be with us.  Literally.  Jesus is present with the believer by the Holy Spirit.  This is perhaps one of the reasons it was to our advantage that he “go away.”  While Jesus was upon earth his presence was confined by the space of his body.  When he was with Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Transfiguration he was not with the other nine at the foot of the mountain.  But now in the person of the Holy Spirit he is present with all of us.

So as we continue to read we find that the living Lord is active indeed.  He’s still “doing stuff.”  Luke writes again to Theophilus, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, ESV).  Did you catch that?  His first book, the Gospel According to Luke, recorded all that Jesus began to do and to teach.  That means that he is still doing and teaching.  The crucified savior is the risen and ruling Lord.  This is what we mean when we confess, “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  His seat is a throne of authority from which he continues to act.  When Peter and John go to the temple and heal a lame man they confess that it was Jesus himself who healed him.  “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16).  When the retell the story to the authorities they say, “Let it be know to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (4:10).  After they are released they then pray to God and say these words, “And now, Lord, look at their hearts, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:29, 30).  Still later Peter met a man name Aeneas who had been bedridden for 8 years with paralysis and he says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34).  If we were to watch all of these events we would see Peter healing and praying.  But if we want to know who is really working we have to look at Peter and see Jesus.  Peter doesn’t say to Aeneas , “I heal you” or even simply, “Be healed.”  He says, “Jesus Christ heals you.”  Jesus is still working in the world and he does it through his people, like he always has.

God With Us
When Jesus was born he was called Immanuel, which means “God With Us” (Mat. 1:23).  He is now and has always been that same God.  He does not leave us alone.  He is not “way away up there.”  He is present here and now in the church, his body on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:29, 30).  That is our business in the world.  We must be Christ for the world.  Christ acts through us.  “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor. 2:14).  Again, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).  The church makes Christ visible to the world.  She is the sign that God is still “God With Us.”

 

The Freedom of Christ and the Hard of Heart
So it is that God is still with us.  He never left.  We may meet him, in flesh and blood, just as the apostles met him.  And he may meet us, just as he met the woman at the well and Zaccheaus.    How does this happen? We’ve already hinted at one way–i.e. in the chuch–and there are other ways as well, like prayer and scripture reading.  We must first mention a quick caveat.

Insofar as we are dealing with a person, not just a text or an idea, he has a will.  He is free. As a person Jesus may choose to appear or not, and that is not up to us.

“If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks.  They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away.  The initiative lies all on your side.  They cannot either help or hinder.  But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts.  That is a bit different from studying rocks.  The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you.  Unless you keep very quiet, they will.  There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.  Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person.  If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him.  You have to win his confidence.  In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship.  When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side.  If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him.  And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others–not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.  Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”2

Two things should be noted: First, the disciplines which we are about to mention are not magic, nor are they science (which are more related than we like to admit). They are ways of listening. If there is nothing to hear then listening really hard will not help. Spiritual disciplines do not compel God to show up. As such, he may not show up when we want him to. That does not mean, however, that he does not or will not. It only means that he hasn’t yet. We should wait. It is something like what Gandalf says to Frodo when he appears in the Shire. Frodo says to him, “You’re late.” To which he responds, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”3

Second, if we do not meet Jesus, or hear from him, the fault may be our own. Lewis says that light cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror. Jesus says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15). If we have never expected God to show up, we cannot expect to have met him. Likewise, if we have never slowed down to listen, we ought not be surprised if we have not heard. There is a reason we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

Encountering Jesus
We mention here three ways by which we might encounter Jesus. First, in prayer. In prayer we ask for help. We ask for mercy and grace, and that is pictured as approaching the very throne of God. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). When Isaiah approached the throne of God–which is identified as a vision of Christ (Jn. 12:36-41)–his life was changed forever. He saw himself in contrast to God’s holiness and he confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Not only did he see himself as he really is, but he was called to a mission in that same vision. When God asked “Who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; Send me!” (6:8). This is not unlike what happened when Peter came into Jesus presence in Luke 5. He confessed his sin and received a commission to become a fisher of men (5:1-11). So, we should be prepared for what may happen when through prayer we enter into the presence of God and approach the throne of grace. We may find ourselves confessing our sins or called to some far flung corner of the world. We never know what will happen or what Jesus might say. Remember, he is a person. This is a relationship. In relationships each responds to the other. And we should expect no less from Jesus.

We should also expect an answer to our prayers.  We should expect God to show up.  When David was exiled from Jerusalem because his son Absalom his trusted advisor, Ahithophel, was reported now to be in service of Absalom.  David immediately prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31).  What happens then is no voice from heaven, nor does Ahithophel become a babbling idiot.  Still, what happens is no less an answer from God than a voice from the clouds.  “Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and earth on his head.  David said to him, ‘If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me.  But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, “I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant,” then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel'” (15:32-34).  David prays that God would turn Ahithophels counsel into foolishness and immediately God answers.  He sends Hushai the Archite to do just that.  When we say that we pray to God and we listen for an answer we do not mean that we hear voices from heaven, or voices in our head for that matter.  But we do mean that God is present.  Jesus is here.  And not only does he listen, but he responds.

There is a story told of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network. When things were really getting off the ground with EWTN she wanted to expand things and she ordered an enormous satellite dish. She doesn’t have the money to pay for it but she orders it anyway. When the fellow arrives with the dish he says, “I’m supposed to ask you right away for the money. I’m not going to leave this thing here until we’re paid. It’s $600,000.” She says, “Give me one minute” and goes inside to the chapel and prays to God. She says something like, “Alright Lord, I thought you wanted me to have this things, so I ordered it. You better come through.” She leaves the chapel to go and tell the fellow that she doesn’t have the money. Just as she does one of the young nuns runs up to her and says, “Mother, Mother! There’ someone on the phone who wants to talk to you right away.” On a yacht, in the Bahamas, is some business man who had read some of her books and had admired her for quite some time. He said, “Something told me that I needed to send you $600,000.” To which she responds, “Wire it right away!”4 And so she gets the dish which you can still see to this day. When she prayed, God showed up. She expected an answer, and she got one.

Second, we meet Jesus in the reading of scripture.  In the Mishnah it says, “But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.  Scripture speaks here of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward?  Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.”5 . As we read and study the word of God we enter into the presence of God and he speaks to us.

Remember that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It is so because it comes from the mouth of a living Lord. As such, the words are not static. Whenever we listen to the words of scripture it would be a mistake to think that they mean only one thing and that they mean the same thing to every person. If we all came with the same question to Jesus he would not give us all the same answer. Why? Because we are all different and we all need different things. When we treat the word as if it is dead, as if it means only one thing, then we are forced to interpret it in such a way that is becomes applicable in that same way to everyone, and that is a mistake. Jesus did not call everyone he met to leave all and follow him, but he did call twelve to do just that. He did not call everyone to sell what they have and give to the poor, but he did call the rich young ruler to do just that (cf. Mat. 19:21). He did not call everyone to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he did call Paul to be just that. Can we be sure, when we read scripture, that the words do not apply to us exactly as they are written? It is not for me to say that you must sell all that you have an give to the poor. Neither is it for me to say that you must not. You have to do with Jesus. He is the Lord which issues his command. When St. Anthony went to worship he heard the reading of the gospel which said, “Be not anxious for the morrow” (Mat. 6:34). He immediately got up, left the service, sold all that he had and went to the desert where he would depend solely upon God for tomorrow’s provisions.6 St. Anthony did not ridicule others because they did not follow him to the desert. He did not make the mistake of thinking that the word which Jesus spoke to him in the reading of the gospel was the same word that he spoke to others. But when Jesus’ command came to him he had no choice but to obey, and obey he did. We must allow for the possibility that we may meet Jesus in a similar way. He may gave us similar commands. The word of God is not dead because its author is not dead. What he says he says to each of us individually, if only we are willing to listen.

Finally, we meet Jesus in community. We have seen already how that Jesus is continually active through his body, the church. When the church is what it ought to be, when she is disciplined by the word of God, when she lives in the rhythms of the very life of God and is shaped by her worship, she may speak to us as a spokesman for Jesus.

“One of the most delightful examples comes from ‘the poor little monk of Assisi,’ St. Francis. Francis, it seems, was in ‘great agony of doubt’ about whether he should devote himself only to prayer and meditation, which was a common practice in those days, or whether he should also engage in preaching missions. Wisely, Francis sought out counsel. ‘As the holy humility that was in him did not allow him to trust in himself or in his own prayers, he humbly turned to others in order to know God’s will in this matter.’ He sent to two of his most trusted friends, Sister Clare and Brother Silvester, asking them to meet with one of their ‘purer and more spiritual companions’ and seek the will of God in the matter. Immediately, they gathered to pray and both Sister Clare and Brother Silvester returned wit the same answer. When the messenger returned, St. Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling down before the messenger, St. Francis asked him, ‘What does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?’ The messenger replied that Christ had revealed that ‘He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.’ Receiving the message as the undisputed word of Christ, St. Francis jumped up saying, ‘So let’s go–in the name of the Lord,’ whereupon he immediately embarked on a preaching mission.”7 As Peter and Paul were Christ’s representatives to so many, so the church continues to be Christ’s presence in the world. So it is said, “If you cannot listen to your brother, you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit.”8 Of course, the church, even at her best, can be fallible. So we “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). The frailty of the church does not negate the fact that our brothers and sisters may speak the words of Christ into our lives.

 

Are You Ready?
Hopefully now it has become clear: there is no escape. Jesus is not someone “back there” and his works are not “back then.” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. He is alive, and he is active. We meet him in a thousand different ways and he continues to speak to us. He calls us, he commands us, because he intends to change us. When we are ready to face Christ in the flesh, as a reality today, we face him as a lion, and so I am reminded of Jill in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. When she first arrives in Narnia she finds herself unbearably thirsty. Happily, she hears a stream near by, but as she approaches she is stopped dead in her tracks. There, just on her side of the stream, is the Lion Aslan. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink” he says. That’s Jesus invitation to us all. Hearing the stories of men and women like David, Deborah, Peter, and Paul, of certain saints like St. Anthony or St. Francis, all make us thirsty, like Jill, thirsty for an encounter with Jesus. At the same time, we are a little afraid of what might happen if we were really to meet him. So, like Jill, we ask him politely to go away. Aslan says, “Are you not thirsty?” to which she responds, “I’m dying of thirst.” “Then drink”, said the Lion. “May I–couldI–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. She wanted satisfaction without the Lion. Like her, we want satisfaction without Jesus. We may even want religion with Jesus. Church and family are fun. They’re full of friends and games, and we like those well enough. But very often, we’d be more pleased if we could have them without Jesus not knowing that even if we could have it, it would not satisfy. Of course, Aslan refused to move. Jill could not drink without drawing near to Aslan, and so we cannot have the life we were made for without Jesus. Of course, even Jesus isn’t so threatening, so long as we can keep him caged up in a book. That was Jill’s thought too. She thought that perhaps she could get close to Aslan by taming him. “Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. Like her we want all of the comfort of Christ with none of the change. We want all of the riches of Christ with none of the responsibility. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. The thing is, we stand before Jesus as we would stand before a lion. We cannot know what might happen if we get too close. But if we give ourselves to Jesus he will do with us what we could never imagine. So follows this final exchange between Jill and Aslan.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occured to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up.”9

We may run from Jesus, but there is no other stream. Only he has the water of life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Oddly enough, the most common way of running from Jesus is by trying to tame him. We want a promise that he isn’t going to do anything to us. But that’s not how things work. He is living, and active. His call and commands meet us sternly in prayer, in scripture, and in the community. When Peter, James, and John were commanded to leave their nets, there was no interpretation that could save them. When Jesus told Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree, there was no illusion that he meant anything other than what he said. Jesus’ living voice remains today. Who knows when we will meet him or what he might say? Who knows how our lives might change? When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy first heard of Aslan they asked if he were safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There is no grander adventure than being a Christian. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. Do not be trouble. Though Jesus be not safe, you can trust that when you meet him you will know that he is good.

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 150.
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.
3. Peter Jackson, director, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, (New Line Cinema, 2001). A clip of the scene may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvWCnqY-GWQ .
4. As related by Bishop Robert Barron here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDBTT9NL0_Q&t=379s .
5. Herbert Danby, trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.2, p.450.
6. The story is related here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm .
7. As told by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 180.
8. Virgil Vogt, as quoted by Richard Foster. Ibid, 187.
9. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 21-23.

Why Pray the Lord’s Prayer?

 

In the tradition of the Churches of Christ it is not common for us to pray the Lord’s Prayer either individually or communally.  I want to encourage us, however, to reconsider the practice.

The Lord’s Prayer Allows Jesus to Teach Us to Pray
Beginners may not now what to pray.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer relieves the pressure of having to come up with the words.  The words have been given to us as a gift.  Beginners need only pray the words of scripture and they have the assurance that Jesus will be pleased. “This the Lord’s Prayer is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, ‘I have prayed, but who knows if it pleased Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?'”1

This prayer, however, is not just for the beginner.  The disciples were all of them Jews.  As such, they would have been in the habit of praying daily.2  Still, they come to Jesus and ask him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1ff).  Their request to Jesus does not indicate that they did not know how to pray.  Rather, they wanted to learn to pray like Jesus prayed.

It would be a mistake if we thought that Jesus intended them to pray only “in the spirit” of his prayer instead of the very words that he gave them.  We cannot merely do something “in the spirit” of another and expect the same result.  Form can rarely (if ever) be divorced from content.  Dallas Willard relates this story.  “Some time back my wife and I visited the haunts of St. Francis of Assisi.  I noticed that the people there in charge of his remembrances were not doing the things that he did.  They did what we might call acts ‘symbolic’ of Francis, but not what he did.  How odd!  It is not odd, however, that they fail to have his inner life and his outer effects.”3 When we pray the very prayer that Jesus granted us as a gift, we are doing his acts after him. Works which are merely “symbolic” of Jesus will not have the same effect. We pray this prayer because it is his gift to us, and so we learn to be like him.

Further, the Lord’s Prayer encompasses all others.  When Augustine of Hippo reflected upon this prayer he remarked, “Run through all the words of the holy prayers, and I do not think that you will find anything in them that is not contained and included in the Lord’s Prayer.”4

It Helps to Form the Habit of Prayer
Martin Luther took the fact that we are to pray for our “daily” bread as an indication that we ought to pray this prayer daily.5 The Didache, a kind of ancient catechism (2nd century) commands to pray it thrice daily.6 Praying the prayer verbatim will help to establish prayer as a habit. This is exceptionally important because whereas prayer ought to be the habit of the Christian “experience teaches us that it is a habit easily broken.”7

Some may object to the repetition citing Jesus’ condemnation of “vain repetitions” (Mat. 6:7). First, it should be noted that the rest of the verse gives Jesus’ meaning. Pagans use “vain repetitions” because “they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” That is, the pagan prayers could be long because they thought that they were thereby meriting their gods’ attention. The prophets of Baal, for example, cried to him from morning until noon attempting to get his attention (2 Kings 18:26). The Christian need not pray such long prayers because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mat. 6:8). Second, repetition is not inherently vain. Ask any athlete how many times he has practiced his golf swing or jump shot, or how many laps she has run around the track or how many laps she has swam around the pool. They would all admit to having repeated those exercises over and over again. But they would not consider any one of those laps or any of those golf swings to have been in vain. The repetition formed them into the people they have become. This is what the repetition of the prayer does for us. So Luther rightly says, “While mindless and unthinking repetition presents a problem, repeating the same prayer throughout one’s life does not.”8

It is a Means of Discipleship
First, it teaches us how to order our loves. Thomas Aquinas said, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers … In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired.”9 As we said previously, the form cannot be separated from the content. The very fact that the prayer begins and ends with God teaches us that he is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Our lives are from him, through him, and to him. We do not, we cannot, stand upon our own, nor can this prayer. Like bookends on each side God holds up our personal petitions which are found in the middle. This is itself necessary instruction. “‘Deliver us from evil’ comes last. We tend to put it first. The child puts it first; his first prayer is usually, ‘God help me!’ This is a perfectly good prayer, and even the greatest saints never outgrow it; but they outgrow putting it first.”10

Second, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to obey the Greatest Commands, to love God and our neighbors. “The structure of this prayer is parallel to the structure of the Ten Commandments because both follow the structure of reality. Both are divided into two parts: God first, man second. And both are concerned above all with love. The first three commandments tell us how to love God, and the last seven how to love our neighbor. The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer also tell us how to love God: how to adore and worship and praise him. The other four tell us how to love our neighbor, since they tell us to pray for ‘our’ primary needs, not just ‘my’ needs. Intercessory prayer has no separate petition here because the whole second half of the prayer is equally for neighbor and for self.”11 While we may not involve ourselves in corporate worship every day, we pray this prayer and so express our love for God. This fulfills the greatest command. While we may not be able to feed and clothe the poor everyday, we can and should pray for his need. This a way of fulfilling the second greatest command. “My prayers, ascending like mist today, will descend like rain at another time and place, wherever God directs it, where thirsty soil needs it. My prayers can help feed souls far removed from me in space and time, just as truly as my work or money can help feed their bodies.”12

Third, it teaches me to trust God. In it I trust God to know my daily needs better than I do. “It gives God a ‘blank check’–‘our daily bread’ means ‘whatever you see we really need … So when we do not get what we ask for, we know that that is not our ‘daily bread’, not what we need this day. Either God or we are mistaken about what we need. Which is most likely?”13 So we learn to trust that God is better able to distinguish between our wants and needs than we are. If we find than we have less than we asked for then we learn that we needed less than we asked.

Fourth, it teaches me to forgive. The significance of the petition in regard to forgiveness is that both halves are connected by the word “as.” We beg God would forgive us “as” we forgive others. “If we think carefully about it, we realize that Christ is commanding us to pray for our own damnation if we do not forgive all the sins of all who sin against us.”14

Fifth, it teaches me to confess my weakness and my constant dependence upon God’s strength. When we pray that God would not lead us into temptation, we do not mean that he would not tempt us to sin. God never does that (cf. James 1:13). Rather, we mean that God would not lead us into trials. “It would be arrogant to ask God for trials, thinking we are strong enough to endure them. It is God’s business, not ours, to decide each person’s quantity of trials. It is our business to avoid them when possible and endure them in faith when it is not. Even Christ asked, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me.’ Only then did he add, ‘If this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ (Mt 26:39, 42). We are not to pretend to be stronger or holier than Christ!”15

It is Powerful
James reminds us that “the fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in its working” (5:16). Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” As such, we should not neglect the prayer which sums up the whole of the Christian life when we have confidence in its power, or, more precisely, when we have confidence in the God who has promised to answer.

“[T]he Lord’s Prayer, if honestly meant, is sacramental: it effects what it signifies. When we say ‘Our Father’, this faith ratifies our sonship (Rom 8:15-16). When we pray ‘Hallowed be thy name’, we are by that act actually hallowing it. When we pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, we are making it come, since the kingdom exists first of all in the praying heart. When we pray ‘Thy will be done’, the very desire is its own fulfillment, for that is his will: that we pray and mean ‘Thy will be done.’ When we pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, we are already receiving our daily bread, the food of our souls, which is prayer. When we pray ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, we are forgiving others, for we are praying for our own damnation if we are not. When we pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, we are escaping temptation by placing ourselves in the presence of God. And when we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’, we are effecting that deliverance by holding up our sins and our needs into the burning light of God, against which no darkness can stand.”16

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 101.
2. Traditionally they prayed three times a day. An explanation of the tradition can be found here: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/682091/jewish/The-Three-Daily-Prayers.htm .
3. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012), 115.
4. St. Augustine of Hippo, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 391.
5. Luther, 101.
6. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson eds., Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), VIII.3.
7. Luther, 97.
8. Ibid.
9. St. Thomas Aquinas, as quoted in “Catholic Christianity” by Peter Kreeft, 391.
10. Kreeft, 401.
11. Ibid, 395.
12. Ibid, 392.
13. Ibid, 397-398.
14. Ibid, 399.
15. Ibid, 400.
16. Ibid, 402-403.

You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me

 

 

The exposition of the Decalogue in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism gives much attention to the first commandment: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3).  He does so because, he says, “where the heart is rightly set toward God … and this commandment is observed, all other commandments follow.”1 He points to the heart and then adds to the affection of the heart the conception of the mind. “It is most important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.”2

What Does It Mean to Have a God?
So, we proceed by way of Luther to ask of the first commandment, as he does, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: a god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol … Now, I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”3 Later he puts it this way, “Everyone has set up as his special god whatever he looked to for blessings, help, and comfort.”4 He also notes the etymological relationship in German (which exists also in English) between the words “God” and “good”, saying, “So, I think, we Germans from ancient times name God (more elegantly and appropriately than any other language) from the word Good. It is as though He were an eternal fountain that gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good. And from that fountain flows forth all that is and is called good.”5

This is helpful because we are prone to think that idolatry does not exist today.  This is so because we consider idols as those things which we worship and we construe worship as restricted to prayers and hymns.  Luther’s conception of what it means to have a god challenges us to ask ourselves, from what do we “expect all good” and in what do we “take refuge in all distress”?  When we answer that question then we have identified our God(s).

Some expect money to be the fountain of all good, others, power.  Some run to drugs and alcohol in their distress, others, sex.  Some turn to things a bit more benign.  They turn to work for the source of their good and to family for refuge in all distress.  The question facing us is: when life gets hard, what do I turn to to save me?  Or in other words, what do I turn to in order to make me feel better?  When we ask it this way we find that idolatry is alive and well.  What’s worse, we may find that we are idolaters.

A Caution Against Dualism
While Luther helps us to identify our idols, it is just here that we must be careful to guard against any sort of dualism which might pit God’s creation against himself.  God gifted his creation to man to be enjoyed (cf. 1 Tim. 6:17). Luther is aware of this danger and is careful to protect his readers from any such false step.  He instructs us as to how we might find comfort in God alone without rejecting the world all together.

Receive from God, Not from Ourselves
First, we must ask if the things to which we turn for comfort are enjoyed within the boundaries set by God himself. They must be appropriate objects and enjoyed in appropriate degree. Food is an appropriate object of pleasure, recreational drugs are not. Food sufficient for the belly is an appropriate amount, gluttony is not. Only when we share in the pleasures God has given can we be said to have turned to God for our comfort, otherwise we have turned only to our own will and so to idols. “So no one should expect to take or give anything except what God has commanded. Then it may be acknowledged as God’s gift, and thanks may be rendered to Him for it, as this commandment requires. For this reason also, the ways we receive good gifts through creatures are not to be rejected. Nor should we arrogantly seek other ways and means than what God has commanded. For that would not be receiving from God, but seeking for ourselves.”6

This seems to be the very thing Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesian church. Just before he equates greed with idolatry (5:5) he lists a number of sins which ought to be avoided. “But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” (5:3, 4a). Paul then contrasts these sins with virtue. We would expect Paul to contrast fornication and impurity with chastity. We would expect him to contrast greed with contentment, and obscene talk with pure speech. But that is not what he does. In place of all this he says, “but instead, let there be thanksgiving” (5:4b). He does this, I believe, because virtuous actions are pleasurable deeds that we can receive as God’s gifts and thereby render thanks unto him.  As a result, thanksgiving becomes the opposite of vice because thanksgiving may only be rendered to God on account of virtue. While sex in itself is a gift of God, fornication, i.e. sex outside of marriage, is not. We cannot thank God for that which he did not give. Such “gifts” are those gifts which we would give ourselves. Talk is another gift from the Lord. Conversation binds together the hearts of those who share in it and strengthens the bonds of community. Obscene talk, and vulgar speech, however, do not. They are not gifts but poisons. And so we cannot thank God for them because he did not give them.  They reside outside of his command. If we are to have no other God but the LORD then we may only enjoy such gifts as he gives, anything else is from idols; We may only enjoy those things for which we are able to thank him in all good conscience.  Thanks for anything else is sacrifice to idol gods.

Recognize the Giver in the Gift
Second, even those things which God approves are potential idols. It is not that finding refuge in family or work is inherently bad.  They are not idols in themselves.  On the contrary, they are part of God’s good creation and they are offered to us for our pleasure.  They are intended to offer comfort.  They become idols only when they are rent from the hand of God and enjoyed as ends in themselves.  But, if we remember that they are gifts, if we remember that God is the fountain of all good (cf. James 1:17), then these things are not idols but blessings; They are instruments of God’s goodness.  “Even though we experience much good from other people, whatever we receive by God’s command or arrangement is all received from God.  For our parents and all rulers and everyone else, with respect to his neighbor, have received from God the command that they should do us all kinds of good.  So we receive these blessings not from them, but through them, from God.  For creatures are only the hands, channels, and means by which God gives all things.”7

Conclusion: Worship Defends Against Idolatry
So long as those acts and objects to which we turn in distress are good in themselves, that is, they are approved channels of God’s blessing and in accordance with his command, then there is no reason why we should not enjoy them. Finding comfort in God does not necessitate hermetic isolation and mystic contemplation (though there may be a time for that too). It does, however, require appreciating them as gifts and it requires recognizing God in them. To ensure that we turn to God-through-them and not to the things in themselves, we must give thanks for them as blessings.

“Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.  When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.  He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.  Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own and have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today”(Deu. 8:11-18; cf. 1 Tim. 4:3-5).

When we worship God for our gifts it strips those gifts of any pretense to deity. By recognizing them as gift we recognize them as dependent and therefore not as gods. It may then seem like a tautology to say that worshiping the true God defends against idolatry, but as it turns out it is a truth which bears repeating.  And so God says to us all, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Large Catechism, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 24, sec. 47.
2. Ibid, 22, sec. 31. Because his comments here lean heavily upon the right conception of God we may be tempted to disagree with Luther and protest that we are not what we believe, rather, we are what we love. We must be careful, however, to obey the eighth commandment as expounded by Luther in favor of Luther: “It is especially an excellent and noble virtue for someone always to explain things for his neighbor’s advantage and to put the best construction on all he may hear about his neighbor” (p. 70, sec. 289). We must “put the best construction” upon Luther, and while he most often speaks of the right conception of God he does not neglect the affect all together. Indeed, on occasion conception and affection seem for Luther to intertwine. “Instead, to ‘have’ Him [God] means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust Him entirely.” (p.19, secs. 14, 15). Further, Luther was an Augustinian monk and would have been well acquainted with Augustine’s concept of well ordered love.
3. Ibid, 18, secs.1-3.
4. Ibid, 20, sec.17.
5. Ibid, 21, sec.25.
6. Ibid, 21, sec.27.
7. Ibid, 21, sec.26.

The Seed that Changed the World

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
12th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017

TEXTS:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Ps. 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'” (Mat. 13:31-32).

Our humble God did not gain his humility with the advent of Christ.  The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always worked in small beginnings.  He decided that his dominion of the world should be shared with Man and Woman.  He called an unknown man from the east and made him the father of many nations.  He chose the barren to give birth to a chosen people.  He chose a small people to give birth to a Savior.  He chose a manger to give birth to a King.  And he chose a mustard seed to grow tall and play host to birds and their nests.  Such is the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ.

The same God that did all this is the same God we serve today.  The history of the church follows in the footsteps of its crucified Christ.  Its small beginnings, with a despised carpenter from Nazareth, have quite literally shaped the world.  It did not keep its blessings to itself.  It has grown large and played hosts to civilizations and cultures.  The same God which accomplished all this can accomplish the same great things in us.  But what great things has this tiny church accomplished empowered by the kingdom of heaven?

Hospitals
Medicine has been studied for a long time.  Hippocrates, born in the fifth century B.C., is often considered the father of modern medicine.  Doctors, however, were for the wealthy.  There were some medical facilities in Rome, but they were primarily for soldiers and gladiators.  The mother of our modern hospitals was not established until the fourth century A.D. by St. Basil of Caesarea.  Moved by his faith he established an enormous complex, a “new city”, for “the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled.”1 By the middle of the 16th century there were “37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick.”2 This close association with Christianity is the reason for the emblem of the Red Cross as well as such names as St. Jude’s, St. Luke’s, and our own Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock.3 Other kinds of medical care such as Hospice, established by Anglican Cicely Saunders, and the L’Arche communities of Jean Vanier were likewise inspired by a commitment to Jesus Christ and his care for “the least of these.”  Could you imagine a world without hospitals? If you can, you will then see the difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of its small beginnings.

Public Education
Public education is almost brand new in terms of world history.  It also has Christianity to thank for it establishment.  Prior to public education there was no law which required parents to educate their children.  As such, many went without any education at all.  Those which were educated were either taught by their parents or by those who were wealthy enough to hire a tutor.  This all began to change with The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642.

Plymouth, Massachusetts was established in 1620 and became the second successful North American colony (after Jamestown, Virginia in 1607).  It was established by Puritans who sought to separate themselves from the State Church of England.   Literacy was exceptionally important for them.  They thought that you needed to be able to read and understand the laws of the land in order to make good citizens.  They also believed that you should be able to read the Bible in order to make good people.  Suddenly, there was an influx of new settlers who did not share their commitment to literacy.  They worried that perhaps their way of life might be endangered.  So, they passed The Massachusetts Bay School Law.  It says:

“Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and wheras many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kinde. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of everie town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin. Also that all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to doe so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kinde.”4

Note their two reasons for insisting upon learning to read: that they may learn the laws of the land and that they may learn Christian orthodoxy. A difficulty soon arose with the law. They may impose a fine for those who do not educate their children but what are those to do who are not themselves educated enough to teach their children or rich enough to pay someone else to do it? This led to The Old Deluder Act of 1647. It states:

“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.

It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”5

So the city required one school teacher for all children per fifty households. Again, their motives were religious. They saw public education as a way to combat “that old deluder, Satan.” His job, they said, was “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures” and saw whatever would enable men and women to read the Bible would be war against him. It was not long before surrounding areas began to pass similar laws. The Deluder Act goes on to require the establishment of a grammar school per one hundred households in order to prepare students for college.  Our first colleges, over a hundred of them, were established as seminaries.  The Christian influence in education is undeniable.  Can you imagine a world without public education? If you can then you will begin to grasp what difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of beginnings like that of a mustard seed.

The Church
The Church itself had the humblest of beginnings.  Its cornerstone is, of course, Jesus built upon by his closest disciples, the apostles.  They were a rag-tag group of men. They were fishermen, tax-collectors, and rebels.  Two of these, Peter and John, were recognized as “uneducated and ordinary men” by their opponents.  Yet their boldness made it clear that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).  Paul had the most learning of the apostles and yet he did not depend upon it.  Rather, he preached “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18-21; 2:1-5).  Still, it was Christ in him that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  This community, at first as small as a mustard seed, grew so large so as to be scattered throughout the known world.  And like that great tree became a home to the birds of the air, so the church shared its blessings with the world.  They were and we are a people who believe, fundamentally, that “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Jesus
It was in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven arrived.  As he stepped onto the scene of history he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  But even Jesus’ beginnings are small and despised, like that of a mustard seed.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the question asked of him (Jn. 1:46).  Just after he told these parables the people were impressed, partly because of his despised beginnings.  They marveled, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Mat. 13:55).  None of this mattered.  His lowly birth, his unworthy neighborhood, his working class family, none of it stopped him from changing the world.  He built a house which all can call their home.  The church he built spans centuries, countries, and cultures.  Billions of people have made their homes in the tree which sprung from the seed of his body.  This is the God of the Bible, the God who brings order from confusion, a great tree from a small seed, even life out of death.  This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Change in You
The tiny seeds which change the world are being sown today.  Their symbols remain in the church.  Only God can take water and birth a new family from all nations, tribes, and tongues.  Only God can take the singular meal of the Supper, the common bread and wine, and feed billions across millennia.  Only God can speak a word and change a life.  Baptism, the Supper, the preaching of the Gospel are all humble simple things, but they make the home that we inhabit.  And should this surprise us?  Jesus has made the world.  Yes, the sun, moon, and stars, but also the hospitals and the schools.  The branches which began in the mustard seed continue to grow.  Christ continues to bless the world through the church.  He changed the world forever, in amazing ways.  If he can establish the foundations of the universe, if he can build hospitals and schools, don’t you think he can do great things in you?  Those great things need not start off great.  It need only be as big as a mustard seed.  A marriage can be saved by something so small as the commitment to tell the truth.  A community can be revitalized by your signature on a petition to establish a food bank.  A soul can be saved because you took the time to listen to a person’s grieving.  A life can be put back together just because you decided to read the gospel for yourself.  Christ brought the kingdom of heaven to earth.  It began as a seed.  Today its branches provide homes for millions of homeless.  Make Christ your home today.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. The Catholic Encylopedia, “St. Basil the Great.” Available: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02330b.htm ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
2. “The Christian Origins of Hospitals.” Available: https://biblemesh.com/blog/the-christian-origins-of-hospitals/ ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
3. Ibid.
4. “Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/schoollaw1642.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
5. “The Old Deluder Act (1647).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/deluder.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.

The Call of Christ

 

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 16, 2017

TEXTS:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Call of Christ
The word from the Gospel is often co-opted by preacher’s to describe their work.  While we may do so by analogy the problem I have with such a comparison is that it circumvents the Christ.  He is the sower of the seed (cf. 13:37).  Jesus is and must be central to the exegesis of both Testaments.  We cannot go around him.  Because he is the sower of the seed, any preaching of the gospel must be an encounter with the living Christ, not an abstract idea which we label “Jesus.”  This changes the way that we read the words of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer well knew.  He writes,

“Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship.  An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.”1

If our only encounter with Jesus is as a static idea then we may easily find our way “out of it.” We may say,

“‘It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.’ Jesus may have said: ‘Sell thy goods,’ but he meant: ‘Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.’–We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience ‘in faith.'”

This is how it might look if we related to Jesus as a mere idea. This is how it might look if we treated Christianity as if it were adherence to a system of doctrine instead of obedience to a person. But that option was not available to those who met Christ by the way, as he went about sowing the seed.

“The difference between ourselves and the rich man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: ‘Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.’ But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe … But we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks. If Jesus said to someone: ‘Leave all else behind and follow me; resign your profession, quit your family, your people, and the home of your fathers,’ then he knew that to this call there was only one answer–the answer of single-minded obedience, and that it is only to this obedience that the promise of fellowship with Jesus is given. But we should probably argue thus: ‘Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with ‘absolute seriousness,’ but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to stay with our families, and serve him there in a spirit of inward detachment.’ If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.'”2

No, we do not follow Christ as if he were an idea. We do not adhere to Christianity as if it were a body of doctrine. We do not preach the gospel as if it were a creed to be merely recited. The Christ which met men in the dusty deserts of Galilee is the living Christ who meets each of us today and calls us to follow him. And so we must face his call because he faces us.

“With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience. Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.”3

And so we find a living and resurrected Savior, not a dead and dying god. He is no idea. He is a man, just as you and I are men. As such, his call comes as definite and clear as my voice is to yours.

“When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience. When Levi was called from the receipt of custom and Peter from his nets, there was no doubt that Jesus meant business. Both of them were to leave everything and follow. Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life. Only one thing was required in each case–to rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities in the world. The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are to-day [sic]. Reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way, and even the law and ‘scriptural authority’ itself were obstacles which pretended to defend them from going to the extremes of antinomianism and ‘enthusiasms.’ But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-minded obedience.”4

What then do I mean? Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your job as he called Matthew, Peter, James, and John? Maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to sell all that you have and give to the poor? Yes, maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your family and to follow him wherever he bids you go? Yes, maybe. That is something that neither you nor I can determine. That is determined by Christ alone.

If we believe that the same Christ that met Peter and his brothers by the sea is the same Christ we worship, why should we think that he calls no one in similar fashion today? If we believe that the same Christ which met the rich young man is the same Christ which is alive today, why should we think that he calls no one to a similar destiny? Is there no one which needs to hear that call? If we believe that the same Christ which called men to leave father and mother is the same Christ which calls us today, why should we not believe that he issues the same call to some today?

No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave his occupation. No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave their families behind. And yes, it is possible to have riches and faith in Christ. But often this is only made possible by first giving them up, as Abraham received Isaac again only after he had sacrificed him to the LORD.

“[I]t is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ–so that a man may have these goods as one who has them not. But this is an ultimate possibility of the Christian life … It is by no means the first and the simplest possibility. The paradoxical understanding of the commandments has its Christian justification, but it must never lead to the abandoning of the single-minded understanding of the commandments. This is only possible and right for somebody who has already at some point or other in his life put into action his single-minded understanding, somebody who thus lives with Christ as his disciple and in anticipation of the end.”5

When we read the call of Matthew or the call of the rich young man, we should not assume that ours is the same call, but neither should we exclude it from possibility.

“Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us.”6

The point is simply this: each time the gospel is preached it is not a mere exchange of information, it is a meeting with the risen and living Lord.

“Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and speaking to us to-day [sic] through the testimony of the Scriptures.  He comes to us to-day [sic], and is present with us in bodily form and in his word.  If we would hear his call to follow, we must listen where he is to be found, that is, in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.  If you would hear the call of Jesus you need no personal revelation: all you have to do is to hear the sermon and receive the sacrament, that is, to hear the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  Here he is, the same Christ whom the disciples encountered, the same Christ whole and entire.  Yes, here he is already, the glorified, victorious and living Lord.”7

It is that sort of encounter which Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Sower. The previous chapters of Matthew describe various responses to people’s encounters with Jesus; This parable is an explanation of those various responses. And so, this parable invites us to ask ourselves how we have responded and how we will respond when we meet him again.

The Seed Eaten by Birds
The first response to Christ is describe as that seed which fell along the path (13:4).  “Hear then the parable of the sower.  When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (13:18, 19).

The first response to Christ is pictured as puzzlement and confusion.  It is not because Christ is enigmatic or his call unclear.  Understanding is not only a matter of the intellect; It is a matter of the heart.  It takes moral training in order to understand holiness.  Even his own disciples often misunderstood what he said.  They did so because they still treasured in their hearts visions of power and conquest.  When victory means killing your enemies one cannot help but misunderstand when the conqueror predicts his own death (cf. Mark 9:9-10, 30-32; also Mat. 16:13-23).  And so it is that Satan is often at work in our hearts to make Jesus message unintelligible.  “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.”

The Seed on Rocky Ground
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (13:20-21).

To “be rooted” is to be attached to Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  Those who have “no root” are those who have not attached themselves to a person but an idea, the very abstraction which I described at the beginning of this sermon.  An idea is completely within our control.  We may take it, leave it, or alter it whensoever we wish.  We may construct a Christ of our own liking.  If that abstraction brings with it any difficulty then we may discard it without harm and so we “immediately fall away.”  Only when we “root” ourselves in Jesus, in his living person, do we find root in anything of substance.  It is the strength of the living Christ which offers us the strength to endure persecution.

“Jesus hath many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross.  He hath many seekers of comfort, but few of tribulation.  He findeth many companions of His table, but few of His fasting.  All desire to rejoice with Him, few are willing to undergo anything for His sake.  Many follow Jesus that they may eat of His loaves, but few that they may drink of the cup of His passion.  Many are astonished at His miracles, few follow after the shame of His Cross.  Many love Jesus so long as no adversities happen to them.  Many praise Him and bless Him, so long as they receive any comforts from Him.  But if Jesus hide Himself and withdraw from them a little while, they fall either into complaining or into too great dejection of mind.  But they who love Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and not for any consolation of their own, bless Him in all tribulation and anguish of heart as in the highest consolation.  And if He should never give them consolation, nevertheless they would always praise Him and always give Him thanks.  Oh what power hath the pure love of Jesus, unmixed with any gain or love of self!  Should not all they be called mercenary who are always seeking consolations?  Do they not prove themselves lovers of self more than of Christ who are always seeking their own gain and advantage?  Where shall be found one who is willing to serve God altogether for nought?”8

We may not idealize Christ or Christianity because it is not ideals that we love. It is not ideals that we worship. We follow of a living Lord. But we must not forget the resurrected Lord is the crucified Christ, and “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Mat. 10:25). To be rooted in Christ is to be destined for suffering but we “rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities of the world.”9 Nothing else can sustain in time of trial.

The Seed Among Thorns
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (13:22).  Just as the ground cannot sustain both the wheat and the thorns, so no man can serve two masters (cf. Mat. 6:19-24).  The call of Christ is to leave everything behind and follow him.  As goes the proverb, “If Christ is not Lord of all he is not Lord at all.”  Unless my money is under the sovereignty of Christ, it is a danger to me.  Unless I do my work as unto the Lord with faith in his provision, it is harmful to my spirit.  Unless I enjoy my pleasures as a grace from God, they erode my soul.  Unless I receive each meal as a gift from him who gives all good things, I eat to my own damnation.  My heart has room for only one master and Christ lays claim to its throne.  In order to place another upon his seat I must insist that Jesus move over.  And if I do I am assured that I will “yield nothing” (13:22).

The Seed on Good Ground
“But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23).  Christ calls us all individually.  Just as the decision whether to sell our possessions, or leave our occupation, or leave behind our family is dependent upon the call of Christ, so is our own productivity.  God gives the increase.  It is not for everyone to lead myriads to Christ and we should not pridefully insist upon being greater than our call.  If we have answered the call at all we have answered the call which Christ has given to us and that is our satisfaction.  “In other words, disciples do not come in only one size or type, and there is room in the kingdom of God for the ordinary as well as for the spectacular.”10

Tilling the Soil
Jesus tell us what makes the difference in the soils. When he describes those whom we are understand as bad soil he says of them,

“With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.'” (13:14, 15).

Adopting the language of the psalms to describe idol worshipers, Jesus describes those who become like the idols they worship. Those who reject Christ do so because they are idolators. When a man meets Jesus he receives the call to come follow him. That call constitutes the call to forfeit his idols and worship Jesus as the one and only true God. It is a man’s unwillingness to part with his idols which results in the rejection of Christ.

This is informative because by contrast it also indicates to us the way in which we may prepare our hearts to receive Christ and hear his call–we worship him.

“To the question–where to-day [sic] do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call.”11

This is why the liturgy of so many Christian traditions all lead up to the Lord’s Supper, as I could wish we did here. There we meet Christ. There we hear his call, over and over again. At the celebration of the Eucharist in The Book of Common Prayer the celebrant offers you the Supper and then commissions you to enter the world on behalf of Christ. They may say, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”12 In the Catholic tradition it is so called “Mass” from the Latin “Missa” because it is the past participle of the verb “to send.”13 We come to be sent. We come to hear the call. Having heard the Word and received the Supper, you have been called by Jesus himself.  Will you answer the call of Christ?

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 59.
2. Ibid, 80-81.
3. Ibid, 59.
4. Ibid, 79.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. Ibid, 84-85.
7. Ibid, 225-226.
8. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Trans. Rev. William Benham, (Einstein Books), “Of the Fewness of Those Who Love the Cross of Jesus”, II.11.1-3, pp. 42-43.
9. Bonhoeffer, 79.
10. R.T France, New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Ed. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 921.
11. Bonhoeffer, 228.
12. The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007), “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One”, 339-340.
13. “Mass”, Dictionary.com. Available at: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mass?s=t ; Accessed 15 July, 2017.

The No-True-God Fallacy: A Blind Man’s Confession

 

 

Having reviewed my own work in the previous article about who God is and what sort of God he is, I realize that it is an easy article to contest.  One might easily say that I have committed the No-True-Scotsman fallacy.  This fallacy is an after-the-fact attempt to rescue an argument from refutation.  It is so called the No-True-Scotsman fallacy for the illustrations that are often used to explain it.

Smith:  All Scotsmen are loyal and brave.
Jones: But McDougal over there is a Scotsman, and he was arrested by his commanding officer for running from the enemy.
Smith: Well, if that’s right, it just shows that McDougal wasn’t a TRUE Scotsman.1

Or another form, which was my first introduction to the idea and still the one which first comes to mind, goes like this:

Person A: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B: But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.
Person A: Ah yes, but not true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.2

One might say this is the sort of thing I have done.  I have asserted that God exists.  Then, when someone points out that there is suffering in the world, I simply respond by saying, “Ah yes, but the sort of God that is disproved thereby is not the God of the Bible.  The true God is not disproved by suffering.”  One might say that in the face of any evidence which would refute God I simply say, “The God you have refuted is not the true God.”  One might say that this is “simply a dogmatic refusal to face up to the possibility of being wrong.”3 Is this what I have done? Have I committed the No-True-God Fallacy?

Have I failed to make God intelligible?  What am I to do?  Should I recant all that I have said?  I find myself in the position of the blind man by the pool of Siloam.  And so, consider this a blind man’s confession.

The Unbelievers Who “Know” God, and the Believer Who Doesn’t
In John 9 Jesus and his disciples come across “a man blind from birth” (9:1).  Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).  then he went and washed and came back able to see” (9:6, 7).  It is undeniable that this man had been changed by Jesus, so much so that even those who knew him were not sure that he was the same person.  “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’  Some were saying, ‘It is he.”  Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’  He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'” (9:8, 9).

The most interesting thing about the encounter is the man’s agnosticism.  Whenever he is asked for an explanation as to how he came to see all he can tell is what happened to him, but as to who Jesus is, where he came from, or how we was able to perform the miracle, he repeats over and over, “I don’t know.”  “But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’  He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’  They said to him, ‘Where is he?’  He said, ‘I do not know.'”

In contrast, those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah are quite sure that they know what sort of man Jesus is.  “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.’  Some of the Pharisees said ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.'” (9:13-16a).  Whereas the healed man did not know where Jesus was, certain the Pharisees knew where he was not from.  They were certain that he was not from God.  Others, however, were more cautious.  “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And they were divided.” (9:16b).

They turn to the formerly blind man and ask him again to explain the man who healed him.  This time he ventures beyond his agnostic position to say simply, “He is a prophet” (9:17).  The Jews who interrogated him were not even sure that the man was born blind or whether he was making it up.  After calling his parents to witness to the truth of the matter they turn again to the man and say, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24).  Again, those who reject Jesus are the one’s that make the strongest claims to know him.  They know that he is a sinner.  The blind man continues his cautious and agnostic approach about the nature of Jesus.  “He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see'” (9:25).

After the blind man’s expulsion he has another encounter with Jesus.  “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’  He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’  And he worshiped him” (9:35-38).  How ironic that it is the life-long blind man who “sees” Jesus (9:37).

As so often happens in scripture, Jesus explains his actions to those around him as a kind of enacted parable.  “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.'” (9:39-41).  The blind man knew well that he was blind, not only physically but spiritually.  He did not presume to know who Jesus was, and thereby he was able to accept Jesus as coming from God.  It was this “blind” man who has his sins forgiven.  The mistake lies with those who were so sure that they could see, both physically and spiritually.  They “knew” who Jesus was and what sort of man he was.  It is that claim to knowledge that made them unable to accept Jesus.  It is because they said “We see” that their “sin remains” (9:41).

We Do Not Make God Intelligible, He Makes Us Intelligible
All those who are sure that they know what sort of God the God of the Bible is find themselves in the place of the Jews who opposed him.  They had read the Bible, they were sure that they “knew” what the Messiah would look like, how prophets would act, and what sort of God they served.  It was that “knowledge” of God which caused them to refuse Jesus.  As it turns out, the God they rejected was not the God they met in Jesus Christ.  So it is with so many unbelievers.  They have perhaps read the Bible and maybe even some philosophy.  They are then sure that they know what sort of God the Christian God is and that is the very thing which stops them from being able to accept him.

But if they are the Pharisees then that leaves me in the place of the blind man.  Often the best that I can do when asked about God is to say, “I don’t know.”  Still, given that it turned out well for the blind man, I don’t think that’s a bad place to be.  “Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say ‘God.’  This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word ‘God’ only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit.  Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.”4 Because this is the case, it is likely misguided to try and defend God or explain him. Even believers are often not quite sure what to say about God.   And when they are “sure” they are often wrong.  But I think that is because God does not gain his intelligibility from us, rather we get ours from him. We do not explain him, he explains us. The blind man put it so well. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He could not make sense of who had healed him. But the only explanation for the blind man’s sight was that someone had healed him. He could not explain Jesus, but only Jesus could explain him. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says something about this dynamic when he says, “John’s designation of Christ as the Logos points to the fact that the evangelist envisions him as fulfilling the role of cosmic reason, in the Greeks’ and in Philo’s sense as that which grants all things their intelligibility.”5

The Church that Only God Could Make
Mortimer Adler once described his attempt at apologetics using the works of Thomas Aquinas.

“One year–in 1936, I believe–that seminar began with the ‘Treatise on God.’  I announced that I would not move a page beyond Question 2 until I had succeeded in persuading every member of the class that the existence of God could be demonstrated by one or another of the proofs advanced by Aquinas.  One by one they gave in, either from some measure of conviction or, more likely, from weariness and boredom with the protracted process; but one, Charles Adams, indomitably held out.  Finally, my professorial colleague, Malcolm Sharp, called a halt to the proceedings and suggested that, instead of sticking to my guns with Adams, I tell the class about the life and work of Aquinas.  I did so, stressing the shortness of his career as a teacher and writer (a little more than twenty years) in which, under the austerities of monastic life, with no libraries, typewriters, in ordinary-sized volumes, would occupy many shelves; and, I added, most of these works were filled with quotations from Sacred Scripture, from the philosophers of antiquity, from the Fathers of the Church, and from his immediate predecessors in the 11th and 12th centuries–all this without having the convenience of a well-stocked library or an adequate filing system.  When I had finished, Adams spoke up.  He rebuked me for not having started out by telling the class what I had just finished reporting.  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Because,’ said Adams, ‘if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God’s existence.  Aquinas could not have done what he did without God’s help.”6

Whereas, for Adams, Aquinas had failed to make God intelligible, he was sure that only God could make Aquinas intelligible.  It may be that the church’s best apologetics is being the church.  Stanley Hauerwas tells of a woman who served as his priest for some time, “Susan would often begin her sermons by observing that she could not ‘think the church up.’  She could not imagine an Aldersgate, but God can and does.  What a wonderful way to put it.”7 Our response to the living Christ is not to explain him but to live lives which only he could explain. This is a hard call to answer because so often Christians have severed their theology from the way that they live. Christianity has become formal knowledge of a private creed instead of discipleship to a living Christ. “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”8

It is time for the church to be the church.  It could very well be it is our lives, not our arguments, which need conversion.  There is a story often told of G.K. Chesterton.  He was asked if there was any irrefutable argument for Christianity.  He said, “Yes. Christians.”  Immediately following he was asked if there was any really good argument against Christianity to which he answered, “Yes.  Christians.”

I may not be able to make God intelligible.  The church may not be able to make God intelligible.  But the church can be a body which only God makes intelligible.  Let’s get about being the church that only God could make.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#NoTrueScotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017. There it is noted that the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy is a different way of naming what is called an Ad Hoc Rescue.
2. This is the first form given on Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017.
3. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ad Hoc Rescue.” Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHoc Rescue ; accessed 7 July, 2017.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2012), 236.
5. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 54.
6. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan, (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 22-23.
7. Hauerwas, 222.
8. Ibid, 159.

“I Will Be What I Will Be”

 

 

“God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the LORD.1  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘the LORD’ I did not make myself known to them” (Ex. 6:2, 3).  The LORD as revealed to Moses is unknown to the patriarchs.  But are we altogether sure we know what we mean when we say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know God as the LORD?  Or, what is infinitely more important, are we sure we know what God means when he says that the patriarchs did know him by that name?  Here I discuss God’s name, how we know it, and why it matters.

 

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Some may take the above passage to mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob simply had never heard the name the LORD, and instead only used the name God Almighty.  This, however, would be a mistake.  The Bible records all three of the patriarchs using God’s personal name.  Abraham addresses God as the LORD and even names a place after him (cf. Gen. 15:2, 17; 22:14).  Isaac follows in his father’s footsteps by using the name of the LORD as a place name (26:22), and Jacob also shows that he knows the name of the LORD (27:20).  If they were aware of his name, how can God say to Moses that the patriarchs did not know him as the LORD?  Critics of the Bible say plainly that this is a contradiction.  But could there be another explanation?

I Will Be What I Will Be
If both the patriarchs and Moses knew the Name, in the sense of knowing its syllables, then how did they differ?  In what way does Moses’ knowledge of God differ from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

When God calls Moses from the burning bush to send him to Egypt, Moses asks for the Name of the LORD.  We may assume that Moses as well as the Israelites knew the Name, just as their fathers did.  What, then, do we make of the question?  Names are more than identifying labels.  They reveal the character of a person.  To know the name of God is to know who he is (cf. Ex. 33:19 where God’s “goodness” is made parallel to “the name ‘The LORD’).  For Moses to ask the Name of the LORD is to ask to be shown what sort of God he is.  In response God says “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14), or so it is translated in most English versions.  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks takes issue with this interpretation calling it an “obvious mistranslation.”2 It ought to be translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”3 This future tense gives us a hint as to the difference in Abraham’s knowledge of God and Moses’ of the same. Whatever God’s Name would prove to mean is in the future tense, that is, it is still to be revealed. The Catholic Catechism says this about God’s Name, “It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is-infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the ‘hidden God’ …”4 God’s Name as revealed here “is a grammatical remark that suggests that God is known by what God does”5 and it was yet unknown what God would do.  He will be what he will be.  So it is that Moses and the Israelites would witness works of God which were unknown to the patriarchs and would thereby know him in a way unknown to their fathers.  They would have to wait to see what God would do in order to “know the Name”, that is, to know the full import of what it means for the LORD to be their God.

The Redeeming God
When God declares that the Israelites will know the Name, unlike their ancestors, the declaration of his Name is immediately followed with “seven dynamic verbs” describing the acts they would soon witness as a revelation of his character.6. “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.  I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession.  I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:6-8).  Notice: these acts are how “You shall know that I am the LORD.” The acts of God listed here describe the redemption of the Israelites from slavery.  And that is the difference between their knowledge of the LORD and the patriarchs’.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew him as El Shaddai, God Almighty,  the God who can provide (cf. Gen. 22:14).  But they did not know him as the God who redeems.  This knowledge, the experience of redemption by the arm of the LORD, would set the Israelites apart from their fathers.  Knowing the LORD is regularly associated with witnessing his acts. Most often the specific acts are those of the Exodus, or they are described using its language, as when the return from Babylon is pictured as a second Exodus (Ex. 7:5; 10:1-2; 29:45-46; Isa. 52:1-7; Eze. 35:4, 9, 12, 15; 36:10, 23, 36; 37:6, 13, 14, 28; cf. Jer. 23:7-8).

Proclaiming the Name
The most explicit revelation of God’s Name is found in Exodus 34.  God had called Moses to Mount Sinai where he promised to reveal the LORD to him (cf. Ex. 33:19).  As Moses hid in the cleft of the rock “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:6-7).  This is one of the most oft repeated scriptures in the Old Testament.7 Most translations, like my own, begin the quotation with a dual repetition of “the LORD.” While this maintains what I believe to be the sense of the passage, it is made clearer by placing the quotation marks later. “The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed the LORD, ‘The LORD, a God merciful and gracious.'” God here “proclaimed the LORD”, he defines his Name, he explains its meaning, its essence, and he does so by rehearsing his acts. He abounds, he keeps, he forgives, he visits. This is what he does, and that is the meaning of his Name.

Psalm 136 is a perfect example of how important God’s acts are to knowing him.  When God declares that he is abounding in steadfast love, we are not left in the dark as to what “steadfast love” means.  The psalmist takes up the task of defining it for us, but he does not do so in abstractions.  For him, to tell what steadfast love means he must tell the story of the Exodus.  For the Hebrew, that is the revelation of God’s goodness, the very revelation of his Name, and their children cannot know the LORD apart from this redemptive act (Ex. 10:1-2; Deu. 6:4-9, 20-25).  Indeed, every subsequent generation is to commemorate the Exodus in Passover and to consider himself as personally present during the actual event (cf. Ex. 13:8).8  To experience this act of redemption is what it means to know the LORD.

The Hidden God
While the Exodus is the paradigm of revelation in the Old Testament, it is not the last word.  It does not entirely encapsulate the LORD.  Their life together was a continuing education in what the Name means.  God further reveals himself in history and he is a constant surprise.  One such surprise is described in Isaiah 45.  “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him–and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name” (45:1-3).

The surprise at God’s actions is addressed by the LORD himself.  To the Israelites who cannot imagine God working through Cyrus as “his anointed” he says, “Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, ‘What are you making?’  or ‘Your work has no handles’?  Woe to anyone who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’  Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and its Maker: Will you question me about my children, or command me concerning the work of my hands?  I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.  I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward says the LORD of hosts” (45:9-13).

It was just when the Israelites presumed to know what sort of God he is that they got it wrong.  When they thought to have a handle on him they attempted to correct him.  “You’re not the sort of God who works through pagans like Cyrus.  What are you doing?”  They become like clay that says to the potter, “You’re doing it wrong.  You didn’t make any handles.”  God turns out to be a surprise.  They did not know the Name as well as they thought they did.  Their conclusion could be none other than it was.  “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (45:15).  God remains hidden, and whatever he reveals he reveals through his acts.

What is the Name of the LORD?
Isaiah 45 continues.  The LORD shows his superiority over idols.  He calls a council of court and asks those who serve idols to witness to their gods’ power.  When they fall short, when they fail to be adequate witnesses to the power of their idols God declares that it is he, not idol gods, who is the savior.  It is he who orders the world, and there is no other.  “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other … Assemble yourselves and come together, draw near, you survivors of the nations!  They have no knowledge–those who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.  Declare and present your case: let them take counsel together!  Who told this long ago?  Who declared it of old?  Was it not I, the LORD?  There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me.  Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!  For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’” (45:18-23, emp. mine).

This should sound familiar to every Christian.  It should be familiar because it is a description of Christ himself.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php. 2:5-11).  God’s Name is known only through his deeds.  His greatest deed, and therefore the most perfect revelation of his Name, is the salvation of Man through Jesus Christ.  If we would know God, we can do not better than to look at Jesus.  “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mat. 11:27).  His is the Name.  It is the Name that is above every name.  It is the Name at which all shall bow.  Jesus: this is the Name of the LORD.

The Revealed God Remains Obscure
Jesus himself declares, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world” (John 17:6).  Indeed, it is in knowing God through Jesus that eternal life is to be found.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3).  If we would know God we are not permitted to look beyond Jesus.

Despite this final revelation of God, he remained and remains obscure to many.  Over and over the New Testament records people’s shock and amazement at Jesus.  Even his own disciples found it difficult to comprehend who he was and what he was doing.  He remained “the hidden God.”  Many times certain Jews objected to Jesus saying, in essence, “You can’t do that” or “If you really were Messiah, you would not do that.”  They made the mistake of thinking they knew the Name of the LORD apart from Jesus.  They stood in judgment against him.  Just then he reminded his enemies, “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Mat. 12:8).  When we find that our idea of God does not fit Jesus, it is our conception of God which is mistaken.  “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).

The God of the Psalms
What does any of this matter? It matters because knowing God is eternal life.  Further, even rejecting God requires a kind of knowledge of him.  When atheists decide what sort of God they disbelieve, then Christians can decide whether or not they agree with the atheists.  The problem is that they don’t know any god well enough to say whether or not they can believe in him.  For example, the only argument which pretends to disprove God is the Problem of Evil.  But that problem requires a particular sort of “God.”  The psalmists did not seem to think that God was the sort of God who could not exist alongside suffering.  They would cry out to God in the midst of their suffering, even blame God for their suffering, but they would not give up faith in him.  After their complaint the psalmists would undoubtedly say, “Regardless, you are God.”  Instead of assuming they know what sort of God he is, and then deciding that he cannot exist alongside pain, they confess that–apparently–they did not know him after all, or at least not as well as they had thought.  The pain is a surprise because they did not know God was the sort of God that worked like this.  Still, it made better sense to them to say that they do not know God well than to say that God does not exist at all.  Even amidst the suffering of crucifixion, Jesus would rather think himself God-forsaken than think that God does not exist.  That at least is the language of the psalms.  Only the saint, it turns out, knows God well enough to decide whether or not he can believe in him, but the saint always decides that God alone is good (cf. Mat. 19:17).  So we are left with this interesting truth: those who disbelieve in him cannot, and those who can do not.

Repeating the Sin of Adam
The only reason why suffering should cause us to disbelieve in “God” is if we repeat the sin of Adam.  We take it upon ourselves to grasp the knowledge of good and evil, apart from God.  We then take our new invention we call “goodness” and submit God to that standard.  When God does not match our definition of goodness we decide that we no longer believe in God.  We now believe in Goodness, the god of our own making, and so we become idolators.  We stand in judgment against God and find him guilty.  But this is like submitting a game of chess to the rules of checkers.  If we should find that the Knight had made an illegal move we will discover that is only because we thought we were playing a different game.  You may rebel against God.  You may even hate him for not playing by your rules.  But you cannot disbelieve in him.  If you do, you only find that the God in which you disbelieve is not the God of the Bible.  When it comes to that God, disbelief is not an option.  The only live option is idolatry.  It’s strange; An atheist is a someone who does not believe in God.  He will be surprised to learn that God is someone who does not believe in atheists.

Christians: The Original Atheists
Under the Roman Empire Christians were considered atheists because they did not believe in the gods of Rome.  I imagine Christians were proud to be so called because the gods in which they disbelieved were not the God of the Bible.  Atheists today, who say that the Holocaust means that they cannot believe in a particular sort of god, will be surprised to find that Christians agree with them.  The sort of god disproved thereby is not the Christian God.  As such, I am indeed a devout atheist.  I also happen to be a devoted Christian.  How odd.  But then again, there always is something odd about the truth.9  God will be what he will be.  And as it turns out, he will be the crucified Christ.

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:20-23).

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. When “LORD” or “GOD” appears in all capital letters that indicates that YHWH, the personal name of God, is used. In general, I follow this practice in imitation of the modern Jewish reticence to use the name of God.
2. This remark comes from his explanation of the title of his book Future Tense, which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCHu85d5iJ8&t=100s ; accessed 6 June, 2017.
3. The Hebrew is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh and is the imperfect form of the verb “to be” which is roughly, though not precisely, equivalent to the English future tense. The NRSV and the JPS both make note of this possible translation, and Adam Clarke mentions it in his comments on Exodus 3:14. The number of times this particular form of the verb appears varies according to one’s source (38-43 times). By my personal count, it is translated as future tense 33 out of a total 38 times.
4. Catholic Catechism, article 206. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P16.HTM ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
5. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Naming God”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 81.
6. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Fourth Ed., n. on Exodus 6:6-8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.
7. Bobby Valentine names it “The Pulse of the Bible” in his article by that title, available here: http://wineskins.org/2014/11/30/exodus-34-pulse-bible/ ; accessed 26 June, 2017.
8. “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, And thou shalt tell thy son in that day saying, It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I cam forth out of Egypt.” Mishnah, Pesahim 10.5, Trans. Herbert Danby, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 151.
9. This is, of course, in reference to Flannery O’Connor’s now famous statement, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

Jesus the Word of God

 

In the previous article I made the point that one’s actions may not be judged apart from him.  We cannot know what actions mean apart from a personal context any more than we can know what words mean apart from their use in a sentence.  Just so, apart from who God is, we cannot know what God means when he speaks.  God’s most explicit word to Man is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  As such, Christ is our beginning and ending if we are to understand what God means.  “It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples.  They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ.”1

The Lord of the Sabbath
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-12:8)

This is one of many places where the place that Torah had in the life of the Jews is replaced with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish tradition likely extending back before the time of Christ, says, “R[abbi] Nehunya b[en] Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of [Torah], from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom [i.e. the troubles suffered at the hands of those in power] and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of [Torah], upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”2 Instead of inviting people to the yoke of Torah Jesus invites them to take up his yoke.  I do not think it is necessary to say that Jesus stands above the Torah.  What would that mean?  How does one stand above his own word?  We must not see him as above Torah but we must see Torah in relation to him. The Torah had been ripped away from God and placed into the uncareful hands of Man.  By inviting the people to take his yoke upon them he forces them to see that Torah does not exist apart from the God who gave it.  If we do not see Torah as the word of God then we do not see it at all.  Torah is only the word of God insofar as it is the Word of God.  If we interpret it to express anything other than the will of Jesus then we have not understood it.  Like any action, any speech, it is only intelligible when understood in relation to the person.  God in Jesus defines what is meant by Torah.  If Torah is rent from Jesus it means something that he never meant.  It becomes a burden instead of a delight (cf. Isa. 58:13).

As Jesus traveled his disciples became hungry and began to eat.  The Pharisees then take what Torah had said and separate it from what God meant.  They thereby accuse his disciples of doing what is unlawful.  They took the sabbath to mean something which would be a burden to Man, when in fact the sabbath is supposed to be a delight.  In Mark’s parallel account he reminds them that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  The sabbath is not the Lord of Man but his servant.  Any other way of seeing sabbath is to misunderstand what God means by sabbath.  So Jesus points to another scripture which they no doubt knew, though they did not know what it meant, as Jesus again makes clear.  “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7).  They knew what scripture said, but they did not know what it meant.  And they did not know what it meant because they had separated the word from the speaker.  Had they really known God they would have known that whatever God meant by “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” he did not mean “You must starve.”  And so Jesus reminds them that Torah does not exist on its own.  It is an expression of the will of a person.  There is no Torah without its Lord and “the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8).  We may not separate one from the other.

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord so Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver the word of God.  After blessing all of those who had joined themselves to him he affirms his union with Torah.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:17-19).  While he calls his disciples to obedience, he does not leave open the option of obeying the Law apart from him.  We saw above what sort of righteousness the Pharisees produced when they wrested the law of sabbath from the hands of Jesus.  And so he calls us all to a righteousness which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  The righteousness which exceeds is precisely the righteousness of Christ.  It is the Law of Christ, for there is no Law apart from him.

Six times Jesus points to the Law and six times he joins it to himself.  “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”  We may not separate Jesus’ word–for that is what Torah is–from Jesus.  When we separate the word from the Word we get an inferior righteousness and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).  Jesus insists that the word is the word of God.  It is therefore an expression of himself.  We may not read the word of God without remembering the God who spoke it, the God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:44).  And so we realize that God’s word is no word if it is severed from himself.  It is what it is only insofar as it seen as an expression of Christ who is himself an expression of the will of God.  So the word of God and the Word of God call us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Listen to Him
The disciples would need to learn this lesson again and again.  The words of Moses and Elijah are no words at all unless they are seen as the very words of Christ.  “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ ” (17:1-8).  It is not that Moses and Elijah and Jesus present different voices.  They all speak the word of God, but only Jesus is the Word of God.  This lesson they had to learn.  They had to learn that to read Moses was to read the word’s of the Beloved Son.  They had to learn that to hear Elijah was to hear Jesus.  Whenever they listen to Moses and Elijah they are to listen to Jesus.  “Listen to him” said the voice from the cloud.  And the disciples “saw no one except Jesus.”  There is no other to see.  All words are to be seen as the Word.  There is no one else.

Jesus the Word of God
If we want to know the word of God we are not permitted to listen to any other voice than Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).  Whatever God said, Jesus is always what he meant.  “He is the self-expression of the Father–what the Father has to say.  And there never was a time when He was not saying it.”3

Walk to Emmaus
After the incarnation we may not read the Old Testament in any way other than Christologically.  Jesus made this clear to two disciples on a walk they shared to Emmaus.  After they expressed their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion he said to them, “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).  This is not to say that Jesus picked out a bit of scripture from Moses here and a bit from the prophets there and said, “Yes, these are prophecies of me.”  Rather, he shows that it is all about him, from beginning to end.  How could it be otherwise?  He is the Word of God.  There is no word without Jesus in it.  We may not separate the scriptures from Jesus else we fall under his condemnation.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39a).  No!  There is no life at all in the scripture unless we see that they are connected to him who has life in himself (cf. 5:26).  “And it is they that testify of me”, he says.  “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39b-40).  It is in Jesus that we find life.  And so, scripture apart from Jesus is no life at all.  If we separate the word of God from the Word of God we make it a dead letter.  It can only kill.  But if in the word of God we see Jesus and listen to him we find that we have life, and that which is life indeed.

All Things In Him, Through Him, and For Him
The incarnation did not only transform the way we see and hear the Old Testament.  It must by necessity transform the way that we see and hear the world.  Just as we do not know what the Old Testament means apart from Jesus so we do not know what the world means apart from him.  Because as the incarnate Word he is the mediator between God and Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), he is also the mediator between Man and the world.  “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For 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, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).  We no longer have immediate access to the world.  To have such immediate access is to abuse it, to see it askew.  To attempt to grasp the world apart from Christ is violence and deception.  The world must be shaped by him and reinterpreted through him.  There is no world apart from him.

“We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.  But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation he has come between man and his natural life.  There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way.  By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world.  He wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass.  He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.  He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality.  Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1.3; 1 Cor. 8.6; Heb. 1.2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.  Since his coming man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator … There can only be a complete breach with the immediacies of life: the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator … For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ.  What is not given us through the incarnate Son is not given us by God.”4

We may no longer see the poor, we must see Christ. We may no longer see our enemies, we can only see Jesus. We cannot see our rights but only God’s gifts. We do not see our families, instead we see the Church, which is Christ’s body. We may not see the world unless in it we see the glory of Christ and his handiwork, otherwise we are blind and there is no health in us. We must all be able to say, “I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see [him], but because by [him] I see everything else.”5

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 123.
2. Herbert Danby, Trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.5, p.450. Another occasion where Jesus places himself in the place of the Torah is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” vis a vis Mishnah, Aboth, 3.6, “R. Halafta b. Dosa of Kefar Hanania said: If ten men sit togehter and occupy themselves in [Torah], the Divine Presence [The Shekinah] rests among them, for it is written God standeth in the congregation of God … And whence [do you learn this] even of two [people]? Because it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard.”
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 173-174.
4. Bonhoeffer, 95-97.
5. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”, (New York: Harper Colloins, 2001), 140.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus

 

We ought to imitate Jesus.  What else does it mean to be a Christian if not “a follower of Jesus”?  Whatever comes below it should not be said of me that I am not interested in following Jesus or that I am encouraging others not to be like him.

So what do I mean?  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks often says that he did not trust others to summarize his book “The Great Partnership”, so he did it himself.  Similarly, because I do not trust others to summarize this article I will do it myself.  The message that follows intends to demonstrate only this: One’s actions may not be judged separately from him.

 

White People and the “N-Word”
It has become conventional wisdom that the black community is allowed to say the “N-Word” whenever they want, but white people never are.  The word itself cannot be described as friendly or pejorative apart from the person who says it.  The reason white people cannot say the “N-Word” is simply because we are white.1  Here, at least, society acknowledges that one’s actions may not be judged separately from him. What a person does must be considered in light of who that person is.  Who does it is just as important (perhaps more important?) as what they do.  It is the relationship between those two that determines the meaning of what they do.  I call this ethical montage.

Ethical Montage
If you look up the definition of montage it will tell you that it is the process of piecing together separate pieces of pictures, text, or music to create a new composite whole.  It may, however, also describe the effect of the composition.  By juxtaposing separate bits of art one actually changes the meaning or affect that each of those bits would have separate from the whole.

A fantastic contemporary example of this is the Fearless Girl statue.  In order to appreciate the Fearless Girl you must first appreciate the Charging Bull or what is sometimes called the Wall Street Bull.  Wall Street is home to the two largest stock-exchanges in the world.  Wall Street is itself a symbol of wealth, finance, even greed.  The Charging Bull is a statue in this district which symbolizes financial optimism and prosperity.  This is so because a “bull market”, in contrast to a “bear market”, describes a market of generally rising prices.  So, the Wall Street Bull is a portent of such a future.

The Fearless Girl is a statue of a small Latina girl with her hands on her hips confidently, almost defiantly, facing the Charging Bull, and intentionally mimics the style of the latter.  This makes them appear as an intentional whole instead of separate pieces.  The statue was installed on March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day.  It was commissioned by an organization which invests in capitalization companies which rank highest in gender diversity.  The plaque which accompanies the statue reads, “Know the power of women in leadership.  SHE makes a difference.”  That “SHE” is in all capitals indicates that it is not only a reference to the gender of the statue but also to the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the fund.2

The important thing for our discussion is the interplay between the two statues.  Fearless Girl is partially dependent upon Charging Bull for its meaning.  Even more significant is how Fearless Girl actually alters the meaning of Charging Bull.  Whereas Charging Bull alone is a symbol of prosperity, it becomes a symbol of the male domination of the market when it is seen in conjunction with Fearless Girl.

It is also interesting that the juxtaposition of the two pieces had the effect of altering the status of Fearless Girl from that intended by the artists and commissioners.  While it had intentional feminine symbolism it was also intended as an advertisement.  By being paired with Charging Bull its meaning is both contracted and expanded.  It is contracted because its symbolic power in relation to gender equality is so overpowering that most people don’t even know it was an advertisement.  Its meaning as an advertisement is lost all together.  Its meaning is also expanded by its relationship to Charging Bull.  A colleague of NASDAQ said, “[I]t is 100% an advertisement, but perhaps it is on its way to transcending that label.”  One wonders whether it would have been such a powerful symbol if it had been erected in Des Moines, Iowa or Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To defy such a powerful symbol as the Charging Bull requires a symbol just as powerful.  By placing them so close to one another the statue claims for itself a power comparable to the Bull, a power it likely would not have had if it were any other place.  So, not only did Fearless Girl change the meaning of Charging Bull, but, by its relation to such a prominent figure as Charging Bull, the Fearless Girl has superseded its existence as an advertisement to become a symbol of gender equality.  The meaning of both pieces have been altered by their relationship to one another.  It is a sort of contextual alchemy that not everyone is happy about.3

When this contextual alchemy is considered in ethics I label it ethical montage.  To an earlier example, “black” is an acceptable description of a person.  One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that because etymologically “nigga” derives from “niger”, the Latin word for “black”, that it would also be an acceptable address.  The reality, however, is that the “N-Word” is inextricably bound up in a context of hate, oppression, and dehumanization.  Words are not their etymologies, they are their use.  Words derive their meaning from their contexts, social as well as linguistic.  This is why it is a term of friendly address in one community and a pejorative term in another community.  The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker.  To separate them is to falsify them.

The Grammar of Ethics
I’ve called it ethical montage and contextual alchemy.  We might also consider it in terms of a grammar of ethics.

It is a mistake to isolate a word from a context and say that word “means” so and so. This is because words don’t “mean” anything apart from a meaningful context.  You would be hard pressed to find a word that means only one thing.  Language is piled upon and loaded with meanings which it accumulated from this culture or that one, from this situation or that historical event.  It’s used figuratively here and technically there.  We may be able to say something like, “This word usually means” this or that.  But it would be very hard (impossible?) to speak in universals when it comes to the meanings of words.  A word with one meaning is likely to be brand new, and it won’t be long before it accrues other meanings on top of it.  We do not isolate a word from a sentence and then judge its meaning.  It has no meaning apart from the sentence.

In the same way we should not isolate actions from their context and then judge their meaning.  That context, as I have argued, is provided by the person and his situatedness.  He is a particular person at a particular time in a particular role within a particular community performing a particular action.  That same action performed by a different person at a different time in a different role within a different community could mean something entirely different, just as one word may mean different things in different contexts.

To illustrate, consider women who dress differently.  One woman dressing chastely means, “I hate sex.  I want to distance myself as far as possible from any sort of sexual overtone.”  Another woman doing the same thing means, “I do not want to have sex with you.”  Still another woman means, “I think about sex all the time and I assume you do too.  Even the slightest bit of skin may be inflammatory, so I cover it up.”  The same action, i.e. dressing chastely, may mean either that one hates sex or loves it.  One cannot know unless one knows the person.  Other women may dress with a low neck and a high skirt and also mean different things.  One may mean, “I need money and I’m willing to do whatever I need to get it.”  Another means, “I feel confident.”  Still another means, “Sex never crossed my mind.  I can’t imagine a world in which men might see me as a sexual object and so my body, I assume, will not be the subject of fantasy.”  The same action means different things depending upon who performs it.  While revealing clothing may mean that one is obsessed with sex it may also mean that sex isn’t a consideration at all.  We cannot judge a particular action apart from its ethical-grammatical context.  We have to admit that we don’t know what an action means unless we know something about the person, their history, and their social context.  We may be able to say “what this usually means is” so and so.  But are we sure that meaning is universal?  Likely not.  Seen in this light grammar itself becomes training in ethics.

The Problem With Morals
The very language of “morals” was an invention of an era whose chief goal was to toss off the traditions of their forebears.  That is, they attempted to separate themselves from their historical context.  Beginning with Francis Bacon and René Descartes, the thinkers of the Enlightenment period sought to establish a system of knowledge apart from the received tradition of their ancestors.  Following them, and influenced by them, came men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant who attempted to establish a system of moral justification separate from religious tradition.  The invention of the word “moral” parallels their efforts.

“Consider one very striking fact: in the culture of the Enlightenment the first language of educated discourse was no longer Latin, but it remained learning’s second language.  In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our word ‘moral’ [i.e. the moral of a story]; or rather there is no such word until our word ‘moral’ is translated back into Latin.  Certainly ‘moral’ is the etymological descendant of ‘moralis.’  But ‘moralis’, like its Greek predecessor ‘êthikos’–Cicero invented ‘moralis’ to translate the Greek word in the De Fato–means ‘pertaining to character’ where a man’s character is nothing other than his set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another, to lead one particular kind of life.  The early uses of ‘moral’ in English translate the Latin and move to its use as a noun where ‘the moral’ of any literary passage is the practical lesson that it teaches.  In these early uses ‘moral’ contrasts neither with such expressions as ‘prudential’ or ‘self-interested’ nor with such expressions as ‘legal’ or ‘religious’.  The word to which it is closest in meaning is perhaps simply ‘practical’.”4

So “moral” no longer means a habit of goodness but a rule that says this or that action is good or bad.  The significance of this linguistic shift is that it is the first evidence of evaluating a particular action apart from one’s “set dispositions to behave systematically in one way or another.”  Just as some attempt to define words apart from sentences they attempted to establish a system whereby we might judge an action apart from a person.

But how are we supposed to judge an action apart from the character of the actor?  The Enlightenment sought to do so through reason.  “It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent.  Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independent of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion.”5

Immanuel Kant has especially had an influence on how we think about morals.  “Most ethics since Kant has sought to be democratic.  Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ underwrote the assumption that all people could be moral without training since they had available to them all they needed insofar as they were rational.”6  That is, one does not have to be good in order to do the right thing.  He needs only to be rational.

This era effectively produced the separation of morality from ethics, where ethics focuses upon the production of good people and morality centers upon good rules known by reason.

Can a Liar Tell the Truth?
The shift I have attempted to describe above may not yet be clear so it will be helpful to illustrate it.  In order to do so we ask the question, “Can a liar tell the truth?”  If actions may be judged separate from one’s character then a liar should be able to tell the truth.  If it is the case that actions cannot be judged apart from one’s character then a liar cannot tell the truth.

It will, of course, be easy to raise objections.  The reason is that most people are not well established liars.  They are mixed bags of goodness and badness, vice and virtue.  As such we live on a continuum between the two.  For the moment–this ambiguity will be addressed later–allow that the liar here considered is a consistently bad fellow.

Just the other day I watched a television show which takes place in a prison.  During a riot the alarm goes.  It’s rather annoying so one of the inmates, who has studied electricity, wants to clip a wire and turn off the alarm.  She has with her one of the staff of the prison who is notoriously unkind to the inmates.  He also happens to be the one who teaches electricity.  The inmate has difficulty deciding which wire to cute.  She is torn between the red wire and the blue wire (aren’t they always?).  She asks the staff member which she should cut to which he responds very disinterestedly, “Blue.”  She gives him a sideways glance and then cuts the red wire.  The power goes out and the alarm continues.  The man says, “See?  I told you.  Blue.”  She then turns to the fellow and berates him.

This is a very clever move.  The humor of the moment depends upon us recognizing the deception in his answer.  When he says “Blue” what he means is “Cut the red one.”  But it’s a clever move because when she gets angry for cutting the wrong wire he can always defend himself by saying, “What?  It’s not my fault.  I told you the truth.”  Still, we sympathize with the inmate because we know, as she did, that even his “truth” was intended to deceive.  Remember, words are their use.  If, then, the use of the word was to deceive, even though it corresponded to reality, can we really call that truth?  It seems that a liar cannot tell the truth, even when he is truth-telling.  We cannot judge his speech apart from him.

Another example comes from the Lion King.  As Scar tries to convince Simba to go to the Elephant Graveyard he says, “An Elephant Graveyard is no place for a prince.”  That is true, and those same words coming from Simba’s father, Mufasa, would mean something different.  Mufasa would mean, “Stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  Scar, however, means exactly the opposite.  He means, “Go to the Elephant Graveyard.  I have a trap set for you.”  And that is exactly what Simba does.  Even though Scar’s words correspond with reality the use to which he puts the words is not an honest use.  He intends to trap and deceive.  It cannot, therefore, be called truth.  Again, this is an exceptionally clever way to lie.  When one questions the morality of the liar he can always defend himself by saying, “But I told the truth.  I told him to stay away from the Elephant Graveyard.”  A pure lie which masquerades as the truth is the ultimate invention.

We can witness this phenomenon in other areas of life.  Imagine a couple who have been married for 35 years.  The last 15 years have been miserable.  They hardly talk.  They sleep in different beds.  And who could blame them?  She is intensely critical.  He is distant emotionally, and often geographically.  He would rather stay out with his friends than be at home with his family.  But, the couple stays together “for the kids.”  Eventually, however, he decides that he doesn’t want to continue to live in such a loveless marriage.  That evening the husband comes home immediately after work and he brings a dozen roses.  The wife, seeing the roses in a vase on the dining room table, grabs them and tosses them in the trash.  We might be tempted to say, “How rude!”  But can we blame her?  The past 15 years with her husband have been nothing but manipulation and emotional abuse.  Words, as well as actions, are interpreted within a context.  The husband has created a context in which his wife is left with no choice but to interpret apparent kindness as a trick.  How can she be sure that this gesture is not an attempt at further manipulation?  For that matter, how can he be sure that his gift is not an effort at manipulation?  Is he sure that he is not perpetuating the behavior he has practiced for more than a decade?  He did not become a bad person over night, nor will he become a good one.  Indeed, the moment she tosses the flowers in the trash he goes on a tirade, storms out of the house, and goes to grab drinks with his buddies where he complains about his wife’s ingratitude.  Of course his buddies pat his back consolingly because, they think, his anger is completely justified.  He has achieved the liar’s perfect invention.  Emotional manipulation and abuse which masquerades as kindness and love.  Seemingly, it cannot be objected to without appearing ungrateful.  The point is, the action, i.e. a gift of roses, may mean “I love you” or it may mean “I want something from you” or something else.  The action must be judged within its ethical-grammatical context.

Again, consider the fact that certain messages mean more to our children when they come from someone other than their parents.  Even if its the exact same message.  This happens because parents have a particular relationship with their children which provides the interpretive context for the words that they use.  Children are not sure if what their parents tell them is the truth or a deceptive attempt at control.  Further, parents are not always sure what they mean when they speak to their children.  Are they really telling the truth?  Or are they trying to subtly deceive, manipulate, and control?  Encouragement, as well as criticism, is often better received from people outside the family.  The same is true between spouses.  There are certain things that I cannot say to my wife precisely because of the relationship that we have with one another, because of the social context that I have created.  Even if what I say is “true”, the ethical montage created by the interplay between our history and the words I speak transforms my message into a power play with the goal of controlling her or exhibiting my superiority in some way.  The question of truth is always bound up in the character of the speaker.  The very same words coming from another may mean something different than they would if they came from me.  My very person provides an ethical-grammatical context different from that of another person.

The difficulty of life together, whether that’s in a neighborhood, a family, a marriage, or a friendship is that most of us are not so bad as Scar, or the immoral staff of the prison.  Most of us have better marriages than the one described above.  We are ambiguous people.  This makes it even harder to discern whether or not someone is telling the truth.  If a person were bad through and through we could know that they are lying.  But because of our ambiguity we are never quite sure.  So we oscillate in our relationships between trust and doubt.  We are never quite sure if the other person is telling us the truth.  Even worse, we are never quite sure if we are telling the truth.  It turns out that telling the truth is a significant moral achievement.

How God Became “Nice”
It is strange that the world in which John 3:16 is displayed by every bumper sticker, tattoo, and football fan is the same world in which Jesus’ love is separated from his person, particularly as reflected in his crucifixion.  Doesn’t John 3:16 say that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”?  Yet, somehow, we have effectively separated “love” from the one who loves.  And because actions must be interpreted in relation to their actors it should come as no surprise that separating God’s love from God has resulted in interpreting “God is love” to mean “God is nice.”  Without the ethical-grammatical context by which we understand love, a context provided by the person of Jesus, we may define love many different ways.  Because we have bought into the idea that words and actions have meaning apart from any context  we may think “love” means something like tolerance or niceness.  We then insert the definition of love which we have created apart from the lover and then insert that into the Bible.  As a result we read that God is love and we think that means that God is tolerant.  We think God is nice.

It is only when we refuse to see love apart from God that we realize what love means.  Love means the cross.  Love means the willingness to be vulnerable for the good of others.  Love means willingness to suffer painful death on behalf of another.  It also means that love is confrontational.  The cross is not a sentimental gesture.  The cross was a sacrifice as well as a conflict.  Insofar as Jesus died “for our sins” he died in opposition to our sins.  He died to fight against our sins.  He died to defeat them.  He died to save us, and salvation is a painful process, for us as well as for him.  Love is not “nice.”  Love is not “tolerant.”  Love is full of conflict.  But the conflict of love cannot be separated from the lover who would rather die than see you destroy yourself.  Love can only truly be expressed when it is paired with such a person.  And that’s why speaking the truth in love is a nearly impossible achievement.

“You Brood of Vipers”: Why I Don’t Talk Like Jesus
You can’t have “good southern preaching” without saying somebody is going to hell.  Or so it seems.  Southern Baptists, revivalist Pentecostals, conservative Churches of Christ, and others with strong roots in the south have a reputation for preaching fire and brimstone.  In our culture it’s considered good form to name the “whitewashed tombs”, the “false teachers”, the “blind guides”, the “hypocrites”, the “den of vipers.”  And if people object the preacher will abruptly inform them that Jesus spoke like that and if their “snowflake” disposition can’t handle it then they’re probably headed to hell too.  It’s the perfect invention.  Meanness masquerading as Christianity.

It’s difficult to object.  It’s a basic tenet of Christianity that Christians are supposed to be like Jesus.  It would seem to follow that if Jesus did it then we can too.  But hopefully by this time it is clear why this is not so.  Jesus’ actions cannot be separated from his character.  Jesus is literally willing to be crucified rather than see one of his brothers destroy himself.  And whatever else he does cannot be separated from that fact.  The cross is the central expression of who he is.

What would it mean to actually imitate Christ’s goodness in this regard?  Have you ever known someone so good that he or she could confront anyone and that person would thank him/her after?  I can only think of one, maybe two people I know who can accomplish that feat.  Their entire lives are characterized by a settled sort of compassion, a genuine holiness.  When they speak, people listen.  If they speak a critical word you can trust that it is a necessary word.  And more than being necessary, you can trust that such people have within them a wellspring of life gushing up from the power of the Holy Spirit, filling them with love and joy and peace.  There is no way to interpret their speech in an ungodly fashion.  Whatever they say means, “I care about you.”  Whatever they say is fitting.  Of them the proverb is true, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Pro. 27:6, KJV).

“There is a story told by Drury, a friend of arguably the most important philosopher of the last century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, about a walk he was taking with Wittgenstein … Wittgenstein, who more than any other philosopher helped us recover the essential relation between what we say and how we live, on a walk with Drury passed a street evangelist preaching to all who passed by.  Drury reports Wittgenstein remarked, ‘If he really meant what he was shouting he would not use that tone of voice.'”7

That is the love of Jesus.  We cannot judge Jesus’ words apart from him.  They are only good because they come from him.  Anyone who would possess the ability to imitate his words must imitate his life.  We cannot have it any other way.  If I were to say the same words that Jesus said they would mean something different.  I would mean, “I want to destroy you.”  Jesus means, “I would rather die than see you destroy yourself.”  And that’s why I don’t talk like Jesus.  The truth is, I’m not good enough to be mean.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dictionary.com actually includes this “Usage Alert” above its definition of “Nigga.” “Nigga is used mainly among African Americans, but also among other minorities and ethnicities, in a neutral or familiar way and as a friendly term of address. It is also common in rap music. However, nigga is taken to be extremely offensive when used by outsiders. Many people consider this word to be equally as offensive as nigger. The words nigger and nigga are pronounced alike in certain dialects, and so it has been claimed that they are one and the same word.” Notice, the word is considered “a friendly term of address” as well as “extremely offensive.” What makes the difference is who uses it. The speech cannot be judged apart from the speaker. Available at : http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nigga ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
2. http://www.nasdaq.com/article/the-fearless-girl-statue-isnt-a-symbol-it-is-an-advertisement-cm766282 ; Accessed 10 June 2017.
3. Ibid. The creator of Charging Bull is not at all pleased with the appearance of Fearless Girl.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed., (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 38.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, 25th Anniversary Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 98.
7. Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words, “Sent: The Church is Mission”, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 168-69.

Learning to Speak Christian: Apologetics Without Apology

 

In my previous article I talked about my ongoing education in learning to tell the truth, specifically when it comes to talking about God.  It would seem as if the approach I offered would rule out any sort of apologetics, or preclude the possibility of speaking to anyone who does not already have faith in God.  If we are to believe in order to understand, how are we to speak to those who neither believe nor understand?  When I wrote that article I was aware of these possible objections but I did not think it appropriate to address them at that time.  Since that publication a dear friend shrewdly raised these very questions, so I have thought it necessary to say something about a thoroughly Christian apologetics, an apologetics without apology.

The Position and the Problem
The God who is Trinity, the God we meet in Jesus Christ, is not the God we could have guessed.  There is no way, apart from revelation, to determine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  If we were to meet an unbeliever and articulate an argument for God beginning with such facts as the existence of the world, Man’s rationality, or Man’s conscience, we may be able to convince them of a sort of Higher Power, but that ambiguous Higher Power would not be the God of the Bible.

Further, when one sets out on the task of argumentation he must make every step sure.  If his foundation is shaky then whatever he erects upon that foundation will easily crumble.  Now, if God exists that would make him the determinative reality, not Man.  This means that we could not know what creation is, who we are, or even what it means to be human without him.  As a result, if God exists, then to begin with creation or Man, apart from God, would be to begin with creation/Man misunderstood.  As such, the foundation upon which we built our further argumentation would be shaky.  Whatever our conclusions from these misunderstood premises, they cannot help but be skewed.  In order even to understand the premises that would prove God–like Man and creation–one must begin with God or else his “facts” are misunderstood. “The man who begins to think without the proper first principles goes mad; he begins to think at the wrong end.”1  So, it would seem that in order to have firm premises we must assume that very thing which we are trying to prove, and that is circular reasoning.  What, then, is a Christian to do?  Does he forfeit apologetics all together?  Does he abandon the unbeliever?  If not, what apologetics could there be without apology?

The Logician and the Mystic
The problem with unbelief, it turns out, is not that it is unreasonable.  A false thing may still be a reasonable thing.  Imagine coming upon a man with an odd sort of iron box.  Upon inquiry you find out that the box is sound proof and, to your horror, you also learn that there is a cat inside.  Because you cannot hear the cat inside you ask the man whether the cat is alive, to which he responds, “I don’t know.”  The important thing to note here is that the ideas of a living cat inside the box and a dead cat inside the box are both reasonable.  There is nothing inherently contradictory in either idea.  But only one can be true.  The cat is either alive or dead.  But the false idea, whichever it happens to be, is still reasonable.

When you discuss things with an unbeliever you will find a reasonableness about him.  I have never been able to offer an objection to an intelligent unbeliever that he could not answer.  You will find that the instructed unbeliever is imminently reasonable.  But if he is so reasonable, what went wrong?  Why does he not believe?  It is time to consider that the problem is not with the reason.  Perhaps it is something else.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “[R]eason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.  Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”2  If this is true, and I believe it is, then a healthy imagination is the necessary pre-condition for knowing truth.  Reason, too, is necessary, but without proper imagination it will run round in a very reasonable but very narrow circle and thereby exclude the truth which stands outside of it.

G.K. Chesterton pictures it this way:

“The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory.  Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.  If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do.  His explanation covers the facts as much as yours.  Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do.  Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong.  But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.  Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.  A small circle is quite infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large.  In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large … Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction.”3

So it is that the problem is not with the reason. Therefore, to try to overcome the unbeliever by reason is to aim at the wrong target. That is not where the problem lies. Chesterton continues, “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health … A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith.”4 Of course Chesterton believes that the Christian is reasonable and not irrational, but its grounds are more than that. “[I]t can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms.”5 And with the appeal to aesthetics we have an appeal to the imagination.  Chesterton, like Lewis, also considers a healthy imagination a necessary pre-condition for the apprehension of truth.

C. Stephen Evans is an expert on the thought of Soren Kierkegaard. On one occasion he summarizes Kierkegaard, again pointing to the imagination, “Religious faith has declined among intellectuals, not because they’re so smart, but because their imaginations are so weak and their emotional lives are so impoverished. If it’s true that many intellectuals don’t believe in God it’s either because they don’t want to believe or else it is because the natural human capacities that ought to allow them to recognize God at work in their lives have atrophied, they’re no longer working properly.”6

If we play the logic game we are bound to go round and round in circles. While Christianity is reasonable we will find atheists to be just as reasonable, though with a peculiar dryness. Perhaps it’s time to learn to play a different game. Given the choice between being a logician or a mystic, always be a mystic. “Mysticism keeps men sane.”7

A Story That Will Make You Believe in God
The book Life of Pi by Yann Martel offers itself as “a story that will make you believe in God.”8 That is a significant claim in itself. It is not an argument to make you believe in God, or a proof, but a story, and stories breed imagination.  Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Patel, or Pi.  He is a young boy who grew up in Pondicherry, India, a French colonial settlement, where his family owned and operated a zoo.  He is raised a Hindu but quickly embraces Christianity as well as Islam.  As he recounts his interest in each of these religions you find that he was not “convinced” of any of them by argument.  It was the story, the practice, and the imagination of these religions which drew him in.  He liked them all so much that he refused to pick just one.

Despite his intensely religious character, Pi is able to sympathize with the atheist.  It is the agnostic which he despises most.  He says of them, “I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: ‘White, white! L-L-Love!  My God!’–and the deathbed leap of faith.  Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, ‘Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,’ and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.”9

Pi’s father eventually decides to sell the animals and move to Canada. En route to Canada they find themselves and the animals aboard the Tsimtsum which sinks soon after departure.  The majority of the book recounts Pi’s survival at sea in a small life raft in the company of a rat, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a full grown Bengal tiger. And that’s not even the most fantastic part of the story. During his sea voyage he lives for a time upon a floating island full of meerkats, an island which turns acidic and carnivorous at night. In the end Pi reaches land. As he recovers in the hospital from emaciation he is interrogated by two men from the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport about the sinking of the Tsimtsum.

Pi tells his story in great detail, complete with zoo animals and mysterious carnivorous floating islands.  The men find his story quite laughable.  They refuse to believe that he existed so long at sea with a Bengal tiger.  Pi then says, “Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.  Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.  God is hard to believe, ask any believer.  What is your problem with hard to believe.”  “We’re just being reasonable”, they say, to which Pi responds, “So am I!  I applied my reason at every moment.  Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter.  Reason is the very best tool kit.  Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away.  But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.”10

The inspectors continue to plead with him to be “reasonable.” To give them “just the facts.” After which follows this beautiful exchange:

Mr. Okamoto: “But for the purposes of our investigation, we would like to know what really happened.”
“What really happened?”
“Yes.”
“So you want another story?”
“Uhh … no. We would like to know what really happened.”
“Doesn’t the telling of something always become a story?”
“Uhh … perhaps in English. In Japanese a story would have an element of invention in it. We don’t want invention. We want the ‘straight facts’, as you say in English.”
“Isn’t telling about something–using words, English or Japanese–already something of an invention? Isn’t just looking upon this world already something of an invention?”
“Uhh …”
“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You are very intelligent, Mr. Patel.”
Mr. Chiba: [In Japanese] “What is he talking about?”
[In Japanese] “I have no idea.”
Pi Patel: “You want words that reflect reality?”
“Yes.”
“Words that do not contradict reality?”
“Exactly.”
“But tigers don’t contradict reality.”
“Oh please, no more tigers.”
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”
“Uhh …”
“You want a story without animals.”
“Yes!”11

Pi proceeds to re-narrate the story. Most of the elements are the same. The chief difference is that all references to animals are replaced with people. Those things which happened to the animals now happen to people. The animals that die are now people that die. What the animals did, now the people do. After this retelling of the story the inspectors are no nearer to understanding what contributed to the sinking of the Tsimtsum. Convinced that the interview is fruitless they prepare to leave. Just then Pi takes the opportunity to ask them a question.

“But before you go, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Yes?”
The Tsimtsum sank on July 2nd, 1977.”
“Yes.”
“And I arrived on the coast of Mexico, the sole human survivor of the Tsimtsum, on February 14th, 1978.”
“That’s right.”
“I told you two stories that account for the 227 days in between.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Neither explains the sinking of the Tsimtsum.”
“That’s right.”
“Neither makes a factual difference to you.”
“That’s true.”
“You can’t prove which story is true and which is not. You must take my word for it.”
“I guess so.”
“In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with the animals or the story without animals?”
Mr. Okamoto: “That’s an interesting question …”
Mr. Chiba: “The story with animals.”
Mr. Okamoto: [In Japanese] “Yes.” [Now in English] “The story with animals is the better story.”
Pi Patel: “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”12

No matter which way Pi narrates the story they are both impeccably reasonable. There is no internal contradiction in either story. One, however, consists of “dry, yeastless factuality” while the other is undoubtedly the “better story.” The appeal, then, comes not from its reasonableness but from its beauty. This, I believe, is what C.S. Lewis experienced as he began to read George MacDonald and other imaginative Christians, like J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. By which he concluded, in a reinvention of a line from The Song of Roland, “Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores.”13 Pi’s inspectors and Lewis were both gripped by the aesthetic of the stories before ever they wanted to consider their “reasonableness.” The stories, of course, are logically coherent, and that is important, but that moved them neither here nor there. What they really wanted–dare I say what they needed–was first a feast for the imagination.

Apologetics Without Apology
Stanley Hauerwas said, “The best apologetics is a good dogmatics.”14 This invites the question, “What would it look like if Christians did not think their duty to the world was to defend God but rather to be witnesses to the truth about God?” Instead of embroiling ourselves in “apologetic” conversations which are framed by talk of “nature” or “values”, which cannot be right because they are supposed to exist without reference to God, what if we simply told the truth about God? God is the creator become Man in Christ Jesus who empowers us by his Holy Spirit, not to be people of godless values, but to be people of holiness. That’s far more interesting. And that’s the rub.

When we forfeit the unique contours of the Christian Story we forfeit all of its beauty. Who wants to talk about nature and its endless recurrence of cause and effect? There’s nothing interesting about that. But what about a world that does not exist necessarily? What about a world that is dependent upon the God who made it? Life is no longer a necessity. Life is, in fact, not a “right” but a gift, and that’s exciting! Every day I am the recipient of a gift from a gracious God who would rather I exist than not to exist. The God who gives me life draws me into his own life by becoming one like me in Jesus Christ. Now that’s interesting indeed.

What makes statues interesting is that they have a definite shape. The curves go thusly and it is proportioned just so. If it were to relinquish its particular shape it would lose its beauty.  It would be a shapeless boulder, a mere blob of rock.  Definite shape and beauty are bound up together. When we forfeit the particular language of Christianity and adopt the language of the world by using their terms, terms like “religion”, “values”, “social contract”, “inalienable rights” and so on, we forfeit the particular shape of Christianity and with it all of its beauty. And it is that beauty which makes it attractive! Without distinctly Christian language we are left with “dry, yeastless factuality.” But Christianity is undoubtedly the “better story.” And so, what is necessary is an apologetics which is quintessentially Christian. What is needed is an apologetics without apology. It needs no defense. Its particular shape is its beauty and its beauty is its own argument. When we pronounce the True Story of the world, a story like no other, it exercises the imagination of those that would grasp it. And if that is where the weakness lies, in the imagination, then such an exercise of imagination is what strengthens the necessary organ of meaning, the pre-condition of truth. By meeting God in the truth he exercises the imagination and rehabilitates the atrophied muscle of imagination.  As unbelievers wrestle with the particular contours which constitute the inherent beauty of Christianity it sparks their imaginations and, by the grace of God, that spark can be fanned into the flame of full belief. If indeed we trust that God is the primary actor, and not us, then witnessing to the truth is what is necessary.  God is mediated through his word, not our apologetic inventions, and so acts upon the heart of the hearer.  The task before Christians is not to learn to speak the language of the world. To speak their language is to hoist the white flag of surrender. The beauty of Christianity cannot be separated from its distinct shape. Our best apologetics is a good dogmatics. If the church is to tell the truth, we must learn to speak Christian.15 Why would the world want to listen unless we are a people with something interesting to say? This means that apologetics cannot be separated from ethics. And when it comes to ethics, telling the truth is a good place to start.

©M. Benfield 2017


1. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 46.
2. C.S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes, available at: http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf ; accessed 5 June 2017.
3. Chesterton, 34-35.
4. Ibid, 37.
5. Ibid, 38.
6. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can Know There is a God Without Proofs”, a lecture delivered on behalf of The Institute for Faith & Learning at Baylor University. Available at: https://vimeo.com/129558415 ; accessed 30 May 2017.
7. Chesterton, 46.
8. Yann Martel, Life of Pi, (Orlando, Fl: Harcourt Publishing Co., 2001), p.x.
9. Ibid, 64.
10. Ibid, 297-298.
11. Ibid, 302-303.
12. Ibid, 316-317.
13. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy/The Four Loves, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 186.
14. Jonathan Lett gives this form of the quotation as he heard it in a class he took with Hauerwas himself. The paper is available here: https://www.academia.edu/8862455/Dogmatics_as_Apologetics_Theology_with_Barth_and_Hauerwas ;accessed 5 June 2017. This seems to be a form of Karl Barth’s quotation, “Respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics” as quoted in Hauerwas’ Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church, (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), p.xiv.
15. I have taken the phrase “learn to speak Christian” from the title of Stanley Hauerwas’ book, Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).