Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton spoke the language of this generation. And no where did he do so more profoundly as when he famously dodged a flat question with the reply,
“It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”
I remember how shocked I was when I first heard him say that. When I look back at that quote it takes me right back to that shock. And it reminds me of the tortured way some people, even some ministers, talk about the resurrection of Jesus and whether Jesus is alive.
On that last point, I want to say one thing before the obvious central point of this post. I’ve learned some great things from “liberal” Christians, some of whom would no doubt launch into a Clinton-esque tortured exploration of “is” if asked if they think Jesus “is” alive. If my learning from such folks shocks you, let me briefly say there are several theologies in conservative Christian circles that tend to undervalue the power and genius of Christ’s teachings and example, while there are some on the left that do the opposite. Search this blog for my “Don’t call it grace” posts to begin to see what I mean. It’s not just his blood, but also his words that give (and are) life; and sometimes Christians, ironically, miss this.
But my second point is this: People who say they are Christians but want to talk about what the meaning of the word “is” is when confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’ look just as silly as Bill Clinton when he tried that tack. There ain’t no debate about what “is” means when the scriptures say “Jesus is Lord.” In a word, we’re talking about, and affirming, the resurrection. Interestingly, Jesus himself actually makes the argument that the dead are raised by the usage of the “is” concept. The fact that Jesus “is” as opposed to merely “was” is absolutely central to the Christian faith, and a big part of what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. I’m okay with folks having honest questions about that as they peruse the faith and even as they are on the long journey of the Way. But let’s be clear what the “is” means in the original Christian creed and in any Christian creed worth having: ‘Jesus is Lord’ means in no small part that Jesus is alive.
In the first post in this brief series, I said I’d post on each word of this central, and original “creed” of Christianity. I could (and may still) end this series with a post on “Jesus.” I mentioned at the end of the last post:
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now.
Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
Who is this Jesus that God has given all authority in heaven and the earth? What’s his agenda? What are his priorities? To answer this question I urge people to read the gospels. Please intentionally try to shelve what your own tradition tells you are Jesus’ priorities. Let Matthew give you his take. Let Mark and Luke do the same. Let John. Let Jesus. Look at his actions and words and try to discern what this guy is about. Reading any one gospel only takes a half-hour or so. I guarantee that reading any one of them, if you’ve never done it, will shift your idea about who Jesus is and what matters to him.
Warning: you may find yourself wondering why your church does what it does and how.
Here’s proof of my genius: Christianity is about Jesus. 🙂 It’s not a movement led or inspired by me, or you, or the Pope, or even Billy Graham. Nope. Christianity is a Jesus-centered, Jesus-shaped, Jesus-led movement for the benefit of all the universe.
Or at least it’s supposed to be. And that’s the first, most obvious and wonderful reminder of the statement that “Jesus is Lord.” Christianity is well known for its exclusivist claims about Jesus. We quote Jesus’ statement that he is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except by him. Unfortunately, we tend to use this as if it was merely a statement by Jesus that no one goes to heaven when they die apart from Jesus. While that’s true, I wish Christianity was better known for the larger exclusivity claimed for Jesus in that quote and in the statement that “Jesus is Lord.” When we say that “Jesus is Lord” we’re not just saying Jesus has the exclusive power to give life after death. We’re saying he has all authority over everything, everywhere, which is more in line with what the gospels seem intent on trying to tell us about him. He has power over wine and weather, forgiveness and fish, sin and sickness, demons and death. This larger authority is a far, far better and more natural reason for us to become his disciples in this life, than authority over the afterlife alone (which likely why the great commission is phrased like it is). Who better to follow than the Man with all power and authority over every facet of life? Really. Got a better suggestion? Who and why exactly?
When someone runs for president of the United States and is expected to have a decent shot at winning, the whole world wants to know what this person is about: what’s their past; what formed them; what are their passions; what does their life’s work so far tell us about them? What we want to know is this: what is this person going to do with the power and title of the presidency of the United States? A perfectly reasonable thing to want to know in light of the power of that office to affect so many. If a U.S. president wants to address the nation, television stations will, in mass, interrupt their typical programs to cover every line. Why? Because this person has power to affect many. His or her intentions are news.
Let me suggest that this is precisely what the gospels do for us, only the office in question is not the presidency of the United States. The office in question is the throne of David, God’s Messiah, who will lead the whole world with God’s own agenda and power, and whose reign will never end. Jesus’ ideas of good will cover the earth. His idea of what’s right is the basis for his judgment. That’s why the gospels don’t often self-describe themselves as “the good news about justification” or something similar. Rather, they routinely self identify as the good news about Jesus, the Christ (annointed king). The atonement, thank God, is part of this king’s great deeds, even his greatest, but also thanks to God, it’s not all there is to the ‘gospel’ of Jesus and the government he’s now leading and calling us to receive and enter on the earth. Because of the power of this government, everything about Jesus, the one Christ-ened with power by God to lead and transform, is news. The specifics of what he does with God’s power and what he commands and empowers us to do is what makes the news good.
I’ll leave you to the gospels, to Acts, to the letters to find out what all is in this king’s agenda and regular activities. It’s good, good stuff, though, I’ll tell you that right now. To quote a favorite hymn, “When Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?” Jesus is Lord. More to come.
Years ago, N. T. Wright and a review of the biblical texts convinced me that “Jesus is Lord” was the irreducible core of the gospel message; it is the centerpiece of what the Church believes and has to tell the world (whether we all realize it or not!). (This isn’t going to be a post or series to prove that, fyi; if you’re interested in that find some N.T. Wright to read and also read all the ways that Jesus and the NT generally talk about gospel, and try to synthesize them.) Many others have noted this, along with the idea that the phrase was also the first “creed” of Christianity. I’ve also used the phrase personally as a meditation, as a defense to temptation, as worship, etc., etc. and with much, much benefit.
Alan (see the link above) makes a very interesting point about creeds: namely that while “Jesus is Lord” initially served to unite Christians and be the dividing line b/n those who were and were not part of Christ’s ekklesia/church, the more current (and longer) creeds were used to distinguish Christians from other Christians. I’m not sure if Alan is right, or that things are quite that clean, but I do know that creeds have tended to get longer as more and more doctrines have been added by this or that group to the supposed “essentials of the faith” with corresponding heresies being catalogued.
While I agree with all of the ancient creeds, I can’t help but think every time someone says we need to use the Nicene or some other ancient creed more often in worship or as a basic confession (essential for membership) in our churches, that we lose something, that we distort Jesus and his own emphases somehow. For example, I believe that Jesus was born to a virgin. I find it unhelpful, though, that this point gets included as “an essential” while the teachings that Jesus said summed up all the law and the prophets (Love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind & strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself) gets no mention. Do the creeds create a different set of “essentials” than what Jesus taught? If so, is everybody okay with that? I keep thinking that the shorter, “Jesus is Lord” would better serve; that it would focus us on the Man himself and his priorities; that in this case, less really is more. How about you? I’m going to post a little on each word of that creed and see where it leads.
By the way, for those looking for another Vineyard post, I’d also credit the Vineyard for this holistic Jesus-focus in my life. I credit my S. Baptist upbringing for telling me that the Bible is God’s word and we do well to treat (all of) it accordingly. But when it came to Jesus and the good news about him, they really only gave me the last third/half of the gospels as “gospel.” Only Jesus’ death was gospel, when push came to shove, because that was the act of substitution, that’s what allowed me to go to heaven, and that was the good news. It was the Vineyard’s influence that started me wondering if everything else in “the gospels” was also good news, that Christianity was about more than surviving judgment, though that was pretty darn good. Thanks significantly to the Vineyard, I started to see that Jesus was talking about the gospel in terms of God’s reign coming to earth, and that Jesus was the embodiment, in word and deed, of what God had in mind to do as the rightful King of the world. Good news, folks: “Jesus is Lord (over everything threatening humanity, within and without).” More to come.