Friday, July 31, 2015

What Do I Mean When I Say the Word "Christ?"

Following worship the Sunday before last, I was asked a really good question: "What do you mean when you use the word Christ?"  My sermon had been on Ephesians 2:11-22 where Paul describes how Christ brought together Jews and Gentiles in the early church to create a new community.  My reading was that the passage was not only about first century relations between Jews and Gentiles but also about how Christ today can bring people together to create a new community transcending all the cultural barriers of our day.  I had used the word "Christ" a lot in my sermon.  I was pleased with the question, because that meant this person actually paid attention to my sermon--let's face it, that's never a sure thing.  Also, I'm really glad when someone asks me a question about one of my sermons, because that means she or he is engaged, thinking and willing to do more than accept my limited thoughts at face value.

For most Christians, there would be no need to question what their minister means by the word "Christ>"  After all, for them "Christ" is who the historic creeds or confessions of church history say Christ is--which confessions and which creeds are dependent upon the particular kind of church.  For some Protestants, the question would be answered by saying, "Christ is who the Bible says he is."  While most Christians would probably say the word Christ means something like Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah who took away the sin of the world through his death on the cross and rose from the dead, the further along I get on my journey, the less such a traditional answer satisfies me.

I'm glad to be in a congregation and a denomination where there is freedom for people to hold a variety of different understandings of who and what Christ means while still being in community together.  For most of Christian history, up through today, agreement upon the definition of the term Christ is a necessity for being in community and diversity of belief was at least frowned upon, if not cause for literally killing people holding "heretical" views.  I get it when friends of mine from more conservative churches are baffled by how a church can be a church without doctrinal agreement--it's messy when you allow freedom of belief, doubt, questions.  But to my way of thinking, messy theology allows for mystery and guards against my very human tendency to try and place boundaries around an uncontrollable God.

When I first came to my current church, numerous long-time members came to me privately to confess they weren't very good Christians.  I was expecting juicy details of deep moral failings, but instead they told me they didn't believe many of the things Christians were "supposed" to believe.  I tried not to let my disappointment show.  Usually, I responded, "Oh, is that all?"  Their so-called lack of belief just doesn't threaten me very much.

Paradoxically, I've discovered in my time in ministry that usually some of the best church members were the ones who believed the least traditional Christian theology.  For some reason, there seems to be a correlation many times between believing less doctrine and being a more loving, dedicated member of the community.  I'm not sure if that's because the universalists and agnostics have just spent more time thinking about such things and have a greater investment or there's some other factor at work.  I just like to tell the folks who tend to believe less traditional Christian stuff that even if they don't believe in God the way I do, the love of God they demonstrate in our faith community inspires my belief and helps me to see God in our world.  They can believe or not, but their actions help me to overcome my own doubts.

I've spent enough time reading and studying doctrinal battles in centuries past and observing ones in the present to come to the conclusion that how us church people decide what we believe about God is a decidedly flawed human process.  Folks can say they believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but the variety of different images, theological concepts and cultural metaphors used to explain who Jesus Christ was and is and accomplished through his life, death and resurrection tell me there is a lot of room for different ideas to coexist.  The biblical canon, in my opinion, rather than providing a consistent set of doctrine, offers instead a spectrum of theological beliefs.  I would argue we are being faithful to our scripture by holding seemingly contradictory beliefs side by side instead of falsely pretending it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.  Furthermore, the history of church battles over the identity of Jesus Christ tell as much, if not more, about human politics than they do about divine guidance.  In my own journey, I've seen more often than not, Christians using their doctrines to harm people who need God's love.  In their zeal to be certain, they drive more people away from God than toward God.  I find more reason to allow for mystery than certainty when it comes to talking about Christ.

Another big caveat I should mention when I talk about Christ is that I'm more of a postmodern thinker than a modern one.  Unlike many in the churches I've served in, including the one I serve currently, I wasn't educated like people were educated more than 40 years ago.  Culturally, I've been exposed to contradictory views held in tension with one another throughout my life.  I certainly see the value of reason, the scientific method and everything philosophical thinking has come up with since the enlightenment, but I've been taught and even culturally conditioned in a more postmodern way.  (Just like people younger than me have grown up with ways of thinking even more postmodern than me!)  I'm just not bothered by the idea that the same word, concept or image can mean very different things to different people depending on that person's point of view, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, income, etc. etc. etc.  I'm not a relativist who denies the existence of any universal norms, but I am perfectly willing to let what I consider to be universal ideas exist in my mind in a more spongy than concrete way.  I'm willing to live with contradiction a little more easily than people who grew up being taught a thing can only be one thing and not several things at the same time.  For instance, thinking of Jesus as both human and divine--a paradox if there ever was one--just doesn't really trouble me.

That's probably enough caveats, I should get back to the original question: "What do I mean when I use the word Christ?"

When I use the word Christ, the scriptures I most resonate with would be ones like Ephesians 1:9-10 where it says, "God  has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."  or Colossians 1:15-17 where it says, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 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." and Philippians 2:5-11, "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."

I know, I know, believe me I know, that these verses are probably big turn offs to my church members who hold a low Christology--meaning they see Jesus as human only rather than as human and divine.  These verses are about as high Christology as one can get--Christ is pretty freaking divine in these verses.  I empathize with really good church folks of mine who feel that if Jesus is God then they can't relate to him.  For them, if his actions and ministry were not human efforts to be followed as an example, but rather divine ones that only a god can accomplish, then what Jesus did has little to nothing to do with their all-too-human efforts.  I, on the other hand, have never felt like I had to choose between Jesus being human and divine.

One of the contradictions I hold in tension without being too troubled by it is I can hold tightly to my beliefs about God (which come across, I know, as traditional if not conservative), while at the same time, I don't have to worry about my parishioners who hold beliefs about God that are very different from my own.  I think it is possible for me to say that on my journey I've chosen to believe in Jesus as divine and human and to accept the doctrine of the Trinity, in at least some form, without at the same time also believing that anyone who doesn't share my view is a heretic.  In my mind, I can hold onto my beliefs without having to condemn someone with different ones.

To me, I understand the term "Christ" to refer to the part of God, or essence of God, or facet of God or whatever of God that seeks to reconcile all of creation with God's self.  I think "Christ" is a way of talking about whatever it is of God that accomplishes the on-going act of creation that God began at the very beginning.  Christ is what binds humanity together with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  When we resist the work of Christ in the universe, we bring about broken relationships, a destroyed environment and false understandings of God that hurt rather than heal.

Yes, I know that such a view of God's activity in the universe just doesn't make sense to folks who are understandably stuck on questions of suffering, evil and all kinds of really stupid stuff done in the name of God by people who claim to know the mind of God better than everyone else.  I have those same questions too--some days those questions resonate louder than the part of me that holds faith in a benevolent deity who is active in the universe.  What thinking person hasn't looked at genocide, natural disaster, the death of a child, the death of a loved one, or any number of awful things and had doubts?  I have them too, so I don't judge people who just can't get there when it comes to Christ being a cosmic force for good.  I could be wrong after all.

I believe Christ--this whatever of God that pulls everything towards harmony rather than discord--was in Jesus, in his life, his relationships, his death and his resurrection.  I'm really not too concerned with whether this happened through a virgin birth or some other way.  I like to say sometimes that I choose to believe God was in Jesus and Jesus was in God in some extra special way, because at least then God knows what it really feels like to be rejected, abandoned, tortured, scorned and killed.  A deity who hasn't experienced such things firsthand can't relate to me or people I care about when we go through similar moments.  I'm able to call myself a Christian when I look at myself in the mirror in no small part, because when I consider all the crappy stuff in this world, I at least believe God knows what we have to deal with on this mortal coil.

I know, I know, I know, for some of my folks the whole divine/human thing just doesn't make sense.  I agree.  It doesn't make sense, but all I can say is it just doesn't bother me.  I've thought about it a lot.  I recognize it as a paradox, but for me, something that is paradoxical can also still be true.  I know that the resurrection in whatever form one wants to think about it--bodily, spiritual, whatever--is something that just doesn't make sense to people who don't see much evidence of the laws of physics being suspended in their own lives.  I'm just as turned off as they are when some Christians act like believing in the resurrection is no big deal.  It's a lot easier to explain it away as ancient superstition than it is to believe in its reality.  Yet, I do.  I've made a choice to believe in it, because it seems to match up with my interpretation of reality (at least so far).  

I've had a pretty good life, and I don't pretend to have experienced some of the grief and pain my church members and friends outside the church have known in their lives.  If I had a baby still-born, a parent die at an early age, an excruciatingly painful and fatal disease, a direct experience of war, a life of poverty, etc. etc. etc., then perhaps my beliefs would be totally different.  Yet, this is where I am, so far. . . 

My beliefs have changed a lot in my life.  If the last 43 years are any indication, if I get to live so long, my beliefs will change a lot in 43 more years.  I try to stay humble about what I believe and acknowledge that I've chosen my beliefs--at least as much as any of us chooses such things based on our life experiences, cultural conditioning, family of origin, etc.  If I expect others to respect my choices of belief, then I have to offer them the same respect regarding their choices, especially when we choose to believe different things about God.  My main concern is how do those beliefs about God manifest themselves in how a person treats others.

Recently I shared an image on Facebook that one of my Facebook friends had on their page.  It has the words, "They will know we are Christians by our doctrine." except the word "doctrine" is crossed out and replaced with the word "love."  Ultimately, I'm less concerned with my doctrine or anyone else's than I am with whether or not how I or they live is a compassionate way of life.  My concept of "Christ" has everything to do with God being compassionate--far more compassionate than I am--so in the name of divine compassion, I'm going to do my best to hold religious beliefs that privilage compassion over doctrinal rigidity.

If what I've written doesn't do it for you, then just know, I'm okay with that.  Furthermore, I welcome your questions.      

Grace and Peace

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