We’ve examined what Jesus taught and his practice of the Open Table – a centerpiece of his ministry. Now, we must examine the claims concerning who Jesus was – what sort of man, if a man at all?
Jesus as Embodiment of the Logos
Gospel of John
Jesus as Wonder Worker
Jesus’ Death & Resurrection
The Cross – the banner of the new Empire – is the ultimate symbol of the transformative dynamic potential of kenotic love. The integrity of Jesus’ love and the true meaning of sacrifice and self-emptying becomes rawly visible in the Passion – regardless if the recorded details of such be a blending of allegory, spiritualized fiction, and fact.
The Resurrection is intrinsically linked to the Cross. Proclaiming Jesus as “Risen” is to proclaim the victory of love and human dignity, despite the reality of death. The Resurrection is the logical result of the power of kenosis demonstrated on the Cross – and calls us to a way of life marked by the radical giving of self to realities that deserve our dignity and gift. The byproduct of kenosis is life returned, restored, and transformed.
Jesus – The Sacrament of God
Is Jesus God? To answer this question, we must first wrestle with the meaning and nature of divinity – an inexhaustible task. Incomplete and imprecise metaphysics and language fails to adequately illuminate. What we do know is this – that many who encounter Jesus find meaning, power, purpose, and love – they encounter what we tend to think of as divine realities. Is Jesus God? The lines blur. Metaphysics grasps at mysteries.
Who do you say I am? This decisive, pivotal question of Jesus remains key to restoring the vitality of Christianity in each and every age.
To answer the question conceptually, to default to elaborate metaphysical claims concerning the nature of Jesus, today lacks wisdom and appeal. To treat Jesus as a something like a child treats an imaginary friend – a kindly, ghostlike presence who comforts, neglects the seriousness and radicality of Jesus. Worse, to interpret Jesus as a divine sacrifice, offered to appease an angry God – a blood payment granting individual salvation – is to reduce the meaning of Jesus to a ticket to heaven.
Renewal appears linked to giving a personal answer – calling Jesus “Lord” – identifying him as the true core of meaning among the competing power centers and structures within the broader culture. To claim Jesus as Lord is a subversive statement of allegiance, values, and fundamental life stance – not shorthand for an elaborate Greek ontology.
Notes on Nonviolent Atonement
Throughout his ministry, Jesus never advocated violence. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount he directly taught nonviolence, and elsewhere he taught that one should love his or her enemies. When faced with arrest, he did not resist.
From its earliest, the Christian tradition opposed violence – meaning physical harm or damage, or the credible threat thereof, including all forms of killing – war, capital punishment, murder – and so forth.
Jesus died a violent death, being executed by the Roman authorities, likely with cooperation from the Jewish religious authorities. He was arrested for reasons related to insurrection, trouble making, and veiled threats that amounted, in Pilate’s mind, to treason. Given that much of his ministry was a challenge, be it nonviolent challenge, to the Roman Empire and Temple authorities, his execution, while tragic, should not have been a complete surprise.
Still, Jesus’ followers struggled to make sense of his death and find meaning in the tragedy. How could someone who seemed connected to God, who promoted justice, or taught and lived nonviolently, meet with such an ignoble end? Was there any “higher” meaning or purpose to this disappointment?
Underlying the earliest Christian communities wrestling with Jesus’ execution was a searching of the Hebrew scriptures for possible insights. Some early Christian thinkers argued that Jesus’ death was connected to Jewish notions of sacrifice, while others made assertions of some positive power (grace) emerging from such. All of this began to be overlaid with themes of atonement.
Paul, who authored the bulk of the New Testament, implies that the events in the opening of Genesis constitute a rupture in the relationship between humans and the divine. The Covenant offered to the Jews was a means of healing the division. Paul speaks for many in the early community when he connects Jesus’ resurrection to some sense of atonement – healing – deeper than the Covenant.
The exact nature of atonement has been debated through Christian history. However, notions of violent atonement – treating Jesus as some sort of human sacrifice where Jesus substituted himself for us, and died a penal, substitutionary death – present many problems that most Christians overlook, awash in the current culture of Christian language and expression.
Violent forms of atonement contradict our most basic understandings of justice. How does the death of an innocent other make right the transgressions of someone else? Modern humans understand that culpability resides with the offending individual and cannot be erased by punishing another, even if that other volunteers for such a role. Such punishment is immediately understood as wrong.
Further, such notions imply a father who arranges the death of one of his children for the benefit of the rest of his children. These atonement motifs amount to divine child abuse. Such theories also seem to imply that God’s options are limited and forgiveness without blood is impossible.
The meanings inherent in Jesus’ death must move beyond those of satisfaction, justice, payment, sacrifice, and punishment underlying most notions of atonement today. Rather than overlay Jesus’ death with such, Christian theology might gain from focusing on Jesus’ nonviolent response to his violent execution.
In the Cross, we find a symbol of integrity and self-giving love. Reading early Christian literature, and extrapolating on the circumstances, it appears that the first Christians assert the Resurrection as the recognition that Jesus – his teaching and the way of life he offered – are vindicated and shown worthy despite Jesus’ death.
Jesus’ execution by the Empire didn’t prove to be the final victory. The first Christians grasped that how they now lived, the affirmation of their dignity, the refusal to submit to the dehumanization of Empire – was justified and demonstrated correct. The meaning of their lives became entwined in the layered meanings of the Cross and Empty Tomb – you may kill us, but you cannot win.