Saturday, February 02, 2008

Generic Jesus, Generic Christianity

In the newest mailing of CTQ (April 2007), Larry Rast explores America's many Jesuses in an essay titled American Christianity and its Jesuses. He quotes Richard Wightman Fox (Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession):

Benjamin Franklin understood Jesus as a wise man worthy of imitation. Thomas Jefferson regarded him as a moral teacher. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which occurred on Good Friday, was popularly interpreted as paralleling the crucifixion of Jesus... as one preacher put it: “Jesus died for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton appropriated Jesus’ message to champion women’s rights. George W. Bush named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher.... As we have seen in recent presidential elections, the name of Jesus is often thrust into the center of political debates, and many Americans regularly enlist Jesus, their ultimate arbiter of value, as the standard bearer for their views and causes.


Rast demonstrates that the present Americanized icon of Jesus-as-moralist had its foundation in nineteenth century religiosity. He does this through the Unitarianism/Arianism of Barton Warren Stone (1772-1844), the American Lutheran rationalism of Frederick Henry Quitman (1760-1832) (who defined the Gospel as the “free response of the willful subject to the divine government revealed in and through Christ), and the work of Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875). In Rast’s words, Finney “articulated a perfectionist vision of moral government theology that explicitly and purposefully denied forensic justification and the idea of imputation.” Accordingly, each man had a different view of Jesus, crafted a different Jesus through their theologies, and the effects of each man remain within America’s culture today.

Recently during an interview, Joel Osteen called Mitt Romney, a Mormon, a Christian. Now, don’t get me wrong in this. I’m with Luther on this issue. I’d rather be ruled by a competent heretic than by an incompetent Christian. So this isn’t a statement about voting for a Christian or none other. What I’m getting at is I’m not certain that a man who doesn’t hang a cross where he preaches and doesn’t preach repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins could recognize the difference between a true Christian or a box of rice puffs anyway.

We like to bat the name Christian around as if it were Kleenex. Kleenex is a brand name for tissues, not the name of the thing itself. However, Kleenex has been applied to every sort of tissue manufactured so that when someone asks for one we don’t even pause to ask, “Do you really mean to be brand specific, or will a Puffs do?” It is becoming so that Christian is just such a generic term. Slap a cross on a mug and the coffee inside is just that much better. Drape a cross around the neck, and whoopsie-doodle, there goes another Christian walking down the street. Is he baptized? Has attended church in the last decade? What does that matter? He has a cross on. Joel Osteen is considered to be Christian pastor, and yet he doesn’t even need to mention Jesus at all. Talk about Deus absconditus!

We Lutherans are in such a privileged position. We know what the Gospel is. And yet, here is another term that is so quickly becoming generic simply because too many have taken it upon themselves to redefine the term. It simply isn’t enough for hungry ears to hear words like “unity in the Gospel,” “I’m a Christian,” or “I believe in Jesus” to know what those words mean any more. Too many others will be able to counter back, “Oh! Then we agree. We are one in the Faith.” While it is good to find those with whom we do agree, it is not this outward agreement that makes us one. It is unity in Christ’s Body and Blood that makes us one, then we are united with each other. So terminology, even the identity of Jesus Christ Himself, must be spelled out so there is no doubt what we mean by by Gospel in the first place. This unity is based on no mere generic proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” but Christ’s very Body and Blood delivered in the bread and wine for us to eat and drink at His Table for the forgiveness of sins. It is that which unites us to each other as Christians. This Meal is already anticipated in Baptism in which Christ unites Himself to His people–even little babies–through the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

To be Christian is to be Lutheran. The Lutheran confession of the Faith is not ambiguous. It is real meat, full of gristle and grit. This doesn’t mean the toughest bits to chew are handed out to those who are ready only for gnawing on the bones. However, Luther advised that the Small Catechism be taught in the home by the head of the household even to the youngest, but then went on to say he could not go without it himself. There is a model to be followed then. There are no uncertain terms to be found in the Catechism. It is simple enough for a child, yet has the depth and wisdom for a skilled doctor of theology. The most effective theologians are trained by knowing it well–which includes young children.

Pr. Sawyer wrote this clear outline to explain the Faith based on the Small Catechism. It is easily learned, and even more readily available to those who make praying the Catechism a part of their daily lives.

1. We are all born sinful and in need of salvation. The Ten Commandments teach this.

2. God, in His Mercy, has given His Son into death for us. Jesus rose from the dead and now, seated at the right hand of the Father, He pours out His blessings of life, forgiveness and salvation through His Means of Grace.

3. By these Means, He works faith, by which we look to God for all good things, praying as dear children talk to their dear Father.

4. He began such child-like trust and confidence in us when we were Baptized. He does this even in infants!

5. Since we forget what it means to be His children, He never ceases to hear our confession and speak His word of Holy Absolution over us.

6. By that kind of Fatherly and tender mercy, He leads us constantly toward His Supper, by which we eat and drink Christ's Flesh and Blood in bread and wine until we die; and even then, these will raise us up to live forever!


We Lutherans are privileged, but not arrogantly so. We have been given a great gift through the reformation of the church begun by Martin Luther. He didn’t speak in uncertain terms. His Jesus was not one who floated in the √¶ther. Rather, the Jesus of Luther was the Jesus of the Bible and of history. As Creator of the heaven and the earth, of all that is seen and unseen, He alone could enter this world as both God and Man and rescue mankind. Christ alone could continue to enter this world in water, bread, wine, and word to deliver His salvation to mortals. He does not deal with us by generalities, but in specifics and in certain locations in time and place. When we make this clear to our (backyard, next door, water cooler, overseas) neighbors, then we are being true Christians, speaking of the Jesus who was sent by the Father to be incarnated as a human for our sakes, who bled and died on a cross, suffering the wrath of the Father for our sins so that we would not. This is the Jesus who only came for sinners, not the righteous who need no Savior. It is this Jesus who willingly takes to Himself all our sins, and imputes to us all of His righteousness. All means all just as when He said "It is finished" He meant most assuredly nothing was left to be done that was left undone. This is a very specific Jesus, not one whom anyone can confess with a blithe, "Jesus is Lord," call that "The Gospel" by which they desire unity, and mean an entirely different Jesus than the one whom the Father sent and the Holy Spirit calls and gathers His church to.

The world is hungry to know the one true Jesus. Their ears are itching to hear of Him. They hear story after sweet story that speak nothing of sin and salvation, only of pretty sunsets, green meadows, and cool waters, and earthly treasures and then pronounce "Oh! What a sweet Jesus we have. Isn't the Gospel so nice?" Yet nothing has been spoken of sin by which any would wish to long for the forgiveness only Jesus brings wherever He comes! Much may even be said of what one is to do next in order to perpetuate the good peace and unity of the gospel (which is no gospel!) just now experienced (Pass on the email to five more people and continue the peace and joy! Hmmm... maybe here we have a new koinonia with a virtual Presence Jesus. He's as present in this as He is at certain altars where His very Body and Blood are denied in the Sacrament because His words are disbelieved. So can't it be argued that the koinonia achieved is virtually the same?)

Jesus didn't tell stories to wrap things up in nice pretty patty-pat answers to make us all feel all cozy and warm inside. Jesus told stories to draw us near to Him. His parables caused His disciples, those who were paying attention, to have more questions. What does this mean? They didn't get it most of the time, so they begged Him to explain more fully the way of Jesus, the way of the Gospel.

This is the way of the Christian, too. What does this mean? should be on the lips of us all as we listen to our pastors as well as to our neighbors. With the former, we find mutual conversation and consolation with a brother. With the latter, we find opportunity to give a good confession of the hope that is within us. Our mission fields are not as far away as we suppose they were.


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