Passionate Particularity: Naming Jesus
Barbara K. Lundblad,
Associate Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, New York
Reported by Julie Ryan
When discussing the growth and care of tomatoes or other plants with neighbors who happened by the little garden adjoining her Manhattan church, Pastor Lundblad would be intrigued with their nearly inevitable signoff: “Well, Reverend, we all have the same God, don’t we?” (Rough translation: “You will never see me here in this church!”)
“Do we?” she would often wonder. Who is our God? Who is the Jesus that we, as Lutheran Christians, name?
A poem by Stephen Dunn, “At the Smithfield Methodist Church,” expresses the surprised reaction of secular parents who have allowed their daughter to attend Vacation Church School: You can’t teach disbelief to a child, only stories; we hadn’t a story nearly as good.
Lutherans have worried that the particularity of our story will offend others, or that using Jesus’ name will evoke images of the inquisition or crusades. It can be easier to invoke an amorphous God. But the problem with non-specific, ahistoric revelation is that it tends to float away into spirituality in our own image. Krister Stendhal responds to the worry that my-story-will-demean-yours with an analogy: “I do not demean other women if I love my wife.” Telling our Christian story doesn’t mean taking over the world, but being in conversation with others (Buddhists, Hindus, et al.) over their own stories. Our most pressing concern may be those people like the family in the poem, who seem to have no larger story at all.
We need to develop ways of maintaining our differences while staying in relationship with each other, lest parts of God’s story get lost. (Singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” provided grist for discussion: How did it feel to sing each hymn? What images of Jesus did each hymn convey? If we were to adopt only a single one of these images, our naming of Jesus would be incomplete.) Even “the particularity” of Jesus is complex!
Nevertheless, we trust his promise that the Spirit “will lead you [in Greek, “tutor you”] into all truth.” The same Spirit who ensured that a variety of stories about Jesus got included in the Bible indeed continues to tutor us. We can see things at the beginning of the 21st century—notably, dimensions of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus—that we have never seen before.
We may want not only to see Jesus more fully, but—in the power of the Spirit—to see with Jesus as he keeps pointing to God. We profess that Jesus is “true God”; paradoxically, we also acknowledge that Jesus was “always praying to and pointing us toward God.”
Lundblad, whose roots are a farming community in Iowa, told what it was like for her to move from there to the remarkable diversity of New York City. She has found that it is crucially important to be able to see Jesus through the eyes of others whose historical experience has been very different from one’s own. Latin American theologians write with eloquence about Jesus coming to suffer with the people—God with a human face. The African American church sings a theology which has sustained generations: imagine a choir bursting into “King Jesus! King of Kings!” while a soloist whispers, “Poor little Jesus, born of Mary.” The witness of European immigrant ancestors who struggled over the land is to be treasured, but it is not the same witness as that of slaves. (What would the Name mean for someone brought here in chains in a ship called “Jesus”?) Women theologians, connecting misuse of language about the cross with the crime of domestic abuse, are developing new understandings of cross and resurrection.
To see Jesus fully we need to learn from brothers and sisters who may not “look like me.” The Body of Christ must take on flesh in specific people and experiences. At table, when Jesus said, “This is my body,” we may envision him lifting his arms very wide to indicate both the bread and those assembled around it.
The texts of scripture arise from situations of pluralism, and themselves embody a plurality of voices. The end of each gospel is but one example: Go, make disciples; They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid; Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high; Come and have breakfast/feed my sheep. If you don’t have all four, you don’t have the whole picture. The gospels are like a kaleidoscope, ever turning—within the three-year lectionary cycle, throughout the seasons of the year—ever turning, with new patterns falling into place.
Jesus is counter-cultural in a culture that loves to talk about Jesus but doesn’t really see him. In Deep Meaning, Exuberant Hope, Walter Brueggeman asserts that the first task of any preacher is to maintain the oddity of who we are as Christians. In the baptismal imagination of the New Testament, Christians are particular, peculiar, odd men and women at risk in a large cultural empire that wants to homogenize them. Christians are different because we have been with Jesus, sharing the bread of brokenness and the wine of blessedness. The question arises, what does it mean to be “odd” when Christianity is the dominant religion of this culture?
New Ways of Getting Back to the Bible
Often in recent years we have heard the phrase, “getting back to the Bible” as a charter for what we ought to be doing. It tends to involve quoting verses out of context, particularly in arguments over human sexuality. Perhaps we can retrieve this phrase but use it more thoughtfully.
The ELCA Constitution, Chapter 2, begins with a Confession of Faith in (2.01) the Triune God; and (2.02) Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The Word of God we confess is (a) the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ; (b) proclamation about Christ through law and gospel; and (c) the canonical scriptures. Priority, in descending order, thus belongs to the living person, the message, and the written word. We Lutherans worship not the Bible but the God who is revealed in the Bible. We have been leaders in historical/critical methods of scholarship because we are free to ask questions of how and why texts came to be the way they are. We look askance at proof-texts torn from their moorings. Brueggeman cautions us to beware of “thinning” the texts—trying to do away with their inconsistencies, embarrassments, essential oddity.
Like life, the Bible is rich—untidy—“dense” in the best possible sense of the word. David Carr calls the Bible “the untamable word of the untamable God.” Scripture is a holy place where we meet God. Revelation is not in the place, but in the struggle; like Jacob at the river we emerge from the encounter limping, yet blessed and renewed. Francis Young compares the Bible to a musical score which must be played in every generation. The notes are on the page, but have never been played in precisely the way we will play it. The “untamable text” comes alive just as a score comes alive.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus models for us some helpful ways of “getting back to the Bible.” Among his parables is the scribe trained in the kingdom (13:52), bringing out from storage treasures new and old—“a lovely description of our calling.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reiterates the pattern, “You have heard it said…but I say to you,” himself drawing upon both old and new. He has come not to do away with the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. In chapter 18, he tells us that whatever we bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.
When she tried to write about this, a little red spell-checking squiggle appeared on Lundblad’s computer screen. Her software didn’t like the word “loosing,” and wanted to substitute “losing.” This sparked an insight: “loosing is not the same thing as losing.” Often the unexpressed fear around issues of sexuality is that if we loose particular verses we’ll lose the whole Bible. Not so! We know from our own life experience that it’s possible to loose a passage for a very good reason. The ordination of women is one example. Some texts we have loosed order women to be silent in church. We have paid attention to faithful women we know, and found other texts to guide our practice. Divorce is another example. Jesus is clearly opposed to it. We have reached a point of loosing even his clear words through greater understanding of their context, greater understanding of human relationship, and greater empathy with those we love.
There are times when the most faithful thing we can do is to loose—unbind—untie—narrow definitions. This is doing our work as scribes trained in the kingdom. God keeps giving us wisdom to discover something new. Our task is “interpretation—not regurgitation, repristination, repetition.”
In this task we may use a story from the Acts of the Apostles to show us a constructive way of “getting back to the Bible.” Philip is a deacon, chosen to wait at table. As chapter 8 begins he has been preaching and baptizing—tasks he’s not authorized to perform. An angel tells him to meet the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, whom we may imagine as dark-skinned and highly educated. Luke’s readers in the ancient world would have been as familiar with eunuchs (to whom there are 56 Old Testament references) as farmers are with seed corn. We who live in a different age can catch a glimpse of this man through 20th century research into the lives of male castrati. He would likely have appeared simultaneously young and old, with skin both soft and wrinkled, his voice artificially high. He may have suffered from osteoporosis, arthritis, or irregular growth. As Philip meets his chariot, he is reading Isaiah 53, verses 7-8 (Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter). Perhaps he had started with the first verses of the chapter (…like a root out of dry ground…with no form or majesty…despised and rejected by others…held of no account…). The Ethiopian asks Philip whether the prophet is writing “about himself or about someone else?” We can almost hear him thinking, “Does the prophet look like me…does the prophet understand what it’s like for me?”
The Ethiopian is returning home after having gone to Jerusalem to worship. What would that pilgrimage have been like for him? It is remarkable that he made the effort. Deuteronomy 23:1—part of the holiness code—could not be more explicit: No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. The eunuch might have known this verse. How could this obviously disfigured man worship with the group? Was he standing at its edges, or shut out entirely?
Then Philip, starting with this scripture,…proclaim[s] to him the good news about Jesus. In order to do so, Philip has to go beyond what is in the text of Isaiah. The community of ancient Israel views the suffering servant as itself. For Philip to identify this figure with Jesus is already an interpretive move not yet on anybody’s written pages. Irony rings in the eunuch’s question: What is to prevent me from being baptized? The expected answer: “Everything!” But in Christ, and through the movement of the Spirit, there is a new creation. Baptism of this foreign eunuch fulfills the double promise in Isaiah 56:3-5: Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” God promises to bless them with an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
Through this promise Isaiah has already transcended the holiness code of Deuteronomy. In exile, hundreds of years before Jesus, he is already able to envision a new reality—one in which those previously despised or cut off are welcomed and treasured. How has he made that interpretive leap? “The words written down beg us to see more than the words written down.” Both Isaiah (turning upside down the holiness code) and Luke (interpreting Isaiah’s suffering servant figure as Jesus) go beyond the words written down, via the Spirit’s tutoring. So may we, in our vocation as scribes trained for the kingdom.
Today we may recognize analogies between the eunuch in this passage from Acts and sexual minorities in or at the edges of our own worshipping communities. Both are excluded from the assembly by the holiness code of the Old Testament—excluded for sexual reasons alone. Philip’s unauthorized yet angel-guided work of baptizing and preaching may remind us of work by gay and lesbian Christians at the boundaries of authorized ritual, searching to articulate God’s promised blessing in their lives. The scriptures challenge us to hospitality and trust in the promise of the Spirit’s guidance.
Truly “getting back to the Bible” means learning how the Bible has reinterpreted itself from generation to generation, the words written down leading to vision beyond themselves. Baptism into Christ immerses us into streams of living water, the moving currents of the Spirit who renews the face of the earth. Shall we gather at the river? “Sometimes God makes a river where there is none.”