Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another Trace of the Alpha Issue

I don't expect to ever get a clear shot at it. But the hunt is instructive, so I'll keep on rooting around for clues. The most recent sighting may be found in the (1979 BCP) collect for Proper 15 (this past Sunday and the weekdays that follow):

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Here's the operative generalization: Christians (including Anglicans) who self-identify as "orthodox" and who may be known by their opponents by a number of descriptors including "conservative" and "fundamentalist" will tend to emphasize the phrases "sacrifice for sin" and "receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work." Christians (including Anglicans) who self-identify as "progressive" and who may be known by their opponents as "liberal" or "revisionist" will tend to emphasize the phrases "example of godly life" and "follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life."

Of course, no generalization is universally applicable. I am fully aware that there are plenty of "progressives" who are abundantly grateful for the fruits of our Lord's redeeming work, and it goes without saying that there is no shortage of "orthodox" who are consumed by imitating the example of his most holy life. But I'm wondering how effectively the opposing sides in the sexuality wars can be sorted according to the vocabulary they would use to talk about who Jesus is and what Jesus means. Liberals will more often be concerned with the teaching and ministry of Jesus, and interpret his death and resurrection in that context. Conservatives will more often be concerned with the death and resurrection and Jesus and interpret his teaching and ministry in that context.

I noticed the same dynamic some years ago when Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was released. Those for whom Jesus is primarily a "sacrifice for sin" who is engaged in "redeeming work" almost universally found the film profoundly moving, a positive witness for the gospel. Those for whom Jesus is primarily "an example of godly life" and understand his importance primarily as a teacher and example nearly all found it revolting and worthy of scorn.

The conventional move for an irenic guy such as myself at this point is to say something like, "It's not either/or, it's both/and." That always sounds wise and moderate. But in the matter of Christology, it simply won't do. Without the "redeeming work" of Jesus—that is, without everything implied in the expression Paschal Mystery—his "most holy life" is of no effective significance to anybody except … Jesus. The Paschal Mystery has to be the lens through which the teaching and ministry of Jesus is "read." It doesn't work the other way around.


Jane Ellen+ said...

On the other hand... were it not for his "most holy life," no one would have paid attention to the "sacrifice for sin," or had a clue about its significance.

The "redeeming work" of Jesus is found in the whole of who he was and is: life, and death, and resurrection. Trying to separate them into one part being more important just doesn't fly. Each has to be seen through the lens of the other.

In other words, "both/and" may be irenic... but it's also right.

Anonymous said...

I think, Jane Ellen, that rising bodily from the grave would have been something of a clue.

Jane Ellen+ said...

Phil: Yes... if anyone had been present to see it. But witnesses were there because they came to know him beforehand, during his years of teaching, healing and proclamation-- the life of holy insurrection that led to his crucifixion in the first place. It was the work of those years that gave them (and us) the "lens" to finally realize the eternal significance of it all.

The salvific gift of God is found in the whole of what Jesus did for us-- living, and dying, and rising again, interwoven. It's a package deal, and prioritizing one bit over the other misses the mark.

Of course, I'm also stubbornly trinitarian... ;-)

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with your first paragraph, Jane Ellen, but, at the end of the day, I think we do have to prioritize His death, resurrection and ascension over the rest. I say this although I also agree that it is ultimately "both/and." On the other hand, were we only to consider Jesus' teachings disconnected from what He was ultimately revealed to be, I'd be happy to tell you where I disagree with Him. Instead, knowing what I know in hindsight, I choose instead to struggle to conform my life to those areas, whether I agree with them in principle or not.

Martial Artist said...

Father Martins,

When I read your final sentence, "The Paschal Mystery has to be the lens through which the teaching and ministry of Jesus is 'read.' It doesn't work the other way around," only one thought came to my mind—Amen!

Blessings and regards,
Keith Töpfer

Anonymous said...

This is not a matter about which Christians may legitimately differ.
1 Corinthians Chap 15 is absolutely unambiguous:
The Good News "of first importance" is: "Christ died for our sins."
Moreover: "By this gospel you are saved, or else you have believed in vain."
There is an order and priority to our aprehension of these mysteries.
It is not "both/and" when the question is specifically: "but with which do I begin?"
It is disingenuous and dangerous to insist that things are other than they are.

Anonymous said...


Whatever do you mean with this statement? "the life of holy insurrection that led to his crucifixion in the first place." The word "insurrection" is a total puzzle to me. Is this some kind of liberation theology? What about the Holy,innocent suffering and death part?
Dcn Dale

Jane Ellen+ said...

Don: Jesus' actions and teaching were just that-- holy, in that they were entirely focused on God and God's will for humanity; and insurrection, as they directly challenged and often undermined the religious and political leadership of his day. He was certainly innocent, and undeserving of death; but that's what got him arrested and executed.

father will said...

Surely it is, in a sense, a package deal.

But my favorite bit is when he is "lifted up from the earth" as that's when he draws all men to himself (Jn. 12.32). That's good news on a cosmic scale.

I also think its fantastic that "he went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained" (Jn. 10.40).

I'm pretty sure I could go through life without ever knowing that Jesus remained for awhile across the Jordan and it wouldn't bother me too much. On the other hand, not knowing that I had been reconciled to God, which only happens through the cross, would be kind of a deficit.

In other words: the reconciliation of the cosmos with God happens because of one particular event in the Jesus story: his death on the cross. It doesn't happen because he got up one morning and brushed his teeth.

Blessings and peace.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite collects. An ornate, doubled verbal symmetry. Cranmer composed it for his 1549 BCP, when it appeared for the Second Sunday after Easter. The Traditional form of the collect in our '79 BCP changes only one word, as we pray "thine only Son, to be unto us . . .", Cranmer had, "thine holy Son . . . ." Paul Zahl's commentary (from his "The Collects of Thomas Cranmer," Grand Rapids, 1999): "In theological language, we could say that the Collect invokes the Atonement as the foundation of our living out concretely a Christ-like life. In everyday terms, belovedness precedes loving. Is this not true in secure human relationships? Cranmer sees it as true in the prime relationship" (p. 55).

Bruce Robison