“What is a healthy congregation?” Anthony B. Robinson asked in an article in the Christian Century a few years ago. He answers that it isn’t just a congregation with an absence of conflict; that tends to create a placid, unexciting congregation. No, he suggests a healthy congregation is one that is engaged theologically with the core convictions of their Christian faith.
We come from many traditions here at KUC, but I believe we share a number of core interests and convictions that we could explore this morning: our understanding of the role and status of scripture; the doctrine of the trinity; the place of the Lord’s supper or our understanding of ministry in general. But the conviction that caught my attention, the one I think, as Robinson claims, will keep us from becoming too settled, predictable or comfortable is the basic Christian teaching about Jesus Christ.
So….is there one way to believe in and understand Jesus and who he was and why he came? Some people say yes, there is one clear understanding. They are usually the same people who claim to know the whole truth. They, “proclaim an infallible message either on the pages of an infallible book or on the lips of an infallible preacher…,” writes Rev. John Andrew (Anglican Digest, Easter 1991). [They] “dislike risk and they cannot afford to lose,” and who of us wants to lose? Don’t we all want to know we have hitched our wagon to the right star, or the right belief? There is too much at stake, say the infallible truth sayers, don’t take the risk, believe the wrong thing and face God’s rejection. But the temptation to have a monolithic understanding of the man Jesus, whom we claim was God, is to leave us with a bland and boring and, in my opinion, an ineffective faith.
Christus Paradox, by Sylvia Dunstan, sung by the choir this morning, gives us a different, rich and complex understanding of Jesus with which we can engage as we look at the paradoxical images of Jesus in it. “You Lord, are both lamb and shepherd. You Lord are both prince and slave. You, peacemaker and swordbringer of the way you took and gave. Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross, shining in eternal glory, beggar’d by a soldier’s toss. You preach a way that’s narrow, have a love that reaches wide, you the everlasting instant; you who are our pilgrim guide.” The first time I heard the choir sing this anthem last spring my hair almost stood up on top of my head. Writer Parker Palmer said that, ”paradoxes are like batteries; without both poles there is no charge.” Hearing this anthem it was as though an electric chare surged through the air and I said to myself – here is a core truth I feel compelled to explore.
By definition, a paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. In a true paradox, one ends up saying, “Both these things can’t be true,” except they are. A paradox isn’t a puzzle – a puzzle can be solved. A paradox isn’t a contradiction that asserts its own opposite of which only one can be true. A paradox is more like a mystery into which we can go deeper and deeper but never quite solve.
While on the summer mission trip last year in Nicaragua we worked with children who lived their lives on a garbage dump. Their homes were shacks and their clothes were scavenged from the dump. The lives they lived seemed impossible to imagine and yet a number of our kids commented that these children seemed happier than they were. It was a paradox of the highest order. A paradox leaves us to wonder, and desert abba, Gregory of Nyssa observed, “Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything.” Fundamentalism of any kind tends to take all things literally, which removes the power of metaphor and paradox to move you, to move you and to perplex you. Robinson says, “without the sense of paradox, we end up missing the delight and the disturbance of the gospel.”
In a communion meditation in his church in Toronto, Rev. Kenneth Gallinger, stated, “religion is rife with paradox. …and if it’s true that religion is the home field upon which paradox plays, then Christianity holds the franchise on its expression.” He went on to tell the story of being in church as a teenager and hearing the reacher declare Jesus to be one with God and the son of God and he remembered thinking, “Hold on…how can he be both the Son of God and be one with God?” A father, after all can’t be his own son. How is it that the Bible can claim that Jesus is both God and the son of God; sheep and shepherd, prince and slave, peacemaker and sword bringer, and the everlasting instant?
Most any Jew, living in Israel at the time of Jesus would have immediately understood what the writer of the gospel of John meant when he wrote of Jesus as a shepherd. The shepherd, as described by Leslie Weatherhead in his book The Autobiography of Jesus written fifty years ago, was a commanding presence with his sheep. “The sheepfold consists of four high, rough walls surmounted by thorns fixed along the top…In one of the walls, the one nearest the stream that threads its way through the valley, there is a space a littler wider than a man’s body. The shepherd, preceding the sheep, stands in that gap and faces outward, and he calls his sheep to him by name as they come toward him over the hillside. One of the most impressive and lovely things you can still see in Palestine is the way in which, if two flocks of sheep intermingle while the shepherds are chatting or eating, a shepherd with the utmost ease can separate them without any use of dogs or of chasing the sheep about. He stands a little above them on the hillside and simply calls to them by name.”
This image of God as shepherd runs throughout the Old Testament. In Genesis, Jacob blessed Joseph saying that God had been his shepherd all his life to this day; or Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd”; or Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” When Jesus says, “I am the good Shepherd” everyone knew what he meant.
But how can the shepherd also be a lamb? A lamb is young and vulnerable and couldn’t survive without the protection of the shepherd. A lamb is completely dependent. Calling Jesus “the lamb of God,” was also a clear message to first century Jews. In the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt God spared the youngest child of those Hebrews who had the blood of a lamb smeared on their doorposts. This last plague that God sent to the Egyptians was the final blow for the Pharaoh and moved him to let the Jews leave Egypt. The blood of the lamb was their safety and the means of their final escape. It was in this story that the writers of the New Testament saw a way to understand and make sense of the death of Jesus. So Paul writes to the Corinthians about the death of Jesus, “For our paschal lamb (Passover lamb) has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us celebrate the festival not with old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. And the author of 1 Peter writes (1:18-19), “You know that you have been ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.”
The other images in the anthem Christus Paradox go on to enrich a paradoxical understanding of Jesus. Isaiah predicted a child who would be a prince of peace; the beautiful hymn in Philippians 2 celebrates Jesus as the one who, “though he was in the form of God…emptied himself taking the form of a slave;” at the transfiguration in Mark, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white yet at his crucifixion his clothes were stripped from him and were divided among the soldiers by a toss of a coin; and Jesus proclaimed that, “the gate is narrow and hard that leads to life, “ yet 1 Timothy states, “we have our hope set in the living God who is savior of all people.” And Dunstan concludes her litany of paradox with perhaps the most powerful of all, “you the everlasting instant.” Jesus was here, like we are, for a brief moment but he is also ever present. In the last verse of the gospel of Matthew Jesus tells the disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).
On the front page of the score for Christus Paradox Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. writes, “…the writers of Scripture ransacked every tradition they could lay their hands on. They borrowed from wisdom and prophecy; they borrowed from history, poetry and apocalyptic. They tried to express Jesus Christ’s uniqueness with everything they had, with what Martin Hengel once called ‘a multiplicity of approximations.’” It is hard to pin Jesus down.
This rich multiplicity of approximations gives our faith an amazing richness and elasticity. Walter Brueggemann writes that the reason that the Bible, “is not monolithic, onedimensional or seamless is not because of…flaws but because the key character is elusive…. This God does not fit much of our theological preference and certainly does not conform to any of our bourgeois reductionism. This God is the one who keeps life ragged and open, who refused domestication but who will not let our lives be domesticated either.”
Corporate Curmudgeon Dale Dauten wrote a short Guide to Being a Bonehead for the Chicago Tribune back in 2001. Number one on the guide’s list is “Don’t know what you don’t know.” The antidote for this quality is to realize that, “there is great wisdom in knowing what you don’t know.” We are in trouble if we think we have Jesus all figured out. He is the everlasting instant – both God and man, and it is this great paradox that is at the heart of our faith, and if we approach our faith with humility how could we ever hope to understand or explain this great mystery?
Keeping these two poles in tension with each other is the important thing. There is a kind of joy in not quite getting who Jesus is because it pushes us to think and pray and grapple with God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Paradox leads us to the very character of God because in God opposites are united. Back in 1986 Jerry Sittser wrote these words in Decision magazine, “God is both loving and holy. He is like a gentle parent; we are to call him ‘Father.’ But he is also likened to a ‘consuming fire’. We are commanded, therefore, to fear him as we seek him…We dare not disregard this tension. If we do and concentrate on just a few of God’s qualities to the neglect of others we will compromise our knowledge of God and lose our longing for God.”
“Affirming a paradox-laden faith in Jesus Christ is essential to the health of congregations, “ concludes Anthony Robinson. It allows us to be a church where we can struggle and discuss and even argue about our faith, but where we allow ourselves to be open to a mysterious God; a God who is a shepherd who goes out before us to lead us and care for us, as well as a lamb who died for us and suffers with us. Thanks be to God. .