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The Uniqueness of Jesus and the Way of the Cross

The Uniqueness of Jesus and the Way of the Cross

By The Venerable Christopher Brown, Ph.D.
www.virtueonline.org
June 6, 2018

Dr. David Seamands, a Methodist missionary and seminary professor, used to tell of an African Muslim who converted to Christianity. The man's friends asked him why he became a Christian. He replied, "Suppose you were going down the road and suddenly the road forked in two directions, and you didn't know which way to go. There at the fork in the road were two men, one dead and one alive. Which one would you ask which way to go?"

Not so many weeks ago we made that Easter shout, "Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!" Our lives as Christians do not rest merely on the memory of a religious founder. Jesus is alive! He is with us through the Spirit, as he promised, "to the end of the age," even as we await his embodied return at the close of the age.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever," says Hebrews 13:8. Jesus is not a memory that fades over time, but a living presence. In this respect, Christians make a claim about Jesus that is unique. His sovereignty as the risen Lord is permanent; his accomplished work of atonement is complete and unalterable.

"Christo-fascism"?

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge is nationally known as one of the most gifted preachers in the Episcopal Church. (Last year, Christianity Today named her recent book, The Crucifixion, 2017's "Book of the Year.") Some years ago, Mrs. Rutledge was speaking at Union Theological Seminary, where she had previously been a student, when a prominent faculty member, Dr. Dorothy Sölle, accused her of being a "Christo-fascist."

What would provoke such a sharp rebuke? I know Fleming well; she was a colleague of mine for almost ten years at Grace Church in New York City. She is a self-identified Anglican evangelical, but she is certainly no fundamentalist. She has liberal political and social convictions, and her preaching is shaped by the incisive Biblical theology of the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Without question, Jesus Christ is at the center of her theology, as the unique divine and human savior through his death and resurrection. It was this focus on the centrality and uniqueness of Christ that seems to have been the problem.

Dr. Sölle coined the term "Christo-fascism" in 1970 as way of identifying "totalitarian" and "imperialistic" impulses in Christian theology and preaching. A colleague of Dr. Sölle, Dr. Tom Driver, urges

"...that the worship of God in Christ not divide Christian from Jew, man from woman, clergy from laity, white from black, or rich from poor...we fear christofascism, which we see as the political direction of all attempts to place Christ at the center of social life and history...much of the churches' teaching about Christ has turned into something that is dictatorial in its heart and is preparing society for an American fascism."

To many people this may seem a confusing mixture of political and religious thinking. It is certainly difficult to see Mrs. Rutledge's gracious account of orthodox Christian faith as "totalitarian" or "imperialist," simply because of her commitment to New Testament claims about the uniqueness and centrality of Jesus Christ.

One of America's leading interpreters of Karl Barth, George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary, has argued that Dorothy Sölle's notion of "Christofascism" is simply a theologically sophisticated rejection of Biblical Christianity, or as Hunsinger puts it, of "Jesus Christ as depicted in Scripture," in favor of an eccentric and "non-normative" reformulation of Christian faith along left-leaning political lines.

This may seem to be an academic tempest in a teapot -- too obscure to be interest to ordinary people. But it is typical of the debates that arise in the seminaries where Episcopal clergy receive their training. And it is by driven concerns that motivate ordinary people.

The Uniqueness of Christ -- "Take it or Leave it"?

We all know people who feel that the claim that Jesus is the unique and only savior denigrates other religions and non-Christian cultures. Such people may feel that a particular political or philosophical outlook is right and moral while a competing view is wrong; but when it comes to religion, they opt for a relativism that says all religions are equally valid and true. Yet for the African Muslim who converts to Christianity, often at acute personal risk, it makes all the difference that Jesus is uniquely a living and risen Lord who offers a new life not found elsewhere.

One response to the contemporary discomfort with the uniqueness of Christ is simply to say: "The Bible says, 'There is no other name by which men are saved' (Acts 10:12) -- so take it or leave it!" The problem is that today all too many people choose to leave it and look elsewhere. Is there a more persuasive approach that does not compromise the uniqueness of the Gospel -- and not merely more persuasive, but more consistent with the Gospel itself?

The problem with the "take it or leave it" approach to the unique Lordship of Jesus is that it has a triumphalist cast to it. It is not just that it seems like bad manners, or comes across as arrogant. After all, Jesus was not always polite. He could be prickly and off-putting, just he has could be "gentle and lowly of heart." The problem with triumphalism is not that it is bad manners, but that it is inconsistent with Jesus' way of the Cross.

The Way of the Cross

The Cross is the means of our redemption. On the cross, Jesus offered himself in our place and bore the consequences of our sin -- thereby restoring us to fellowship with God. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses that, Jesus "did this once for all when he offered up himself. Hebrews repeatedly uses the term "once for all" (ἐφάπαξ/ephapax) to indicate the decisive unrepeatability and all-sufficiency of the cross. As the prayer book puts it, "one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world."

Fundamental to the Cross and its universal efficacy is the aspect of "self-emptying"-- which theologians call "kenosis," from the Greek κενόω -- kenoō, meaning "I empty". This term comes from the Christ hymn of Philippians 2, in which Paul says,

"...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death" (Philippians 2:6-89)

The Apostle locates this divine act of "self-emptying," or as the New International Version puts it, "making himself nothing," at the heart of the redemptive work of Christ. It encompasses both the Incarnation -- when the Word is made Flesh and God takes on our humanity, as well as the work of Atonement on the cross -- when Jesus gives up his life for us.

Jesus "self-emptying" radically contradicts the pattern of the world. Jesus points to this pattern when he tells his disciples, "You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you." (Mark 10:42-43) By contrast, the greatest among his disciples are those who serve -- following the example of Jesus himself on the cross: "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

There is a paradox here! While the culture tends to perceive claims of Jesus' uniqueness as an arrogant assertion of superiority that denigrates those of other religious tradition, what makes Jesus unique in his saving action is an act of complete and self-emptying humility -- "a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench." Moreover, he makes it clear that those who follow him are to demonstrate that same self-emptying humility, and renounce the world's pattern of "lording it over" others.

The Paradox of Proclaiming the Uniqueness of Jesus

Three centuries before Christ, Chaerophon, a friend of the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, visited the Oracle at the shrine in Delphi and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates. She answered, "No, there is no one wiser than Socrates." When Socrates learned this he wondered how it could be, since the one thing he was sure of was that he knew nothing at all. Then he concluded, paradoxically, he was the wisest person in Greece because at least he knew that "the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing," while all the other philosophers labored under the delusion that they were wise.

Perhaps we should think of the uniqueness of Jesus in a similarly paradoxical manner. Yes, all "authority on heaven and earth" is given to him, (Matthew 28:18) yet it is power manifested in weakness, and greatness expressed in service. And our task as his disciples is to proclaim it to the world in that same spirit of servanthood and self-emptying humility.

The Hope that is in Us - with Gentleness and Respect

All too often the Church has "lorded it over others the way the Gentiles do." In this sense, anyway, Dr. Dorothy Sölle was correct: there been times when Christian preaching and engagement with the world has given way "totalitarian" and "imperialistic" impulses. All too often we have proclaimed the Gospel in a manner and tone that has caused offense. It is true that even at its most winsome, the Gospel is a "stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," (1 Corinthians 1:23) and a "sign that is spoken against" (Luke 2:24) -- the Gospel will always elicit opposition. But far better that it is the Gospel itself that provokes opposition, and not the fact that it is presented in manner inconsistent with the Gospel itself. As 1st Peter puts it, "it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil." (1 Peter 3:17)

The context for Peter's warning, has to do precisely with the manner with which we share the Good News. "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," says Peter. But he is also clear that how we go about it makes all the difference: "yet do it with gentleness and respect" -- that is, consistent with the way of the Cross. Thus, we "have a good conscience, so that, when [we] are slandered, those who revile [our] good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." (3:15-16)

The Ven. Dr. Brown is Rector of Trinity Church, Potsdam, and a regular contributor to The Albany Episcopalian

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