Day #3 in the current Battle Against the (Christmas) Bulge, and the best thing about it has been the opportunity to catch up on some reading while trying to outrun the elliptical machine. Yesterday I read an intriguing article in the December issue of Christianity Today, “Jesus vs Paul” by Scot McKnight.
The contrast between the main theme of Jesus’ preaching, the Kingdom of God, and the main theme of Paul’s preaching, justification by faith, has long demarcated Christian camps. Mainline denominations, theological liberals and social justice proponents have claimed Jesus and the Gospel of the kingdom as the main message. Evangelicals and theological conservatives have focused almost exclusively on Pauline theology.
As a theological conservative I resist any idea that Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching are opposed, but I understand the tension. As a preacher, it has been a practical challenge: when we transitioned into the Anglican world, I noticed that Anglican preachers usually preach out of the Gospels and rarely comment on the epistles – a noticeable shift from the non-denominational world. For 30 years, I had lived, breathed and preached Paul, but Anglicans were different. The lectionary assumes that the Gospel lesson will normally be the text of the sermon.
McKnight does an excellent job of addressing the perceived opposition of Jesus and Paul and giving a true via media (middle way). Both Jesus and Paul preach the Gospel, and the Good News encapsulates both kingdom and justification. But the heart of the Gospel “operates on a foundation deeper than either” that causes the “supposed disjunction between Jesus and Paul” to disappear. What is this deeper foundation of the Gospel?
Using 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 as a base for his argument, McKnight demonstrates that Paul’s Gospel is first and foremost about Jesus. “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried . . . that he was raised,” and so on. According to Paul, the Gospel is “the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story. ‘To gospel’ is to tell a story about Jesus as the Messiah, as the Lord, as the Son of God, as the Savior.” According to Paul, we proclaim the heart of the Gospel when we proclaim Jesus – who he is and what he came to do.
With that thought in mind, today’s Gospel reading in the Daily Office proved rich. In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” Considering the fact that one of the most frequent metaphors for Israel in the Old Testament is “the vine”, this is compelling. The nation that was called to be the avenue of blessing for the world had miserably failed. The vine that was meant to provide food for the world . . . didn’t. It is a bitter lesson, but we have to hear it: no human being, no matter how blessed and favored, is adequate to save another. Israel’s sad history proves a powerful lesson every person in the world needs to learn: we cannot save ourselves, much less one another.
But here is a Man who claims, “I am that true vine.” Further, he says that, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” These are bold claims. We cannot mistake them: Jesus is proclaiming himself as the only source of life, and he is calling us into a life of actively depending on and relating to him. Jesus is preaching Jesus.
Today, I am very thankful to be living out my life in a tradition that features the Gospels front-forward as crucial for our spiritual life and understanding. The reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, burial and resurrection is the substance of the Gospel. It is the message upon which every other message that is truly Good News is built. And what a great day today is, the Eve of Epiphany! We stand on the cusp of the season when “the lights come on about Jesus.” I’d like for “Jesus to preach Jesus” every day of this Epiphany. I like Good News.
-Rev. Steve Breedlove