Reclaiming the Christ

January 13, 2020 § 8 Comments

For years I have carried a ministry of seeking ways to reconnect liberal Friends to our root tradition. A recurring concern in this ministry has been to reconnect us to the Christ.

Now a lot of Friends are allergic to the word Christ, in most cases, I suspect, because of its connotations in traditional Christianity and its focus on sin and salvation, the cross and atonement, on Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. But traditional Christianity has redefined the Christ into something quite different than what Jesus himself meant, at least in the Synoptic Gospels.

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus unambiguously claimed to be the Christ and explained what he meant by this claim in Luke, chapter four. In this passage, he has just been baptized, during which the holy spirit descended upon him. The spirit then drove him into the wilderness, and after forty days he emerged and went home to his home town. There, on the sabbath, in the synagogue, as the “visiting rabbi”, he was invited to read from the prophets. He chose Isaiah 61, verses one and two, which read as follows:

The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me [a clear reference to his baptism]; he has sent me to proclaim good news to the poor . . .

Now that word “anointed” is the word “christ” in Greek, “messiah” in Hebrew. He is saying, “the Father has christed me”.

For Jesus, being the Christ meant being anointed in the spirit of God. Being the Christ meant having been called by God and empowered by His spirit to do His work in the world. For him, that work was ministering to the suffering and the condition of the poor.

The Christ is the consciousness of having been called by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit to do the Spirit’s work in the world.

That is as good a description of Quaker spirituality as any I have ever heard.

Post-script: I am not saying that the Christ is limited to this one understanding. Certainly Friends have come to know the Christ in a variety of ways in their own direct experience, and I take their testimony at face value. For many Friends, in fact, their experience of the Christ accords well with the understanding that “traditional Christianity” has given us, or at least with the Quaker version that we see in the testimony of early Friends, which rests more on the gospel of John and the writings of Paul. I am simply trying to recover the Christ whose ministry we see being born in the gospel of Luke.

§ 8 Responses to Reclaiming the Christ

  • Attributing to Christ a different goal in the synoptics from the one found in the book of John would be a mistake. Social justice was never the primary intent of Jesus; assisting others into coming into the knowledge of God was the primary intent from which all other beneficial social conditions (such as social justice) would follow, as results of gospel order. First, the gospel (the power of God) is known, and then the order flows from it: which includes social justice and peace. Jesus was interested in bringing people into that knowledge from which social justice followed. To address the social justice issues directly would be dealing with the symptoms, not the condition causing the symptoms.

    That this is true in Luke can be seen in 18:22. Jesus tells the rich, young ruler who asks for guidance on obtaining eternal life that he must keep the commandments of Moses, and when told the ruler has kept them, Jesus then challenges him to a more rigorous act: to distribute his wealth to the poor and to follow him.

    One cannot conclude that Jesus’s primary intent here is to provide materially for the poor; rather it is to teach the questioning man that material wealth cannot provide spiritual sustenance. (He must give up on that idea, which his divestment of his wealth would signify.) The man must come to the conclusion that nothing – symbolized by wealth in this story – he can provide for himself will give him what he seeks; then he’ll be ready to receive what God alone can provide.

    This lesson is underscored in this vignette in Jesus’s final words to his disciples who’ve asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” My point is that Jesus’s work is to assist humankind in coming into a knowledge of God, both in the synoptics and the book of John. Social justice issues are not the primary intent of Jesus’s work in any of these writings.

  • Ellis Hein says:

    Stephen Crisp’s allegory, A Short History of a Long Journey from Babylon to Bethel, has much to say about a salvation that we deem appropriate. In this story we encounter those who are content to settle in man-made, institutional religion, we encounter those who are willing to bask in the aura of the kingdom near at hand, and we see our traveler discard every last scrap of clothing in order to fit through the door to enter the house of God.

    The salvation you are willing to settle for depends upon what you perceive as man’s underlying problem. If the problem is one of guilt steming from Eve eating the apple, then the solution or salvation lies in God making it possible to forgive guilty mankind. You have, no doubt, heard proclamations of how Jesus was crucified so that God could forgive your sin.

    If the problem is that I am eating the wrong food, listening to the wrong teacher, following the wrong head, then forgiveness does not fix the problem. What I need is a teacher that will give me the bread of life, whose teaching brings me into the righteousness of God, whose headship brings about the restoration of creation. This is the message of the prophets concerning the messiah. This is Jesus’ claim when he proclaimed “Today, this is fulfilled…”

    The coming of Jesus into the world is the pivotal point, the goal, of history. “And the Word became flesh and tabernacles among us, full of grace and truth,” is not merely a past event but is THE thing we must know if we are to be remade into the image of God and to fulfill his purpose. Christ is come to teach his people himself is not just an empty phrase or an undefinable occurrence. It is an encounter with the risen Lord of heaven and earth to whom all power and all authority has been given.

  • Greg Robie says:

    While hunting for an email to write you directly, I discovered NYYM has embraced the oxymoron of “at large” membership. Such is the lowest-common-denominator path that was already chosen, and no matter when the story starts for describing it, the destruction of the Religious Society of Friends [of The Truth].

    The longitudinal study of NYYM’s Book of Discipline/Faith and Practice I was led to do when we served together on its “Renewal Committee” (or as Dawn called it: The Garbage Committee!) in the early ‘90s was in the context social. Context of the place of a Christ within Quakerism was getting stuffed with big “I” ‘Yearly Meeting’ “[F]riends”. None of such pious self-appointed ‘messiahs’ got the need nor role for the YM structure as that of nurturing the monthly meeting … nor did the monthly meetings get their role in naming and overseeing ministers; knowing and naming elders. “Forever Young” and #GREED-as-go[]d has long held sway as [t]ruth in a Society that is structured to be cut off from The Vine.

    As Martin Kelly, in his youth among such [f]riends, made the point about the condition of liberal feminized “[F]riends” rather bluntly: “We’re all Rantors now”. Now he is the editor of Friends Journal. Interesting.

    “At large” membership in an FGC/FUM yearly meeting is Josh Brown’s 1987 demographic prophecy of the last Quaker in NYYM disappearing about now, a functional acknowledgement of the barrenness of the womb of such “Quakerism.” Doesn’t its dead Quaker money keep it on life support? Isn’t an orderly collapse of Quakerism the [denied] business of the culture of New York Yearly Meeting? If so, this profound proof of a prophetic message.

    Particularly NYYM’s Yearly Meeting culture is barren due to it being clear to cut itself off from The Vine. I recall 40+ year olds reluctantly accepting that they were too old to really keep being part of that Circle of Young Friends thing around the time of the Renewal Committee. Belatedly, pseudo-adults recognizing that a cap of 30 years of age was a reasoned compromise relative to the needs of that Society’s youth (our children/young adults).

    From the picture in Friends Journal, last year’s Fall Representative Meeting seems to easily fits into Powell House’s fellowship room. If I recognize it’s Recording Clerk, she and her husband were Young [F]riends who were among those who made the ‘uniting’ of the two yearly meetings in New York inevitable. The label of “Quaker” trumped substance (our ‘Garbage Committee” charges), and as defined by City-on-the-hill stuff.

    How long might it be until FGC adopts at-large membership?

    Quakerism’s ‘redeemer’ has long been the mobility enabled by fossil carbon and elder-less (Rantor) ministers such transport enabled. The last Representative Meeting I was at the Brooklyn Friends School. I passed a prophetic “Dead End” sign to attend. I suggested to the Friends in Unity with Nature Committee that they put a price on carbon into the YM budget. That suggestion was DOA. The TRUTH of our culture’s condition has long been [religiously] denied by trusted motivated reasoning. For [F]riends, hasn’t such become its legacy … and, thereby living proof that two Masters cannot be served?

  • I’m deeply grateful, Steve, for this clear statement of a basic Christology that all Friends should find acceptable. I’d love to see it “go viral” among liberal Friends, especially where there are “allergic” reactions to the word “Christ.” As a Christ-centered Friend, I share the shame of the world community of Christians, accrued over the two millennia of our existence, for our behaving in ways unworthy of the loving, all-forgiving, sinless and healing character of our Savior Jesus; I understand the allergic reactions; I was long plagued by them myself.

    I would love to see all Friends reading and relishing the Synoptic Gospels, along with the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the Book of Acts. I note that nowhere in that corpus does Jesus call Himself “the Savior.” That claim is only made on His behalf by the Angel of the Nativity (Luke 2:11) and the apostles (Acts 5:31, 13:23).

    I’d say to all open-minded people, “Let *Him* tell you whether or not He’s your Savior and, as the Johannine literature (John 4:42, 1 John 4:14) puts it, also the Savior of the World. And let Him explain *how* He is the Savior. Because my experience has shown me that He lives, He indwells you, and He has that power.”

    But I don’t expect people to ask the Savior to reveal Himself if they feel no need of salvation. And they generally don’t – I myself didn’t – until they feel something like horror, loathing, heartbreak, or despair about their present condition: about what they see themselves to be, or what they see the world to be. Unfortunately, we humans are creatures clever enough, most of the time, to suppress the memory of moral injuries we inflicted on ourselves in the past, which are sins against others that still haunt our consciences; or to excuse them; or to project them onto others, and blame, curse, or scapegoat those others. Hope of finding fulfillment in transitory enjoyments also keeps us from recognizing addictions to sin and complicity in the world’s evils in ourselves. Perhaps only a problem as intractable as today’s climate crisis will bring significant numbers of sufferers to their knees, catalyzing a real readiness to surrender self-will and let the good will of God rule in them instead. I can witness from experience that many will then find joy.

    Having met their Savior, many Friends will at last find Fox, Penington and Barclay speaking to their condition.

    • Your response to Steven’s post covered a lot of ground, John, and many of the ideas resonated with me. The following one, though, stood out:

      You wrote: “Unfortunately, we humans are creatures clever enough, most of the time, to suppress the memory of moral injuries we inflicted on ourselves in the past, which are sins against others that still haunt our consciences; or to excuse them; or to project them onto others, and blame, curse, or scapegoat those others.”

      That we inflict “moral injuries” on ourselves by sinning against others is an insight that is so easily lost when, as you say, we excuse, project, blame, curse, or scapegoat others. The initial damage can be counteracted by not covering over the fault with any actions on the list but instead hearing the truth spoken from the conscience. We all act selfishly and unjustly at times, but the real spiritual damage done to ourselves is not by the sin itself but in not inwardly owning up to our inclinations or actions, covering them over with a lie.

      The truth makes us free; it draws us to the Son and to Life, where there is given strength to overcome all sin. In 1 John 5:16, the apostle makes a distinction between a sin that is “not unto death” and the sin that is “unto death.” The latter – the sin unto death – I think is the refusal to hear the reprimand of the light in the conscience, for that is the stopgap power that dispels the darkness, and shows us our painful readiness to receive a saviour. Refusing to see, to hear, the verdict of the light in the conscience is the sin unto death. I think John 3:19 corroborates this.

      • Thank you for this, Patricia! Not just for affirming the value of the words that came from, or through me on 1/14, but also — and especially — for your insight into the nature of the “sin unto death” of 1 John 5:16. This, and Mark 3:29, “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation” (in the words of the AV), long troubled me about what I thought was otherwise the NT’s clear witness to a God who _is love_ (1 Jn 4:8, 16) and wills that all men and women be saved (1 Tim 2:4, my translation).
        Well, yes, I can see that God wills the salvation of all, but if the creature is standing in the Creator’s way, willing *not* to accept salvation because it means exposure to the Light, — what else can the Creator do but let the creature have its way? One hopes that the resultant “wailing and gnashing of teeth” in that outer darkness does not last forever, but that Christ has some way of eventually calling those prodigal sons and daughters home. I suspect that Paul foresaw that Christ did have a way, for he wrote with confidence, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22 AV).

  • Thanks Steven. I am currently reading Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ” which speaks at some length on the Christ ongoing. Not a Quaker, but, like reading Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” I get the sense: Good job Richard/Marcus. You’ve latched on to what Quakers discovered 350+ years ago.” But they put it down in words well so that others may get the drift, too. Since we are too shy to say anything.
    Written tired and in a hurry from Guatemala.

  • Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson says:

    Thank you. This articulation resonated with me.

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