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Who I Say You Are 3

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I am giving my own heartfelt answers to Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is the common denominator of all the Christian denominations.

What I mean:

I’ve been a Christian for 50 years, but I’ve been a member of various denominations over the course of that time. I was raised as a Reorganized Latter Day Saint and left that organization to join the United Church of Christ (UCC). I briefly attended a UCC seminary but did not go on to become a minister. I was a Presbyterian for a few years, and then a United Methodist. I got my PhD at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit school) and taught courses there for four years, then went on to teach for two years at another Jesuit school, Xavier University in Cincinnati. I’ve published a few stories in The Way of Saint Francis, a Catholic magazine. For a number of years I’ve taught at Spring Arbor University, which is a Free Methodist school (not to be confused with United Methodist), and I’ve been a frequent contributor to The Congregationalist, the official magazine of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Years ago, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I was a member of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and served on a youth committee. For the past several years my wife and I have attended a variety of Evangelical churches.

Through all these experiences, I’ve seen enough to say this: despite the many differences from one denomination to another, we all sing and talk primarily about Jesus. I don’t mean to minimize the differences among us, for they are significant. I do want to point out, however, that every Christian organization I’ve been a part of has focused on Jesus, although they may differ greatly in their conception of who he is. (In other words, they give different answers to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”)

This has always been the case. Before the books of the New Testament were canonized, the various Christian communities may have had different books in their libraries, and they probably had different emphases. If you were used to worshiping with a group that emphasized Luke’s gospel, for example, then you would recite the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich.” And if you happened to visit another community that emphasized Matthew’s gospel, you might be very surprised to hear them spiritualizing it: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact, if you had come into the church excited about the social commentary that runs throughout Luke’s gospel, you might be scandalized by Matthew’s other-worldly interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

Or if you were a member of the so-called “Johannine Community” (who rallied around the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John), then your chronology of Jesus’ life would have been very different from those who emphasized the so-called “Synoptic Gospels.” (To give just one example, you would be comfortable with seeing Jesus in Jerusalem repeatedly throughout his ministry, while the Synoptics have him going to Jerusalem only at the end.) But your views on Jesus would extend much farther than mere chronology, for even his voice would sound different to you. (In the Synoptics, Jesus talks in sound bites; in John, he gives long speeches which in turn are filled with long sentences.) You would also be used to seeing him as a cosmic creature – “the Word that was in the beginning with God” – whereas the members of other Christian communities would tend to refer to him as the Messiah of the Jews, emphasizing his role within one nation’s history.

And then there was the Gospel of Mark, which pictured Jesus as being largely misunderstood by his own disciples. Mark’s gospel shows him being much more exasperated with his followers than the other gospels do, even to the point of calling them “hard of heart.” The earliest version of Mark’s gospel has the disciples cowering in fear on Resurrection Sunday, not even going out to tell anyone that he is risen.

All these early “gospel communities” exhibit differences in their views of Jesus, and some of these differences are huge. But all of them focus on Jesus. And it’s been that way ever since. Within the first few centuries, many different kinds of churches were established around the Mediterranean Sea: Coptic Christians in North Africa, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, and Roman Catholics in the West. They worshiped in increasingly divergent ways, but each group was responding to their own unique views of Jesus. And after the Reformation, each new group that split away from the “Mother Church” did so in order to follow Jesus according to their own conscience.

My point is that, despite our many differences, we all believe that our own group is following Jesus. If we concede that people in other denominations are also following him, we usually find it necessary to say that they are misguided in certain respects, or that they have misinterpreted him. We may even question their sincerity or the purity of their intentions in following him. But despite this tendency to try to claim him for the home team, the truth is that he is the common denominator among the denominations. We’re all trying to follow him, even though we’re going about it in radically different ways.

There are two further observations I want to make about this.

First, he’s too big for any one denomination. None of us have the corner on him, and we never will. He’s more than all of us put together. The world needs all of our witnesses, from all of our divergent vantage points. He’s that big.

Second, he’s been trying to bring us together from the beginning. When he chose his inner circle of disciples, he put a tax collector (Matthew, also called Levi) side-by-side with Simon the Zealot. Tax collectors were considered traitors because they worked for Rome; the Zealots were super-patriotic, even to the point of condoning terrorism. The fact that Jesus chose two such men to represent him shows not only that his program had room for both views, but also that he believed it was possible for them to accommodate each other. (We humans still haven’t figured out how to do that, however.) And in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17, Jesus asked his Father to make his followers one, as the Father and the Son are one. At the very least, I interpret this as a mandate to root for each other, support each other in prayer, and think the best of one another, even if we can’t see eye to eye.

Who is Jesus? He’s what we’re all trying to be. We may call ourselves Baptists or Episcopalians. We may belong to the Church of Christ or the Church of God (which is not the same thing). But we are all, in our own unique ways, striving to be like him.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com

Why Congregational Histories Aren’t Congregational

My article, “The Problem with Congregational Histories” is on pages 28-29 of the latest issue of The Congregationalist. I argue that “congregational histories are not written in a way that is even remotely ‘congregational.'”

Click here to find out why.

(It will take you to the September issue, then scroll down to page 28.)

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