[This is the third of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) in the past 15 years that I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I am posting an excerpts from my sermon on Jesus here. I will follow this post from 1996 with a post looking briefly at changes (and the lack thereof) in my convictions about Jesus in the past 15 years. Here are links to the first two posts—one on my views of God 15 years ago and the second on present-day thoughts about God.]
What Do We Believe About Jesus Christ?
Ted Grimsrud—January 14, 1996
Years ago, I had a memorable experience—though not a memory I recall fondly. I had been pastoring long enough in my first pastorate to be considered for ordination. Our congregation asked the conference to process my ordination. That led to me meeting with the conference leadership committee for an interview.
The interview was generally a positive experience, at least most of it. The committee was made up of three pastors and the conference minister, all people I knew fairly well and a couple of them pretty good friends. But one of the pastors was not particularly friendly. He asked some questions in a kind of suspicious tone, and near the end of our time came to one of his big concerns.
He referred to the time Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, who people said that Jesus was. Then Jesus asks the disciples directly—“Who do you say that I am?” The pastor asked me the same question—“Who do you say that Jesus is?” I responded with a lengthy answer. I had been reading a lot about the life of Jesus and theological understandings of Jesus, what is called “christology”. I was ready for the question and enjoyed talking about it. It became clear, though, that my response was not what this guy was looking for. He had something else in mind.
This is a basic question, for sure, one which continues to be addressed to all of us. Who do we say that Jesus is? What do we believe about Jesus Christ? I want to suggest that Mennonite Christians believe three central things about Jesus Christ. First, we believe Jesus is God’s messiah who brings salvation through his suffering and death. Second, we believe Jesus is the model human being, who asks us to follow his way of living. And third, we believe that Jesus is God-with-us, who shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power.
We believe Jesus is God’s messiah who brings salvation through his suffering and death. The Gospel of Mark, chapter eight, is one place we read about this. The disciples have seen Jesus do miracles of healing and casting out demons. They have heard him teach. They have been with him close-up, day and night. They have heard people talk. Who is this man? Everyone was impressed. Everyone saw that he was from God. But just who was he? The people gave various possibilities. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the other prophets.
The disciples, though, knew that Jesus was more than a prophet. Jesus was unique. At that time, many of Jesus fellow Jews were looking for a special one, one who would usher in God’s new age of salvation. The word for this coming, special agent from God was “messiah.” “Messiah” meant, literally, the anointed one. The word had to do with kingship, since in Ancient Israel the kings were specially anointed at their coronations by the chief priests. The kings were seen as God’s special instruments. As we know, Israel’s kings actually generally failed at their responsibility to guide their society in God’s ways. Eventually, Israel as a state was wiped out and the people lived without their own state for generations.
They continued to hope for a new king, though, one who would genuinely fulfill his responsibilities to guide the people in God’s ways. Many people thought of this in terms of another great warrior like King David, who would reestablish the Israelite state. Only this new king, this messiah, would not fall away like even King David did.
So, many hoped for a coming special agent from God who would set things right. The people hoped for a messiah. In Mark eight, the people suggest Jesus might be a great prophet, but Peter sees that Jesus is greater even than that. Jesus isn’t just a great prophet. Jesus is the coming one. Jesus is God’s special agent to bring salvation. Jesus is the messiah.
Peter is correct. Peter sees accurately. Jesus is the messiah. But Peter is also wrong. Immediately after Peter’s confession—“You are the Messiah”—Jesus begins to talk about what his messiahship means. Jesus starts to teach that as Messiah he will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed. Jesus, the messiah, will not be welcomed by the leaders of the Jewish people. Jesus, the messiah, will not lead a restored Jewish state back into great power status.
Jesus, the messiah, will bring God’s new age into being, Jesus, the messiah, will herald the outpouring of God’s salvation, by suffering and dying. That the messiah’s victory involves him suffering confounds the people’s expectation. It confounds Peter’s expectations. Jesus, the messiah, does not stand for power-over others. Jesus, the messiah, does not stand for easy victory and glory before human beings. Jesus, the messiah, has to do with consistent, persevering love and compassion and openness—even in the face of violence from those who resent that kind of love.
Revelation five shows us the basic paradox of Jesus’ messiahship, that Jesus, the messiah, brings salvation through suffering and death. At the beginning of chapter five, John, the writer of Revelation, is concerned, even to the point of weeping bitterly, that there is no one to open the scroll. What is this scroll? We aren’t told directly, but I think the scroll symbolizes the meaning of history, the outcome of history, the conclusion of history, the final victory of God. Opening the scroll will bring on this victory. Opening the scroll achieves the final resolution of all things.
No one is found to open the scroll. Perhaps this is parallel to the failures of ancient Israel’s kings. God’s healing strategy, God’s hope for the world, had to do with ancient Israel faithfully following God’s ways and showing the rest of the world what God is like. But the kings couldn’t do it. They couldn’t lead Israel in the ways of faithfulness. They couldn’t help open the scroll.
John’s frustration, his bitter tears, at this failure reflect Israel’s hundreds of years of discouragement and delayed hopes. Following the collapse of ancient Israel’s state, people continued to think of the coming victory of God in terms of the work of warriors and kings. This shows that they, too, failed to understand the actual characteristics of God’s healing strategy, the actual means which God uses to bring salvation—persevering love and compassion and healing justice, not brute force.
The angel tells John not to weep. Someone has been found to open the scroll. The messiah is come. It is not surprising how this messiah is described to John—“the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, [who] has conquered.” This imagery of lion, Judah, David is all definitely messianic imagery and all tied to the expectation that the messiah would be an even greater warrior-king than David was. At this point, we are very much within the realm of expectation that characterized Peter and characterized the people who wanted to make Jesus king after he miraculously fed the five thousand. We’ve got one even more powerful than David was. We’ve got one even more powerful than Caesar. Our guy will wipe all those other guys out. We will out-muscle all our enemies. God’s will will be done—us on top. The world’s only superpower.
Then the shock. John hears mighty king, but then he sees—“between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slain” (5:6). This mighty king is actually a slain lamb. The great messiah ended up slain on a cross. This is our belief: Jesus is God’s messiah who brings salvation through his suffering and death. Of course, the slain lamb is standing. The slain messiah is raised from the dead. His faithful suffering and death are the path to resurrection, the path to salvation. God vindicates his messiah’s faithfulness—and offers life to all who trust in him.
Our second belief is that we believe Jesus is the model human being, who asks us to follow his way of living. In the 16th century, the Anabaptists heard the question—Who do you say that I am? They heard that question and took it very seriously. They took it so seriously that they felt that to answer it honestly meant that they would have to risk their lives, their homes, their livelihoods in order to live in faithful response to the question, who do you say that I am?
Hans Denck, an influential early Anabaptist, wrote that we cannot truly know Christ unless we follow him in our lives. And we cannot follow him unless we first have known him. Those who want to belong to Christ must walk the way that Christ walked.
Who do you say that I am? The Anabaptists said: You are the one who calls us to make living in light of love the highest priority in our lives. You are the one who tells us that it is always wrong to fight in wars and take other human beings’ lives. You are the one who tells us that when we disagree within the church, we still treat each other with respect and kindness. You are the one who died for our sins, offering us forgivenss. You are the one who frees us from the power of sin, calls upon us to follow you in life, and empowers us through your spirit to follow you. You are the one who tells us to tell the truth, to live with integrity, to welcome outcasts and poverty stricken.
One of the most important insights the Anabaptists had is this: Practical life is central to theology. How we live and what we believe go together hand-in-glove. What do we believe about Jesus Christ? We believe that our confession of Christ as savior and our following Christ in discipleship together make up our christology. What matters about Jesus Christ includes his life, death, and resurrection. He is our savior who died for our sins and he is our model who shows us how to live.
The 1995 Mennonite Confession of Faith emphasizes that Jesus’ life is crucial as well as his birth and death. This is what it says: “We accept Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. In his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, he proclaimed forgiveness of sins and peace to those near at hand and those far off. In calling disciples to follow him, he began the new community of faith. In his suffering, he loved his enemies and did not resist them with violence, thus giving us an example to follow. In his sacrificial death on the cross, he offered up his life to the Father, bore the sins of all, and reconciled us to God. God then raised him from the dead, thereby conquering death and disarming the powers of sin and evil.” Jesus matters because he won us salvation and because he showed us how to live. This is our belief: Jesus is the model human being who asks us to follow his way of living
Our third belief is that we believe that Jesus is God-with-us, who shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power. Mennonites believe that in Jesus, we see God. In Jesus’ birth, we see God entering the world on behalf of hurting humanity. In Jesus’ life, we see God’s chosen one revealing human life as it is meant to be lived. In Jesus’ death, we see Jesus’ faithfulness standing the ultimate test, the “rulers of this age” crucifying him (1 Cor 2:8). In Jesus’ resurrection, we see God’s vindication of Jesus’ life. We learn just how faithful God is to his promise of eternal life for those who trust in his mercy.… Jesus shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power.
When I finished my ordination interview with the Pacific Coast Conference leadership committee those years ago, I was worried about how this one pastor would respond. I had cause to worry. He strongly opposed my ordination. The committee felt they could not move ahead until they all agreed. It took two very painful years before three of the four committee members decided to ordain me simply based on a majority vote.
When this was going on, I felt very upset about how I was being treated. I had some heart to heart talks with several close friends where I poured out my frustration. Out of that came some clarity regarding the significance of Jesus Christ and his way of love, even in the face of hard times.
One of my friends talked about how he had been hurt by someone else. “I had never really been done violence to before,” he said. “I had never been knocked so flat. At first, I experienced that as incredible powerlessness, bewilderment, frustration. Then my anger focused and I began to receive power from that anger. I decided my ‘enemy’ needed to pay the consequences for his violence. I vowed to make that happen. In thinking this way, I began to feel more powerful. I began to feel a sense of control for the first time in a long time. I prayed to God for vengeance.”
But in his prayers, he began to sense something else. He saw Jesus in front of Pilate, not too long before the crucifixion. Jesus also was angry. He knew he was being treated unjustly, that Pilate was mocking him, that Pilate was about to order him killed. But Jesus drew on something deeper than his anger for his power. He drew on the power of love. He faced his death committed to love as the deepest source of power.
My friend told me “then I began to see more clearly my own deepest beliefs and desires. I began to see in stark clarity where my true power lies. When I gained my main power from anger I was attempting to find power-over others and use that for my own purposes. It was inevitable that I would be dominated by that power. I would be left with only the illusion of having power of my own.
“In seeking my main power from my anger I let my ‘enemy’ dominate me, because what mattered most still was what happened to him. Certainly, I couldn’t help but be angry—and that was okay. But I could choose to let love be my deepest source of power. Maybe I couldn’t actually love my enemy yet—but I could at least draw my strength from those I do love. This was a process to cultivate the good, to cultivate love. I opened myself, truly opened myself, to love in a profound way and I discovered that it really does exist. That discovery meant everything.”
My friend said “when I choose to be a person determined by love, my identity as God’s child cannot be destroyed by what other people (such as my ‘enemy’) might do. They can’t make me not love. As long as I make my choice for love, I have security and freedom—to live as God’s child.
He concluded, “Knowing a few people’s love for me was crucial in making me want to be a loving person. That was a main way I was reminded of God’s love. Knowing a few people’s love for me, choosing to remember that love, put me in touch with a deep sense of goodness, a sense of genuine power, a sense of life. I was reminded that that goodness is what I want to give my life to.”
What do we believe about Jesus Christ? We believe that Jesus is God-with-us, who shows us that the power of love is the most important kind of power. In Jesus’ love, life may be lived, abundantly. The chorus of the hymn, “My Life Flows On,” by Robert Lowery, puts it nicely: “No storm may shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?”