Jesus is Lord: the story continues...
The topic that we will be addressing in the Christian Associates Thinklings gathering in a couple of weeks will be: ‘What does it mean to proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” in the midst of the extreme pluralism that defines postmodern European urban life?’
The question immediately suggests that what we have in mind – what we are inquiring about – is a situation of potential conflict. We are not interested simply in discovering how the confession might be understood, or misunderstood, within a postmodern context or by the different cultural and religious constituencies that comprise our pluralistic culture. The underlying assumption (indicated, I think, by the words ‘proclaim’ and ‘extreme’) is that a community that publicly recognizes Christ as Lord is likely to find itself at odds with its environment. At the heart of this, one senses, is a fundamental conflict of loyalties (this is what we would expect from the rather old-fashioned, even feudal, language of ‘lordship’) and a challenge to a prevailing culture of grudgingly tolerant scepticism.
Have we, then, framed this correctly? My intention in this paper is, first, to consider how the motif of Christ’s lordship works within the New Testament narrative, and secondly, to highlight some general implications of this reading for our self-understanding as ‘church’ in post-Christendom, postmodern Europe.
1. Christ as Lord in the New Testament
There is well-established understanding that by speaking of Jesus as ‘Lord’ (kurios), particularly in a manner that calls to mind statements about YHWH found in the Jewish scriptures, the New Testament closely associates, if not quite identifies, Jesus with God.1 So, for example, Paul argues in Romans 10:8-13 that it is by confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – significantly, as a consequence of his resurrection from the dead – that Israel will be saved. He then quotes the assertion in Isaiah 28:16 LXX that ‘Everyone who believes in him (i.e. YHWH) will not be put to shame’, and concludes the paragraph with a quotation from Joel 2:32: ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord (i.e. YHWH) shall be saved’. In both Old Testament passages the argument is that when God brings judgment against unrighteous Jerusalem, it is those who trust in YHWH who will be saved from destruction. The implication is that the ‘Lord’ who may – it is conditional upon repentance – now save Jerusalem from destruction is Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.
This brief expansion of Paul’s argument in this passage has already drawn attention to the significance of the narrative framework for understanding how kurios connects Jesus and YHWH. Paul has overlaid the immediate question of the fate of his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:3) with an archetypal story drawn from the prophets about military invasion as both the outworking of divine anger against his people and the prelude to renewal. The proclamation that Jesus is Lord, therefore, needs to be understood in the context of this type of narrative: if Israel is to be saved from the disaster of military invasion, it will be by confessing that Jesus is Lord, by believing in him, by calling on the name of the Lord. As Peter told the rulers and elders of the Jews in Jerusalem: ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
The name above every name
If YHWH is to act as king to deliver his people, there is a direct narrative corollary, which is that he must defeat the enemies of his people. From its inception kingship in Israel was conceived as a means by which the integrity and security of the people would be safeguarded, not least against external political and military threats. This was the demand that the people made to Samuel: ‘there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles’ (1 Sam. 8:19-20).
The lordship of Christ is established in the resurrection: he was ‘declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 1:4); ‘to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living’ (Rom. 14:9). The most feared enemy of a harassed and sometimes persecuted people is death, and the resurrection is primary evidence that death is not to be feared. This is the point of Jesus’ statement that the ‘gates of Hades will not prevail against’ the community of his followers (Matt. 16:18).2 Jesus has overcome death and by being raised bodily – though this is beyond the scope of the argument about lordship – has opened the door to a radically and ontologically new creation.
But the resurrection also has more immediate ‘political’ implications. To confess Christ as Lord in the context of the Roman world was to affirm that, in the constant conflict between the people of God and the world around them, YHWH had established Jesus as King over this scattered people above Caesar and the all-encompassing pyramid of imperial and local powers beneath him. Implicitly at least, Jesus was the anti-Caesar.
We see how the christology works most clearly in the ‘hymn’ of Philippians 2:6-11. Because of his obedience to the point of death Jesus is exalted and given the name which is above every name – presumably the name of ‘Lord’. But we need to be aware of an eschatological narrative lurking in the shadows of Paul’s thought here that helps us to contextualize the confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’. The trajectory that Jesus follows is contrasted with the career of the belligerent pagan king who would ‘speak words against the Most High’ (Dan. 7:25), who would ‘exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods’ (Dan. 11:36).3
In the apocalyptic narrative of 2 Thessalonians 2 this arch-opponent of the people of God becomes the ‘man of lawlessness’ who ‘opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God’ (2 Thess. 2:4). Jesus refused to do this. Unlike the apocalyptic opponent he did not regard equality with God something to be seized or plundered by force (harpagmon). Instead he made himself of no account (ekenōsen); he took the form of a servant and was obedient to the intentions of God to the point of being killed by his enemies (Phil. 2:6-8). For this reason he was given the name which is above every name.4 The quotation of Isaiah 45:23 in verses 10-11 sets this in the context of a polemic against the gods of the nations and the argument that only YHWH can save from futility and destruction, only YHWH can establish an authentic righteousness:
The same story is told in the New Testament, on more than one occasion, in the language of the Psalms. When Peter proclaims to ‘all the house of Israel’ that God has made the crucified Jesus ‘both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36), the statement is a direct interpretation of the significance of Psalm 110:1: ‘The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ The Psalm asserts forcefully that YHWH will give Israel’s king victory over his enemies: he will rule in the midst of his enemies, the people will offer themselves willingly for battle, God will ‘shatter kings on the day of his wrath’, he will ‘execute judgment among the nations’. The theme of Psalm 2 is much the same: the kings of the earth conspire against YHWH and his anointed king, but God will come against them in his wrath and give victory over them; they will be subjugated, broken with a rod of iron, ‘dashed in pieces like a potter’s vessel’. In Peter’s mind these enemies were those who conspired to destroy the ‘anointed’ Jesus: ‘both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel’ (Acts 2:27). To proclaim Christ as Lord, therefore, is to predict (we will consider this future aspect in a moment) that Christ will in a quite concrete, historical manner gain the upper hand over these violent opponents for the sake of those who have taken the risk of following him.
Paul uses the motif in his discussion of the rule of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ must ‘reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet’, which must entail the destruction of ‘every authority and power, including finally death itself’ (15:24-26). In Ephesians 1:20-22 the elevation of Christ to a position ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come’ is restated in the language of Psalm 8:6 as a matter of all things being put under his feet. Finally, in Hebrews the Son who is enthroned has been assured that his enemies will be made a footstool for his feet (1:13; cf. 10:13). In the context of the early church these affirmations must have brought to mind a powerful narrative that affirmed that YHWH would give his anointed king victory over his enemies – not least over the type of an aggressive and blasphemous king – and would deliver his people from oppression.5
The eschatological judge
The eschatological narrative that determines the shape and purpose of the confession of Jesus’ lordship also projects into a foreseeable and relevant future. It predicts a victory over those powers that threaten the survival of the people of God, not at the end of time but in the course of history.6 The case cannot be adequately made here, but I would argue, for example, that when Paul speaks of the Lord coming to judge the apostles with respect to their work (1 Cor. 4:4-5), this must be set within a prophetic or apocalyptic narrative that foresees the public vindication of the faithful and long-suffering community – and, indeed, of the apostles who endured so much (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9-13) in order to ensure that the church would not be destroyed when the day of fire came (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11-15).7 This is, in effect, the ‘day’ that has been fixed by God, when he will judge the pagan world ‘in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed’ (Acts 17:31), the day when the Lord Jesus will inflict vengeance on those who persecute the church (2 Thess. 1:8), when the one who is called ‘Faithful and True’ will judge and make war against the nations of the Greek-Roman world that so violently opposed him (Rev. 19:11-16).8
2. Christ as Lord in postmodern Europe
I have argued – rather hurriedly – that the confession of Jesus as Lord in the New Testament needs to be understood not as a matter of general christological definition but as an eschatological commitment with significant political-religious implications that become apparent only when the narrative substructure of Paul’s argument is made visible.9 The statement certainly associates Jesus closely with the God of the Old Testament, but the distinctive eschatological nuances should be kept in view: Jesus is the Lord who delivers his people from destruction, who brings about renewal, who displaces the authorities and powers – not least among them Rome – that threatened and bullied and oppressed his followers, and who guarantees the eventual victory of covenantal monotheism over classical paganism.
I think we then have two major questions to address, to which we should at least attempt some tentative and rather theoretical answers. First, by situating the confession that Jesus is Lord in the historical narrative about the emergence of the early church in this fashion, have we significantly impaired its relevance for the church today? Have we reduced it to a simple matter of history, a thing of the past? Secondly, is the public confession that ‘Jesus is Lord’ strictly an appropriate or necessary response for the church under the current narrative conditions – at this particular moment in the story? Emerging theologies in many respects have been reluctant to make categorical pronouncements about truth and authority – perhaps for good missional reasons, perhaps because they just seem out of place in a fractured postmodern landscape. There is a strong preference for ‘incarnational’ models that emphasize Jesus’ self-giving, self-effacing humanity: the ‘taking the form of a servant’ part of the equation. If we then go out of our way to assert the sovereignty of Christ in defiance of Europe’s cultural and religious pluralism, do we not risk uprooting the missional sensitivities that emerging theologies have struggled to establish? Can we realistically and practically have a christology – and a missiology derived from it – that affirms both that Jesus became a servant and that he was exalted to a position of highest authority?
1. Reading the New Testament confession historically and contingently should make us aware of our own place in a historical narrative that stretches both backwards and forwards. This is important, I think, for two reasons. First, we are reminded that we have a story to tell and not merely theological propositions to assert – a hermeneutical reorientation that is widely advocated in emerging theologies. Secondly, we learn to read our present circumstances narratively. We resist the Christendom assumption that the task of the church is to maintain the status quo and ask instead how we should negotiate, under the lordship of Christ, the prophetically interpreted narrative that we currently find ourselves in. To ask about the lordship of Christ is to ask how the church in Europe should address its own foreseeable future.
2. In the New Testament the proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ expresses the concrete defiance and hope of a community – not just of religious individuals – that finds itself interrogated and challenged over its beliefs, practices, and loyalties. In a postmodern or pluralistic context we have again become conscious of the dynamic link between lordship and community. By proclaiming Christ as Lord we assert the criterion that fundamentally sets us apart from other communities and from any overarching social or cultural context that might otherwise assimilate us. We become again a peculiar, distinctive, idiosyncratic, chosen people, called to a particular loyalty amidst an abundance of competing loyalties (cf. Exod. 19:5; Deut. 14:2): ‘For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist’ (1 Cor. 8:5-6).10
At the same time we assert an intrinsic continuity with that community which, for its own historical and contingent reasons, proclaimed first to Judaism, then to the pagan world, that ‘Jesus is Lord’ as a statement of the work of YHWH in delivering and transforming his people. This, to my mind, is the primary response to the question of contemporary relevance: we are part of the same story; we relate to Christ as Lord not only synchronically but diachronically, not only immediately or mystically but historically, as a community.
3. The confession that Jesus is Lord may come to encapsulate the determination of the church to resist the gods of our culture. As Alan Hirsch writes:
It suggests that the amiable, easy-going, imaginative, playful, generous, cigar-smoking hedonism that has characterized the emerging response to the narrowness of modern evangelicalism will have to find a way to embrace a distinctive, uncompromising corporate obedience - perhaps even some form of asceticism - that will express quite concretely and unequivocally the reality of Christ’s lordship over his people.
4. To proclaim Christ as Lord or King is to affirm the holiness and durability of the people of God in defiance of whatever cultural, political, religious or spiritual forces oppose it. But we keep in mind that ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’ were given to one who suffered and gave his life for the sake of his people. The one who was given the name above every name first became ‘obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). In confessing Christ as Lord we submit ourselves to the one who was ultimately obedient to the Creator for the sake of the integrity of the microcosm of God’s new creation. We remain a community of grace.