|SERMONS-The Summing Up|
A Sermon by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church, New York on August 31, 2003
As you may know, the night before he died in the Iraqi desert, NBC correspondent David Bloom sent his wife an e-mail that was later read at his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral here in the city. Here’s what he said to her in that last e-mail: "I hope and pray all my guys get out of this in one piece, but I’ll tell you, Mel, I am at peace. Here I am, supposedly at the peak of professional success, but I could, frankly, care less. It’s nothing compared to my relationship with you and the girls and Jesus."
Despite a grueling pre-launch schedule for that last Columbia space shuttle, Commander Rick Husband made sixteen daily devotional video tapes for his children to watch, one for each of the sixteen days he’d be in space. And they watched them – right up into the morning the shuttle broke up and disintegrated forty miles over their Texas home. He’d also given a tape to his pastor. On that tape he says: "Tell them about Jesus. He means everything to me."
But Jesus does not mean "everything" to everyone! New Yorkers hardly need to be reminded that Jesus is a "stumbling block" for many people. Citing the prophet Isaiah’s warning to ancient Israel, Paul told the Romans that most of his fellow Jews were stumbling over the "stumbling stone" of Messiah. (Rom 9:32; Isa 8:14; 28:16) And Peter, too, citing the same passage from Isaiah, wrote: "Now to you who believe, this cornerstone [Christ Jesus] is precious. But to those who do not believe, [he is] a stone that causes them to stumble." (I Pet 2:7f)
It’s still so. Recently the City of Chicago held a "Buy-a-Brick" fundraiser for a new playground. A couple sent a check for $50 and filled out a form for their brick’s inscription: "Missy, EB and Baby: Jesus is the cornerstone. Love, Mom & Dad." They received this official notice: "Your religious message poses serious constitutional problems for the Park District."
To David Bloom, everything was as nothing compared to his relationship with Jesus. To Rick Husband, Jesus meant everything. Jesus has meant everything to so many grateful souls for now two thousand years. The question this morning, for you and for me, is this: Does Jesus mean everything to us?
One of the many grateful Christians, for whom Jesus meant everything, was Anna Bartlett Warner. As I mentioned before our morning prayer, she was born on this day in 1827, right here in New York City. And she went on to write that best known of all hymns for children: "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so." It appeared first in her long novel, Say and Seal, written in 1860. There, it’s sung to a little boy named Johnny. He’s dying. And, as was the Victorian style, there’s a bit more sentimentalism there than we’re used to today. But what is sentimentalism, what is sophistication, when the subject is a dying boy who asks for the reassurance of a little poem he’d heard about Jesus and his love? "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so: Little ones to him belong – They are weak, but he is strong."
Whether it’s David Bloom or Rick Husband or Anna Bartlett Warner or little "Johnny," why Jesus means so much to so many is this: Jesus loves them. They trust that Jesus loves them. And they love him for so loving them!
Karl Barth was the most profound and prolific theologian of the 20th century. When he was asked to sum up the many volumes of his Church Dogmatics in but one sentence, he quoted this simple little children’s hymn: "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
Barth knew that Paul had seen Jesus as God’s great summary statement, God’s own summing up: God’s Word "in conclusion." God’s last word was the Word from the beginning – finally made flesh for the world.
In the phrase, "Jesus loves me," we’re dealing with the present tense and the active voice of a verb on the move. Jesus loves me. That means Jesus is alive. We’re speaking here of the man who walked the dusty roads of Palestine two thousand years ago. But we’re also speaking here of the one whom the disciples preached as having been raised from death by God.
So the Jesus of whom a true Christian speaks is one who knows me and loves me at this very moment. We certainly cannot say the same about any other Bible character. Does Moses love me? Moses never heard of me. Does Adam love me? Adam doesn’t know me from Adam.
Does it make any sense to sing: "Buddha loves me, this I know. For the sutras tell me so?" Who sings "Mohammed loves me, this I know. For the Koran tells me so?" The Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed were reasonably good men – but nonetheless, they were mere men. They lived and they died. Only Jesus, the Christ, is the man who lived and died and lives.
Love that matters must be alive and active. Jesus, the Christ, is Life himself and he’s the "Jesus [who] loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so."
And love that matters is personally addressed. That’s what makes the Peanuts strip Lucy’s professions of love so pathetic. Remember that Charlie Brown’s little nemesis used to insist: "I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!" It’s no use saying we love mankind. What good does that do anyone? And what does that cost us? But loving people – now that can do some good and that can cost plenty! We render love to people, not mankind. Abstract love is worthless. Loving – as living – must be done in the real world. And it’s into this very tangible world that Jesus came – God enfleshed – to love us even to the point of his death on a cross. And it’s into this very tangible world that Jesus still comes to love us to the point of our death in his death and on into his life.
When God finally put a face on God, He did so in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. Having alluded to the transitory radiance of the face of Moses, Paul draws a contrast when he writes that God gave us the enduring "light of His glory in the face of Christ." (II Cor 4:6; cf. 3:7) Jesus is God fleshed out for us.
So we cannot have any comfort in the singing of "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so" unless the "Jesus" who loves me is the Jesus of whom the Bible tells me. There’s no love coming from any counterfeit "Jesus" concocted by those who refuse to receive Jesus, the Christ, of whom the Bible tells.
Yet there are many fashionable "Jesus" fakes – all shallow substitutes.
This year, secular humanists are making a special fuss over Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 200th year since his birth. Does Emerson’s "Jesus" love me? Can Emerson’s "Jesus" love me? According to Emerson, "Jesus" was no more "divine" that we all are. We might as well count on the love of our own "divinity" and sing "I loves me! This I know, for Ralph Waldo tells me so!"
Can the "Jesus" of Bertrand Russell love me? Said that preening atheist: "I do not grant either the superlative wisdom or the superlative goodness of Christ as depicted in the Gospels." We might as well count on the love of the "superlative" wisdom and goodness of Lord Russell!
Can the "Jesus" of Marianne Williamson love me – the "Jesus" that’s simply another expression of what she calls "the Christ spirit" in all of us? Again, we might as well count on being loved by ourselves. Give yourself a hug and be "your own best friend!"
Can Elaine Pagels’ Gnostic "Jesus" love me? She says she’s found the Gnostic "Jesus" to resemble her own experience. Well, of course. She sees in such a "Jesus" a Zen master and an anachronistic shrink peddling what she naively calls "contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques." We might as well count on the love of the Buddha or "love" for sale by the therapeutic hour! Pagels prefers the history-free sayings of an ephemeral 4th century "Jesus" to the mighty acts of God in Jesus of Nazareth.
Can the "Jesus" of Canada’s popular novelist, Nino Ricci, love me? His "Jesus" is the offspring of a Roman soldier’s rape of Mary: a handsome, but cold and arrogant, sexually ambivalent and sinister trickster. Might as well count on the love of a Jeffrey Dahmer!
Can the "Jesus" of the feminist conspiracy bestseller, The DaVinci Code, love me – or is he too busy impregnating Mary Magdalene? Novelist Dan Brown is preoccupied with transvestism, taking the "Last Supper’s" John to be the Magdalene as a drag-king and projecting the artist himself in the guise of "Mona Lisa." Mistaking the geographical designation for Leonardo’s last name, it’s a wonder he doesn’t refer to Jesus as "Mr. Christ!" We might as well count on being loved through sexual harassment!
And what about The Jesus Seminar "Jesus?" The Seminar’s "Jesus" is dubbed by its founder, "a new fiction that takes as its starting point … a new narrative of Jesus, a new Gospel." (Robert Funk) Can the "Jesus" of these media darlings love me? Not if, as they insist, he died and was eaten by dogs! Might as well invent my own.
Every bogus "Jesus" here is a convenient "Jesus [of] our own stuff," as C. S. Lewis called all such self-served and self-serving spirituality that looks like nothing so much as it looks like ourselves. A "Jesus" Bobblehead loves me as much as any "Jesus" contrived by this crew. Besides, I can project into a Bobblehead "Jesus" anything I can come up with in my own Bobblehead!
Who thinks that any such "Jesus" is the One who meant so very much to Anna Bartlett Warner and the West Point cadets she taught on the lawn of her Hudson River home? Do you think that any such "Jesus" is the One who meant so very much to David Bloom in the Iraqi desert and to Rick Husband as he hurtled through space? Theirs was the strong Savior from sin; not a superficial savant of spin.
Back in 1812, Archibald Alexander became the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. He spoke of the love of Jesus when he said that "all my theology is reduced to this narrow compass – Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." He based that conviction, not on the yet-to-be-written hymn by Anna Warner, but on what Paul wrote long ago to the Romans: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8)
As I say, Paul wrote that long ago. But "long ago" is in terms of our lifetimes. Paul wrote what he wrote as a contemporary of Jesus. And he wrote as a Jew – "Hebrew of Hebrews" as he put it – and he wrote to other contemporaries who also were Jews. Any nonsense can be concocted after hundreds or thousands of years and then read back into the ancient world. But among contemporaries? How hard it would be to be a devout Jew and yet come to believe that one among you was really God in flesh!
And remember what Paul wrote to the Colossians. Imagine your own reaction if, after the death of your rabbi, your minister, people began to sing hymns to his glory and claimed that he’d risen from the dead. Imagine your reaction if one of these hymns went something like this that Paul wrote to the Colossians: "He is exactly like God, who cannot be seen. He is the firstborn Son, superior to all creation. Everything was created by him, everything in heaven and on earth, everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers, and all rulers and authorities. God created everything through him. And God made everything for him. He was before everything, and through him everything is held together. He sustains everything. He is also the head of his body, which is the assembly of them that are called out by God. He is the very beginning, the first to be raised from death. God himself was pleased to live fully in this man, his Son, and God was pleased for him to make peace by sacrificing his life, so that everything in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God." (Col 1:15-20)
Would you think this – applied to a recently deceased minister – was a bit over the top? How could you believe it? And yet, soon after his death, Jesus’ contemporaries – staunchly monotheistic Jews – were professing his praise in just these terms of highest praise. They affirmed Jesus to be the one through whom God created the universe and the one for whom God created the universe, and the one who sustains the universe by his own powerful word, and the one through whom the universe is reconciled to God.
How in the world did they come to believe this? How was it that so many of them were willing and able to endure torture and execution for refusing to deny that all this was, indeed, true?
In the first chapter of the book of Hebrews – dating from the early 60s – this same witness appears already to have been framed as the creed of the earliest church. Just imagine what an impact his resurrection and post-resurrection ministry must have had on his followers! He had lived among them on a daily basis for three years. He’d taught them. But he was rejected by the religious establishment, finally arrested by the government forces and executed as a common criminal. Nonetheless, somehow, he was the one who, with his Father, was behind all that is! And his resurrection confirmed it.
Jesus’ contemporaries were pre-scientific people, but they were not fools. Yet these followers of Jesus were professing his praise as the one for whom and through whom all things were created and hold together.
We today understand that all time-space came into being in the instance of the Big Bang. But evidently, it is even more basic that Jesus Christ was there "before" and "apart from" the Big Bang of time-space. He not only came through time-space; he was the one through whom time-space came. This is the Jesus of "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
We today understand that all things hold together by electrostatic force and by the forces of gravity and anti-gravity in an ever-expanding universe of time-space. But evidently, it is even more basic that all things are held together in Jesus Christ. This is the Jesus of "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
We today don’t agree much on what the point of the universe is. But according to revelation – and remember, Christianity is revealed religion – the most basic point of the universe is the love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the Jesus of "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
We today don’t agree much on how to save the world – which we all take for granted has lost its way. But according to revelation, the only way to save the world is in Jesus Christ and in his death on the cross. This is the Jesus of "Jesus loves me—this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
In the lobby of Rockefeller Center, there are murals depicting the technological progress of mankind. But have you ever noticed that there, at the eastern entrance, among the icons of man’s ever-increasing mastery of nature, is a picture of Jesus? He’s pictured teaching all sorts of people. Some are listening intently while others are paying no attention to him, much as the crowds hurrying on their own way beneath the mural. This surprising depiction of the famous Sermon on the Mount is inscribed with these words: "Man’s ultimate destiny depends not on whether he can learn new lessons or make new discoveries and conquests, but on his acceptance of the lesson taught him close upon two thousand years ago."
Yet much of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, others had said and would say – including the ancient prophets of Israel, and Hillel, a leader of the Pharisees when Jesus was a boy, and even pagans. But beyond the Sermon on the Mount, fulfilling the Psalm, as Matthew notes: Jesus "spoke of things unknown from the beginning of the world, ["unobtainable by human search"]. (Matt 13:34f; Ps 78:2; Leon Morris) There was, of course, what Jesus called that new commandment he gave to his followers: "Love one another as I have loved you." (John 13:34) Nevertheless: Jesus did not come to say what had already been said. He came to do what had never been done. He came to die for the sins of the world. That’s why each of the four Gospels is mainly an account of his last days, his last hours. The Gospels are passion scenes with long prefaces.
And that fact inspired Mel Gibson to make a film on Jesus’ last hours. It’s called The Passion. Maybe you’ve heard about it. But even before seeing that yet-to-be-released film, the usual nay-sayers, a conspiracy of self-appointed Christophobic thought police are denouncing the film as fodder for "anti-Semitism." That slur is a sure-fire expletive that, though it apparently never needs to be based in fact, is designed to stop the accused in his tracks. They say the biblical accounts on which the film is based "carry the virus of Jew hatred." (James Carroll) Of course, as usual, they fail to note that these biblical accounts were written by Jews, to Jews, about a Jew harassed by the Jewish establishment of his day. As an eminent Emory University Bible scholar points out: "The New Testament compositions were not written from a position of Christian superiority to Judaism. They were, rather, composed in the context of competition among sects within the framework of Judaism." (Luke Timothy Johnson) And as centuries of Christians have been declaring every week in our creed: Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried." But evidently, some need to distract themselves from what should be distressingly distracting enough: the bloody gore and sacrifice of God-in-flesh!
Thankfully, cooler heads than Frank Rich’s, Dov Hikind’s and all those ADL protestors may yet prevail. David Klinghoffer, orthodox Jewish editor of the Forward , criticizes those who hold to Jewish officialdom’s historically-flawed account of Jesus’ death. That account pretends that there was no deadly Temple opposition on the day of his crucifixion. It blames the whole affair on the Romans. But, says Klinghoffer: "Our loyalty should be to Judaism and to truth, not to an officially sanctioned, sanitized version of Judaism or the truth – which may be neither Jewish nor true." And film critic Michael Medved, another orthodox Jew, asks: "Shouldn’t someone in this country have the right to make a movie that follows the Gospel account closely? If there are people in the Jewish community saying Christians have to disregard certain passages in Scripture or else they will be accused of anti-Semitism, then that’s a bridge too far." He adds: "I don’t want Christians telling me what aspect of my faith I must accept or disregard as price of communal peace in the United States."
After seeing the film, conservative social critic David Horowitz – who is Jewish – said: "It is not anti-Semitic [but] an awesome [and] overpowering work … as close to a religious experience as art can get." He said: "The moral of this Christian story – of Mel Gibson’s film – is that we all killed Jesus – Jew and Gentile alike – and tortured him, and we do so every day."
True Christians don’t call Jews "Christ killers!" True Christians sin with Charles Wesley: "Died He, for me who caused his pain; for me who him to death pursued." True Christians answer the question: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" with "Yes, I was there! I was there."
The death of Jesus for the sins of all is no excuse for the sin of anti-Semitism. The death of Jesus for the sins of all is no excuse for the sin of Christophobia. Not one of the Romans and not one of the Jews who had a hand in his execution is with us today. What anyone did with Jesus two thousand years ago is nobody’s responsibility today. What everyone does with Jesus today, is his or her responsibility today.
Besides, as I said in my resurrection lectures, the matter of blame for Jesus’ death should be informed by what the New Testament says Jesus himself said. Jesus said: "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord." (John 10:18) And this is from the Gospel of John, the Gospel that’s most often accused of being anti-Semitic. "No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord." A biblical scholar comments: "The death of Jesus, though voluntary, was not merely assent to being killed, a sort of indirect suicide; it was part of a plan to submit to death and then emerge from it victoriously alive." (Merrill C. Tenney) Adds another: "The Lord’s death does not take place as the result of misadventure or the might of his foes or the like. No man takes his life from him." (Leon Morris)
It’s not only secularists who object to the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion. Liberal clergy (even some bishops) and many churchgoers are hostile to the emphasis on the death of Christ for our sins. They want Jesus to be just another "nice guy" like Confucius or the Buddha or Gandhi – a mere man they can control to suit themselves. They don’t want to face the fact that their eternal destiny was nailed to a bloody cross outside the walls of Jerusalem in the early 1st century. They don’t want to face the fact that their eternal destiny is wrapped up in their being there when the Lord of Glory laid down his life for the sins of the world. But Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus on the cruel cross and from out the cold tomb is the only Jesus who is, was and ever will be – the God-in-the-flesh Savior and Lord of all creation and Redeemer of the world. He is the "Jesus [who] loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
If you don’t like this grisly stuff about the tortured death of Jesus, you don’t like the good news that the God and Father of Jesus, the Christ, "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him should not perish but have eternal life." If you reject such a profound salvation, you won’t know the living Jesus that children of all ages – of whom is the Kingdom of Heaven – know when they sing, "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so." You won’t know the Jesus whom David Bloom still knows and loves because Jesus knows and loves him. You won’t know the Jesus whom Rick Husband still knows and loves because Jesus still knows and loves him. You won’t know the Jesus whom Anna Bartlett Warner still knows and loves because Jesus still knows and loves her.
A few weeks ago, a 10-passenger Cessna, flying from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas, crashed into the ocean about an hour after take-off. Four of the seven survivors were a young couple on their honeymoon and two children ages 5 and 6. The children’s mother was killed in the crash. Swamped by six-foot waves and stranded there in the deep waters for almost two hours waiting for rescue, what did these shaken souls do besides tread water? They sang "Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so." There in the face of death those little ones looked to the face of the risen Jesus. Back in that novel that gave us the song, little Johnny looked into the face of death and looked to the face of the risen Jesus. They were three of the millions of children of all ages who have looked into the face of death to be met with the face of the risen Jesus.
"Jesus loves me – this I know, for the Bible tells me so." This one sentence sums up the greatest truth there is – whether after a long life of exhaustive theological inquiry (as in the case of Karl Barth) or all the hope of two little exhausted orphans in the ocean. Does "Jesus loves me" sum up your life? Does "Jesus loves me" say it all for you? Let our closing hymn testify that, by God’s grace, it does.