SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, through suffering and rejection you bring forth our salvation, and by the glory of the cross you transform our lives. Grant that for the sake of the gospel we may turn from the lure of evil, take up our cross, and follow your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“But who do you say that I am?” Mark 8:29.
That is the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. The answer was not self evident then, nor is it today. When I was in seminary, the historical critical method was still the prevailing approach to understanding the Bible, though it was beginning to come under intense scrutiny. Shaped as it is by modernist presuppositions, historical criticism seeks to uncover the core meaning of each biblical passage through objective application of rigorous textual dissection, source criticism, redaction analysis and form criticism with an eye toward placing it in its historical context. Properly employed, this method was supposed to strip away all of the dogmatic prejudices of Israel/the church and so reveal what historical truth can be harvested from the Bible. Nowhere was this fevered search more focused than in the quest to unearth “the historical Jesus” out from under the clutter of the early church’s theological assertions.
Since my seminary days, history has left the historical critical method behind. The work of scholars of color, women and persons of LBGTQ+ orientations has shaken our enlightenment era confidence in our ability to be “objective.” History, we now know, is not a matter of undisputed and verifiable fact. It is always shaped by narrative and usually that of the powerful, the military victors and those who are well off enough to have the luxury of writing it. Often the facts and events that are omitted from one’s historical narrative are as telling as those included. Excluded from my own historical education was the Tuskegee experiments, the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre and the role of the slave trade in the rise of the United States. I learned a great deal about George Washington’s military prowess, statesmanship and piety. I was never told that, like nine of his successors, he was a slaveholder. There is no such thing as an unbiased account of anything and we deceive ourselves if we claim to be “unbiased.” The best we can do is be aware of our biases and try to see beyond them to the perspective of others.
So we start with the understanding that the mindset of the biblical narrators was quite different from our own. History, as we understand it in the modern context, had no place in their thinking. Thus, coming to them with questions framed in historical terms will not get us very far. The biblical speakers, writers and narrators did not distinguish between “natural” and “supernatural,” “spiritual” and “physical” or “mythical” and “historical.” For them, the universe was all of one piece and the God who created it inhabited it, acted within it and manifested God’s self to all its inhabitants. For that reason, Jesus is not revealed to us in modern documentary form. The nearest accounts we have of him are woven out of the stories, tales and teachings preserved for us by the early church in the New Testament. That might not appeal to our modernist sensibilities, but it is how God in God’s wisdom has chosen to reveal God’s only begotton Son.
All of this being so, I do not believe the question of whether and to what extent we can or cannot squeeze what we characterize as “history” out of the New Testament is worth pursuing. I contend that there is but one critical question: “Did the New Testament witnesses, in all of their diversity, tension and irreconcilable differences nevertheless ‘get Jesus right?’” Or is the Christian cannon just a tangle of garbled memories, exaggerated tales and dogmatically distorted preaching put into the mouth of a man whose true identity lies buried somewhere beneath the literary rubble? Can we trust the Jesus who emerges from the scriptural cannon as the church has transmitted it? I do not believe that is a question historical criticism or any other interpretive method can answer. The only response that can be given is the one given by Philip to Nathaniel in John’s gospel: “Come and see.” John 1:46. For the mystery of Jesus’ identity finally lies not in the text, but in the witness of the community formed by the text. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would hold no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to scholars of ancient religion and culture, but of no relevance for anyone else.
Bottom line, the only Jesus we can know is the one proclaimed by his disciples. That, of course, includes not only the New Testament witnesses of the early church, but also the witness of all who throughout history have experienced Jesus as savior, come to know him through their attention to the scriptures and proclaimed him as Lord. Rather than viewing the church’s scriptures and teachings throughout the ages as a distracting and distorting encrustation obscuring the true “historical Jesus,” we should view them as a growing variety of windows into the identity of Jesus, a mystery we can never fully grasp this side of the resurrection. As such, they enhance rather than obscure our understanding of who Jesus is. Today we have the benefit of witness from Latin American disciples who find Jesus in their struggle for liberation; Black American disciples who find Jesus in their resistance to systemic racism and LGBTQ+ disciples who find Jesus in their struggle to live out their vocations authentically in a church that has for centuries excluded them. We are never through with trying to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Here is a poem by Andrew Hudgins reflecting on the identity of Jesus in light of John’s gospel’s account of his resurrection.
Christ as a Gardener
The boxwoods planted in the park spelled LIVE.
I never noticed it until they died.
Before, the entwined green had smudged the word
unreadable. And when they take their own advice
again – come spring, come Easter – no one will know
a word is buried in the leaves. I love the way
that Mary thought her resurrected Lord
a gardener. It wasn’t just the broad-brimmed hat
and muddy robe that fooled her: he was that changed.
He looks across the unturned field, the riot
of unscythed grass, the smattering of wildflowers.
Before he can stop himself, he’s on his knees.
He roots up stubborn weeds, pinches the suckers,
deciding order here – what lives, what dies,
an how. But it goes even deeper than that.
His hands burn and his bare feet smolder. He longs
to lie down inside the long, dew-moist furrows
and press his pierced side and his broken forehead
into the dirt. But he’s already done it –
passed through one death and out the other side.
He laughs. He kicks his bright spade in the earth
and turns it over. Spring flashed by, then harvest.
Beneath his feet, seeds dance into the air.
They rise, and he, not noticing, ascends
on midair steppingstones of dandelion,
of milkweed, thistle, cattail and goldenrod.
Source: Andrew Hudgins (b. 1951) was raised in Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree. at Huntingdon College and his master’s at University of Alabama. Additionally, he earned an M.F.A. at the University of Iowa. Hudgins is the author of numerous collections of poetry and essays, many of which have received high critical praise. He is currently Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio State University, having previously taught at Baylor University and the University of Cincinnati. Hudgins lives in Upper Arlington, Ohio, with his wife, the writer Erin McGraw. You can read more about Andrew Hudgins and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.