JESUS IS LORD?
Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.
Given the general ignorance that pervades modern culture, and the ease with which "Jesus Christ" trips off the tongue as a swear word, it would not surprise me if some people think that "Christ" was Jesus' surname, like Smith or Jones or even Turkstra! But then he would have been known as Jesus Josephson or maybe Jesus Davidson. The word "Christ," we know, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah." So when we say "Jesus Christ" strictly speaking we are referring to Jesus as the Messiah or Jesus the Christ. That is how the first Jewish believers knew and referred to him before the church expanded into the Gentile world.
The word "Christ" then took on a more universal and even cosmic meaning. Jesus the Christ was the "incarnate Word," the "image of the invisible God," the "Son of God," and especially the "Lord." In fact, the phrase "Lord Jesus" became the favoured way of speaking about him, and the declaration that "Jesus is Lord" became the first Christian creed. You have only to compare the painting by Rembrandt of Jesus teaching and healing, and Orthodox icons of "Christus Pantocrator," or Lord of the universe, to get a compelling sense of the difference. Jesus may be our friend, but he is not our chum, pal or playmate, he is Lord.
The transition from Jesus of Nazareth son of Joseph to the Lord Jesus Christ of Christian faith is embedded in the Easter narrative, but it is especially associated with the Ascension which we celebrate today. "God," as the letter to the Ephesians declares, "raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and dominion, and above every name that is named." Or, as in the creed: "He ascended into heaven and its seated on the right hand of the Father." The metaphors used here, such as the "right hand of God," are all about Jesus being acknowledged as Lord. But what, if any, is the connection between Jesus of Nazareth, David's son and compassionate friend of sinners, our companion along the way, and Jesus the Son of God, the Cosmic Christ, the Incarnate Word, the Lord?
Some modern-day Christians don't like the word Lord because of its associations with worldly power, as for example, the lord of the manor, suggesting a ruler remote from common folk and our daily life rather than the friend of sinners who came to serve and give his life for his friends. The word "Lord," my academic colleagues would say, reinforces hierarchy. It suggests blind, uncritical obedience to a demagogue! Or, as people of other faiths might say, yes, maybe Jesus is Lord for you, but Krishna is our Lord! Saying "Jesus is Lord" is, in other words, problematic for many people because it speaks of Christian dominance, triumphalism and ecclesiastical control. So should we ditch the word "Lord" and find another? Let us get some perspective before answering the question.
I will never forget listening to the praise song sung at the inauguration of President Mandela. Like all praise songs, it told the story of his life, from his birth into a royal family in the Eastern Cape, through his boyhood years herding cattle to those of political struggle and imprisonment, and then ending in exulted tones with his election as President of the Republic. Although Mandela was of noble birth Mandela did not become president by virtue of it, as do the kings and queens of England; he had to journey through tough years of struggle and humiliation before he took his place on the president's seat to exercise the power and authority invested in him. But even then, he was still Nelson Mandela from Qunu, the lawyer for the poor, the struggle hero for the masses, the friend who became president. The greatness of his presidency was that his character did not change, and that the power he was given did not corrupt but enabled him to serve South Africa as the President even those who were previously his enemies. And so he became a symbol not only for all of us, but for people around the world, a universal icon of how we should learn to live together in justice and reconciliation.
This morning we read another praise song, a very early Christian hymn that St. Paul includes in his letter to the Philippians in calling on them to live humbly, in unity and peace:
Have this mind in you that was in Christ Jesus...
who did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave..
and became obedient to the point of death-
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend...
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord.
So instead of Jesus' exaltation as Lord becoming a pretext for his followers to dominate others, to exercise power in ways that belittle, denigrate or oppress others, we are challenged to have the same mind in us that was in him. Hierarchy has been turned upside down. Those who want to be first will be the last! Those who want to sit at Jesus' right hand in the kingdom must become servants! To say Jesus is Lord, then, is a direct challenge to all those powers that trample on the poor, all those authorities that oppress others, all those who rule not as servants of the people but as tyrants over them, all those who act violently to achieve their unjust goals, and all those who power corrupts.
At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, so the gospels tell us, he was severely tempted to abuse his power and status. "If you are the Son of God" Satan said to him, then worship me and I will give you dominion over all things. In other words, Jesus could have followed another path; he could have attempted to take Jerusalem by violence as some other Messianic pretenders did; he could have become a leader and lord who forced his followers into meek submission rather than making them his friends; he could have avoided the way of suffering and the cross. In short, he could have had authority over all the kingdoms of the world if only he would follow the devil's pathway of ruthless power and domination. But from the beginning of his ministry until his death Jesus resisted and rejected being such a lord; he was even reluctant to be called the Messiah, or make any pretentious claims.
The gospel of Ascension Day is that everything we discern in Jesus' as the son of Joseph and man from Nazareth -- his compassion, healing, and love; his suffering with and for us on the cross -- all this has been exalted by God, for Jesus embodied the very nature of God himself. Jesus the Lord is and will always be the friend of sinners, the suffering servant who gives his life for the world, is. So, says, St. Paul, as his followers, we should have the same mind in us as was in him.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Ascension Day
29 May 2014