By Rubel Shelly
No irreverence intended, so please don’t hear it as anything other than what is intended. Jesus of Nazareth is the ideal middleman.
As proof of my thesis, I quote Paul: “There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus. He gave his life to purchase freedom for everyone”
(1 Timothy 2:5, 6, New Living Translation).
The notion of mediation involves standing between parties for the sake of communication. The ultimate hope in most of these situations is for more than communication; the mediator seeks understanding and reconciliation. A mediator seeks middle ground, common ground.
Theologically, Jesus is ideally and uniquely positioned between deity and humanity. Oh, he is fully God—a full-fledged member of the Holy Trinity, existing from everlasting to everlasting and perfect in all positive attributes. Yet, by virtue of emptying himself—not of his divine nature, which would be impossible, but of his rights and prerogatives as deity—he became fully human. He did so for our sake, not his own. He pursued a rescue mission that had been planned before the world was even created.
Paul’s language in this text is surely designed to dispel the notion of a deity so exalted, lofty, and glorious that poor, unworthy, and depraved humans (i.e., sinners) could never approach him. Jesus changed everything!
The Remarkable Middle
Do you “stand up for what’s right” to stone an adulteress? Or do you “go soft and look away”? Jesus stood in the middle to protect a woman’s life and dignity, while calling her to repent of her sin.
Should he excoriate collaborators with the Roman occupiers, or endorse their corruption and abuse of their own people? Jesus took the middle-ground position of inviting Zacchaeus to talk—over food.
Should Jesus denounce his brothers-in-flesh for unbelief? Or should he compromise his claims? He took the middle ground of showing patience and turning the other cheek—to let Pentecost happen.
Which side should Jesus take in the Pharisee-Sadducee debate over levirate marriage and the resurrection? He took the middle position of saying life then could not be judged by life now.
Should Jesus work miracles at every turn to silence doubt? Or should he reject requests for miracles as selfish exploitation? His middle-ground position gave evidence aplenty, without losing focus on “the hour” for which he had come among needy humanity.
Jesus still stands in the gap as the Holy Son of God and the Suffering Son of Man. Without dishonoring or compromising divine perfection, he brings the certainty of salvation to those who have lived in anxiety and despair. He is the perfect middleman, the ideal go-between, or—back to Paul’s language now—the “one” (i.e., only one) mediator between God and man. Thus we can pray “Abba!” We can approach Heaven’s throne boldly. We know and have been embraced by the One who has reconciled Heaven and earth.
The Regrettable Extremes
So why are we so poor at reconciliation? Why do we still live at the polarized extremes of human experience?
God was not only present with and active in Christ to reconcile the world to himself, but he is also with those who proclaim the truth to reconcile his human creatures to one another. People who have been made right with God through Christ’s mediating work should proclaim the possibility of their being made right with one another.
• I don’t know who the candidates for president will be in 2016, but I do know that some church or Christian ministry will publish and preach the message “No Christian Can Vote for a Demopublican!” So we should be Republicrat churches? Only Republicrats can be faithful Christians?
• As I’m writing this, I don’t know what the Supreme Court will rule about same-sex marriage. What I do know is that many preachers will sound homophobic in the run-up to and reaction against any status given homosexual people. Those who witness such diatribes will walk away from any possibilities of redemption and transformation.
• I don’t know the next turn in the “worship wars” engaging our churches. Must we create high church reverence versus low church relevance tensions that require one group to pillory the “wild people” and the other to lament the “old fogeys” who want to box us in? The world will see one more reason to reject us all, for its citizens already have enough anger and division to add still another layer.
• I don’t know about your conviction in the matter, but lots of us have altered our views on female involvement in the life of the church. So now we have people who decry the (liberal!) feminization of the body pitted against those who lament the (fundamentalist!) oppression of half the body. Surely there is a kinder way to think of those with whom one disagrees.
• I don’t know about your church, but I know the church traditions that say (1) faithfulness to Christ is defined by those we reject, and (2) faithfulness to Christ is defined by those we accept. So we have hate-the-sin churches against love-the-sinner churches, and one calls the other mean-spirited while the other sees its opposite as compromising.
Logic professors warn our students that one fallacy in reasoning is called “false dichotomy.” One commits this familiar fallacy by arguing (incorrectly!) their conclusion is one of only two options, and the other option is clearly and demonstrably wrong.
Just as the false dichotomy “Does God hate sin or love sinners?” has produced churches known for the things they are against versus churches that blur the line between right and wrong, surely there is a way to be holy while still loving those who are unholy. Jesus did it. He occupied the “radical middle” between pharisaic judgmentalism and moral relativism. People flocked to him for his gift of passing through the horns of the dilemma. And we are supposed to have taken up his mission in the world.
“Passing through the horns of a dilemma” is a logician’s resolution to the fallacy of false dichotomy. He demonstrates that the stark either/or option is a misrepresentation. He shows a third option to prove that the two alternatives named are less than exhaustive. Jesus is often the third option for those who are repulsed by both the world’s evil and the church’s immoderate reaction.
As We Go
Maybe it is a reaction to culture that has forced some of us to take extreme positions.
Does someone aver that truth does not exist (i.e., skepticism); am I forced then to claim certitude on every question (i.e., incorrigibility)?
Does someone claim there are no moral absolutes (i.e., ethical relativism); must I then react to label everything either right or wrong (i.e., moral dogmatism)?
Has a denomination sold out to liberalism (i.e., we have no word from God); is the only counter position fundamentalism (i.e., every one of our words is from God)?
Jesus seems to have had the ability to avoid extremes. He was able to avoid being hung out to dry by falling for false dilemmas presented him. He chose instead to stand between extremes. He was the ideal middleman. That seems to be where the kingdom of God lies in human experience.
• Sin is still sin, but our message is the good news that God has called us back to himself in Christ.
• Sin is still sin, but the person bound up in it is not our enemy but the victim of our diabolical enemy.
• Sin is still sin, but those of us who bear the gospel message must find a way to do so that communicates hope over judgment.
• Sin is still sin, but churches must find a way to “take a stand” with open, warm hearts rather than clenched, squared jaws.
Jesus said, “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20, The Message).
The church somehow lost sight of its mission to be a microcosm of the kingdom reign of God for the sake of becoming a location, an event to witness, a political force, or an entity whose favor could be courted by the world. Over time, a theology emerged that absolutized church over kingdom, prioritized church membership over Spirit-transformed lives, and changed corporate worship from participation to passivity. Along the way, Christians became consumers, and churches competed with one another to sell their particular brands of theology, worship, and programs to meet the felt needs of a fickle public.
We simply must implement an authentic priesthood of all who believe. Go into our various homes, offices, classrooms, and workplaces as Christ’s servants. Go there in the humility of the Son of Man; offer no judgments or directives; be confessional about our own inadequacies and modest about our occasional accomplishments. We should hesitate to speak; instead, we should be Christ’s presence so authentically that we will be asked to explain ourselves. Then we can bear gentle, faithful, and credible witness to the one who is our Lord.
Such Christians would be called anything but self-righteous hypocrites. In their reverent use of the name of Jesus, they would receive a more respectful hearing than is the case in so many venues where the “Church of Sanctified Religiosity” intrudes today, where its spokespeople shout loudly and judge severely.
If the claim that the earliest church was “turning the world upside down” was true in its time, it certainly is not true today. The church is often viewed as nothing more than an irritating irrelevance by our world. So perhaps it is the church that needs to be turned upside down—divesting itself of a pagan style of leadership that puts the powerful few at the top and embracing Jesus’ style of leadership that understands serving as leading and humility as greatness. It certainly involves avoiding the extremism that seems to have become stock-in-trade for our generation.
May it be so in our time—and until Christ comes. Only then may we be said to be praying with authenticity the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
Rubel Shelly serves as distinguished professor of philosophy and religion with Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.