John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This is the text of a sermon preached at Highlands United Church of Christ, Vancouver BC on July 22, 2007. Permission has been given for this use by the author. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Dr. Cobb shows how misinterpretations of Jesus as God has done great harm to our history. It’s not authentic Christianity and has separated Jews and Muslims from Christians far more than they should be.
To be a Christian is to hold Jesus in highest esteem. Even more important, it is to live as Jesus’ follower and as one who believes that in following Jesus one is also serving God. According to the synoptic gospels, people in his day, marveling at his words and deeds, called him "Lord." The great question then was whether he was the expected one, the Messiah, or, in Greek, the Christ.
For his disciples, the resurrection appearances of Jesus settled these questions. Jesus was definitely Lord, and definitely Messiah or Christ. Although much that was expected of the Messiah had not happened, the title Christ almost became part of Jesus’ name or a virtual synonym. Jesus’ was God’s beloved son, chosen by God for the salvation of all who followed him.
Paul developed these ideas. As was expected of the Messiah, Jesus was a descendant of David, and through his resurrection he came to be, or to be recognized as, the Son of God. Jesus fulfilled God’s mission by opening the doors of salvation to all, including the Gentiles. Jews had been seeking salvation by obedience to the law, but this did not work. By his faithfulness to God even to death Jesus provided another way. Jews and Gentiles alike could participate in that faithfulness. This meant that they would suffer and die with Jesus. God accepts that participation as righteousness. Those who thus participated are reconciled with God and will also participate in Jesus’ resurrection.
This is truly an exalted picture of who Jesus was and is and of Jesus’ work for God and on our behalf. There is a heavenly dimension in that the resurrected Jesus is no longer an earthly figure but a heavenly one. But Jesus remains unquestionably a human being. "Messiah,’ "Son of God," "Lord," and "Savior" are all human titles. The resurrected Jesus is the first fruit of the transformation in which we are all to participate.
There is no suggestion that Jesus belongs in another realm as a divine being alongside God the Father. The thinking of Paul remains in the fully monotheistic tradition of Judaism.
Now in Colossians we are confronted with a very different picture. A generation has passed, and the Rubicon has been crossed. The faithful are now predominantly Gentile. Paul is the great leader, virtually the founder, of the Gentile church, and believers are eager to claim his authority for what they say. But their ways of thinking are no longer Jewish. The sharp distinction between the one Creator and the many creatures has faded. Jesus is the primary focus of their thought. He, not the emperor who claims their worship, functions as their God.
They still affirm the God whom Jesus addressed as Father. But the emphasis is now on the intimate, indeed insoluble, relation between Jesus and God. All things on heaven and earth have been created through Jesus and for Jesus. "In him all things hold together."
To Jews of that time and to us today, it is impossible to think that a person inhabiting a human body could function in these cosmic ways. Probably that was never quite the intention. "Jesus" had come to name not only the human figure about whom we read in the synoptic gospels but also a divine being who temporarily inhabited a human body and in that role died on a cross for our sake. But there is less clarity in this Colossians passage about this distinction than in the prologue of John where it is clear that the everlasting Word of God became a human being in Jesus. There is no preexisting divine Jesus.
Even John is not as clear as it might be about the distinction between the human being Jesus and the Word that became flesh in him. The creeds likewise blur this distinction to the great detriment of Christian faith. Jews could see God’s Power, God’s Spirit, or God’s Wisdom manifest in a human being. Paul affirmed this of Jesus. If we believe, as I strongly do, that something of God is present in all God’s creatures, there is certainly no problem in emphasizing the rich and full way, certainly distinctive and possibly unique, in which God was present in Jesus. But we need to retain the distinction between the divine that was incarnate in Jesus and the human being who was partly constituted by that incarnation. In Paul the distinction is generally clear. In Colossians it is badly blurred.
The great danger of this blurring is that Jesus’ humanity be lost. Jesus became for many Christians a God walking around in human form. Fortunately, there were many Christians who resisted this loss. Antioch was a great center of the ancient church and of its teaching. There they clung to such formulations as that of the divine indwelling a human being. This is far more intelligible, far more faithful to Paul, and far healthier for the church. And throughout the whole controversy in the ancient church about the nature of Jesus it prevented the obliteration of Jesus’ humanity.
But those who in fact worshipped Jesus insisted that Jesus was not only the human being indwelt by God but also God. And over the centuries this confused and confusing idea has played havoc with Christian teaching. Jesus’ humanity has too often been swallowed up in Jesus’ deity.
If this had not happened, Jews would not have been so profoundly alienated from Christianity. There would have remained the dispute as to whether salvation comes through obedience to law or participation in the faithfulness of Jesus, but this could have continued as a debate that might prove fruitful for both parties. Christians had no business asking Jews to compromise their monotheism. Mohammed, who had the highest appreciation for Jesus as the greatest of God’s prophets before the revelation of the Qu’ran, might well have become a Christian. At least the mutual enmity of Christians and Muslims would have been greatly eased. Perhaps both Jews and Muslims might have learned from Christians to understand more fully God’s sacramental or incarnational presence in the world.
But all of this is what might have been. What has in fact been is that neither Jews nor Muslims could appreciate a Christianity that compromised God’s unity, even if it claimed that its teaching of three divine persons did not do so. What has in fact been is that many have been alienated by a teaching that places believing very doubtful ideas about Jesus over following him in humble service even when that entails sharing in his suffering.
For several centuries now Christians, especially Protestants, have been engaged in rescuing the human Jesus from his de-humanization by the church. Unfortunately, like many needed reactions, it has often gone too far. Humanizing Jesus has often meant reinventing him in the image of contemporary ideals, on the one hand, or in a negative light, on the other. Almost always it has separated him from "the Father" whose presence his followers saw in him.
Jesus is not alone in being subjected to this treatment. It seems to be important for us to bring the most admirable people down to our size. I believe that there are human beings who are truly remarkable in diverse ways and that humanizing them should expand our image of humanity rather than reduce them to fit a small one. I believe that we can and should say things about the fully human Jesus that we say of no one else. Being unique does not make one less human.
For that reason, despite my heavy critique of the confusion of deity and humanity that I find in this passage in Colossians, I also find much to appreciate. I have taken as my text verse 19: "in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." In my view the more fully God dwells within us the more fully we are human. Precisely because God dwelt so fully in Jesus, Jesus shows us what humanity in its fullness can be.
Our recognition of God’s presence in Jesus is also our assurance that God is like Jesus. Far from condemning us for our sins and failures, God loves and forgives. In the language especially emphasized in this passage we are reconciled to God. If we participate in Jesus’ faithfulness, there is nothing left for us to do.
We can come to God with the assurance that we are already fully known and accepted as we are and therefore can open ourselves in responsiveness to God’s inward call. In Jesus we learn that while we are secure in our relation to God, following our calling is not a path of safety in human terms. There is no assurance that our ventures in service of the weak and the poor will succeed, but there is assurance that God affirms them and uses them beyond our knowledge. God used even Jesus’ death for our salvation.
The author of Colossians expressed his devotion to Jesus in language some of which proved harmful in later centuries and in different contexts. We can learn from that to be careful that our formulations of our devotion not put others down. But we need equally to know that it is not the strength of our devotion that is dangerous to others, but only its mis-description and misunderstanding. We need to find in our time and for ourselves the way to express no less devotion, ourselves now, than the author of Colossians expressed in his time and place.