But We See Jesus…

The three historic doctrinal standards
of the Reformed Church in America (the
Belgic Confession of 1561, the Heidelberg
Catechism of 1563, and the Canons of the
Synod of Dort of 1618-1619) offer up a standard
Reformed portrait of the Lord of the
Church. Jesus Christ was present with the
Father at the creation of the world, and all
things were made through him. Eternally
begotten, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and
born of the Virgin Mary, he possesses both
the divine and human natures in one person.
Jesus was, and is, mediator and intercessor;
he is prophet, priest, and king.
From the standards we learn of the role
of Jesus Christ in substitutionary atonement
for human sin. As the first fruits of
the resurrection, he raises his followers to
new life. Ascended, he is our advocate and
our pledge that he will receive us to himself.
He bids us celebrate the holy sacraments,
and communicates himself to us as
we celebrate them. Those who believe the
good news of his incarnation, death, resurrection,
and ascension and embrace Jesus
Christ with a true and living faith are
saved from the righteous wrath of God. At
God’s appointed time, he will come again
from heaven.

While this portrait of Jesus may sound
universal, in fact it is not. Some of these
emphases are shared with all Christians;
they are truly catholic. Others (for example,
the three-fold office of Christ) have more
importance in a Reformed understanding
of Jesus than in other traditions. Perhaps
most significantly, the standards’ teaching
concerning Jesus’ role in the reconciliation
between God and humanity is a particularly
western construal of the meaning of
the cross. Despite variations in particular
traditions and teachings, however, the general
portrait described above more or less
tracks the second article of the Apostles’
Creed, albeit in a peculiarly Reformed way.

The creed is remarkably minimalist.
It lists, almost bullet-point like, a rapid fire
of events. Conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under
Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and
buried (etc.). The creed takes no time to
delineate the meaning of these events in
the life of Christ. Our Reformed standards
fill in that gap, as in the Heidelberg Catechism’s
peculiar way of asking, article after
article, “what benefit do we receive…”?
It is a great strength of the standards that
they do not ask, for example, “What benefit
do we receive from Jesus’ healing of Jairus’
daughter?”

However, one might well ask if the reticence
of the standards is as much weakness
as it is strength. That is to say, if the
whole gospel were summed up in the matrix
of sin and salvation and Jesus’ sacrifice to
deliver the elect from sin, then the creed
says enough when it proceeds straight
from the manner of the incarnation to the
events of the crucifixion. But is that the
whole gospel? What happened during the
years of Jesus’ life? Do his teachings teach
us anything that cannot be found in other
spiritual masters? Do his extraordinary acts of healing have anything to offer his
followers, other than proof-stories of his
divinity? If all we see in Jesus is a deliverer
from bondage to sin, have we yet seen
Jesus?

When the Belhar Confession focuses
on unity, reconciliation, and justice, it fills
in a gap that exists both in our standards
as well as in the creeds themselves. I believe
that Belhar has little time for unity,
reconciliation, and justice as vague concepts,
as general, humanistic ideals. The
Belhar Confession understands God’s gift
of unity and the church’s task of being
unified as responses to the prayer of Jesus
Christ “that they may be one, as the Father
and I are one” (John 17:20-23).
 
Belhar has little time for unity, reconciliation,
and justice as vague concepts, as general
humanistic ideals.
 

When Belhar speaks of reconciliation, it speaks
first of the reconciliation that has already
been definitively and finally accomplished
in Christ’s death on the cross, and only
then moves on to the church’s calling to
be agents of reconciliation. Finally, when
Belhar speaks of justice, it speaks, not of
general notions of distributive, retributive,
or economic justice, but of that divine justice
that underlays the inaugural message
of Christ. The church needs the Belhar
Confession, I contend, so that it can see
Jesus more fully, and thus be more adequately
equipped to praise God with full
voice.

When the Belhar Confession speaks of
unity, it speaks of the unity of the church,
not the essential unity of all people in all
times and places. Unity, says Belhar, is “a
gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus
Christ
.” Unity is not a post-Enlightenment
ideal that has become incumbent upon all
cultures to enact. God, says Belhar, has
given unity as a gift to the church, not as
a disembodied concept or proposition, but
precisely through Christ’s work of reconciliation,
which was accomplished on the
cross. When Belhar indicates that “enmity
and hatred between people and groups is
sin which Christ has already conquered,” it
is saying something very different from a
rather more general statement such as “all
men are created equal.” Instead, the unity
that finds voice in Belhar is distinctively
Christ-centered. Christ has conquered enmity
and hatred. Unity is given through
Christ’s work of reconciliation. And it is so
the world may believe that Christ has conquered
sin that Belhar stresses the obligation
side of the dialectical nature of unity.

Thus, Belhar is consistent, both with itself
and the three historic standards, when
it focuses on true faith in Jesus Christ as
the sole requirement for membership in the
church of Jesus Christ. True faith, that is,
in the one who, in accomplishing reconciliation
between God and humanity, has at
the same time broken down the dividing
wall of hostility between peoples. Speaking
negatively–that is, in the last of its
‘rejections’ in this
article–Belhar
quite rightly rejects
any doctrine
“which explicitly
or implicitly maintains
that descent
or any other human or social factor should
be a consideration in determining membership
of the church.”

The elephant in the room has to do
with how the church treats persons of gay
or lesbian sexual orientation. Extensive
discourses have been offered on this topic,
and some would cite the ‘fuzziness’ of
Belhar on this matter as a reason not to
confess it. But Belhar is not in the least
bit fuzzy. It says what it says about unity
in Christ (and it doesn’t say what it doesn’t
say). It places the bar on church membership,
as do the standards, on true faith in
Christ. Further, Belhar has nothing at all
to say about the offices of the church. In
sum, the Belhar Confession says as much
about ministry with the GLBT community,
and as much about the ordination of
gays and lesbians in committed relationships,
as do the other standards, and for
that matter, the gospels themselves: not
a word. It is incumbent upon those who
raise the episode of Allan Boesak’s attempt
to cite Belhar to support the ordination of
gays and lesbians to tell the whole story:
that Boesak’s argument failed, as the Uniting
Reformed Church in South Africa rejected
his interpretation of the Scriptures.

Likewise, when the Belhar Confession
addresses reconciliation, it recognizes that
reconciliation has already been accomplished
in the work of Jesus Christ on the
cross. The church is by no means called
to advocate that people who don’t get along
with one another would be better off if they
just shook hands and “made nice.” It is
quite clear that “Christ’s work of reconciliation
is made manifest in the church as
the community of believers who have been
reconciled with God and with one another,”
that God has “entrusted the church
with the message of reconciliation in and
through Jesus Christ
,” and that “God’s lifegiving
Word and Spirit has conquered the
powers of sin and death
, and therefore also
of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness
and enmity, [and] that God’s life-giving Word
and Spirit will enable the church to live in a
new obedience
which can open new possibilities
of life for society and the world.”

This article of Belhar reflects the power
of the “already” nature of reconciliation,
grounded firmly in the summary of the
gospel found in Ephesians 2:11-22. “He
(Christ) is our peace, who has made us
both one, and has broken down the dividing
wall of hostility…and might reconcile
us both to God in one body through the
cross thereby bringing the hostility to an
end.” Belhar is very clear on this matter:
the church’s call to be salt and light, to be
peace makers, is founded on what Miroslav
Volf calls a “vision of reconciliation that
cannot be undone,” (Exclusion & Embrace,
110). the vision that is grounded, not in an
inevitably despotic, humanly devised program
of amicability, but in the definitive,
kenotic act of Christ. Belhar confesses
what the apostle Paul proclaims to all who
have ears to hear: “Therefore, if anyone is
in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has
gone, the new has come! All this is from
God, who reconciled us to himself through
Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”
(II Corinthians. 5:17-18).

And what is the Belhar Confession’s
vision of justice? Is it foreign to the person
and work of Jesus, or is it endemic to
the gospel? It is clear that according to
the gospel of Luke a vision of the fair reign
of God energized Jesus’ ministry. That
he picked up the scroll and began to read
from Isaiah 61 was clearly not intended by
the gospel writer as a coincidence. Jesus
would be the one who, in inaugurating
God’s reign, was “anointed to preach good
news to the poor…to proclaim release to
the captives and recovering of sight to the
blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of
the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19, see Isaiah 61:1-2)
In contrast to Luke, the gospel of Matthew
offers Jesus’ vision of justice as the summary
of Jesus’ ministry in the well-known
passage in which the Son of Man identifies
himself with the hungry, the thirsty,
the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the
prisoner (Matthew 25:31-46). Belhar’s section
on justice tracks these themes (from
both Luke and Matthew) nearly verbatim,
and adds the dictum of the letter of James
concerning the nature of true religion as
ministry to the widows and orphans in
their affliction. There is simply no question,
biblically speaking, that the one who
emptied himself, taking the form of a slave
(Philippians 2:5-8), stood alongside people
in need and that the church is called to
stand where he stood and still stands.

But what of the provocative expression
that “God, in a world full of injustice
and enmity, is in a special way the God of
the destitute, the poor, and the wronged”?
Will such an expression help us to see Jesus
more clearly? Insofar as Jesus was a
first-century Jew, was well-versed in the
Hebrew Scriptures, and “directed his attention
exclusively to Israel” (Lohfink, Jesus
and Community
, 17) we can conclude
that Jesus’ vision of justice was thoroughly
inspired by the Spirit’s earlier testimony to
the chosen people of God. Their story began
with a wealthy nomad, to be sure, but
God’s concern for the chosen in situations
of injustice and enmity echoes throughout
the pages of Scripture and extends well beyond
the experience of Israel. I cite just a
few examples:

  • God stretched out a mighty hand and
    outstretched arm over the enslaved descendants
    of Abraham. (“I have seen
    the affliction of my people who are in
    Egypt…I know their sufferings”) (Exodus
    3:7).
  • The Deuteronomic law is rife with provisions
    for the widows, orphans, and
    sojourners.
  • Israel’s vision of the good king defines
    the king’s role in reference to the lowly
    in situations of injustice and enmity
    (“May he defend the cause of the
    poor of the people, give deliverance to
    the needy, and crush the oppressor!”
    Psalm 72).
  • The prophets thunder at the rank inequities
    between the wealthy and the
    poor (“Woe to those who devise wickedness
    and work evil upon their beds!
    …They covet fields, and seize them,
    and houses and take them away…therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold
    against this family I am devising evil'”
    Micah 2).
  • The apostle Paul decried the inequities
    between the relatively wealthy owners
    of property and the laborers, manifested
    in division at the Lord’s Table
    (“When you meet together, it is not the
    Lord’s Supper that you eat? For in eating,
    each one goes ahead with his own
    meal, and one is hungry and another is
    drunk” I Corinthians 11:20-21).
  • The songs of Miriam (Exodus 15:1-3)
    and Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-1) and Mary
    (Luke 1:46-55), confirm what we find
    throughout the Scriptures.

When God sees injustice and inequity,
God is in a special way the God of the
victims of injustice and inequity: the destitute,
the poor, and the wronged. The fact
that both perpetrators and victims alike
are called to repentance does not obviate
the divine inclination to embrace the “destitute,
the poor, and the wronged.” To find
a theme so prominent in the Scriptures and
not then also to see that same theme in the
ministry of Jesus has the effect of divorcing
Jesus from the remainder of the Bible.

As I grew up in the Reformed Church
in America, I learned to see many things
about Jesus. He was God’s Son, and in
him, God dwelt among us. He died for my
sins, making reconciliation between God
and me, and he rose to guarantee me a
new life after I die. He ascended into heaven
to pray for me, and left me with the task
of being a good steward of creation for his
sake. He would come again on the last day
to judge both the living and the dead. Why
did I believe these things? Because I said
them, week in and week out, in worship,
and because I learned about them, week in
and week out, in catechism.

But there were things I didn’t say,
and because I didn’t say them, I didn’t see
them. Jesus prayed that his followers be
one, but because I never said that, it was
perfectly permissible for us to detest the
Roman Catholics in a nearby town; for that
matter, to hold our Lutheran classmates as
suspicious for being “practically Catholic.”
The reconciliation Jesus accomplished on
the cross bore the clear implication that we
should be reconciled to fellow Christians,
and for that matter, to “love our enemies.”
But we didn’t talk much about reconciliation,
other than personal reconciliation
with God, so we didn’t bother much with
the task of being ambassadors of reconciliation.
And although in school I offered up
daily a commitment to “liberty and justice
for all,” we never spoke much of justice in
church. I don’t recall making the connection
with a vision of justice that echoes
throughout the Scriptures, a vision that
Jesus quite clearly shared and advocated.
We saw the Jesus we confessed. But was
the Jesus we confessed a Jesus to whom
the fullness of the gospel bore witness?

The RCA needs to confess Belhar so
that we can see Jesus more clearly. In confessing
the gift and obligation to unity, we
hear Jesus’ call to repentance, for whether
the issue is the church’s approach to homosexuality
or any other issue, we are called
to turn aside from our natural inclination
to cut ourselves off from one another, and
to pay heed to the prayer of Jesus that
we be one. By saying out loud a commitment
to reconciliation, the whole church is
humbled and called to put aside despotic
visions of reconciliation (“we are reconciled
when you agree with me”) in which the old
violence is replaced by new it invites all to
have the mind of Christ: kenosis. Finally,
we see Jesus more clearly when we stand
where he chose to stand: with the hungry,
the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the
sick, and the prisoner.

We see Jesus more clearly when we
confess him in all his fullness. The Belhar
Confession helps us to see what we
haven’t seen, because it bids us say what
we have not heretofore said to one another,
to the world, or even echoed back to God in
praise.

Paul Janssen is the pastor
and teacher of Pascack
Reformed Church in
Park Ridge, New Jersey.