In yesterday’ stop along the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? blog tour, Jim West demurred over my articulation of the ministry of Jesus. This seemed like a good, old-fashioned substantive disagreement, or at least, a place where sounding the note with the right emphasis might be important.
On p. 100 of JHILBP, I say, “Jesus came… to form that family of God around himself.” To which Jim replies:
Jesus doesn’t seek to form anything around himself- he seeks to form a people of God around God, the Father. Kirk’s (apparently Barthian) Christocentrism has led him astray. Jesus was theocentric to the core. His will was to do the will of the Father. Nothing less, and nothing more. For Jesus, it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the Father.
Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Jim is the third person ever, and the third person in the past week, to call me a Barthian and/or Neo-Orthodox. You will forever be on the top three list in applying the label to me! Well done!
The difficulty in responding to the paragraph is that I don’t want to say that Jim’s wrong, that it’s not about God but rather about Jesus. However, what I want to say is that the way in which Jesus’ ministry is about God is by being about Jesus.
Jesus is the one in and through whom God’s kingdom is dawning in the world. Jesus is the King of God’s coming Kingdom (at least as that story is told in the Gospels).
Let’s bring this down to the ground level of the Biblical stories.
Jim rightly says that Jesus comes to do the will of the Father (John 6:38; cf. 4:34). But Jesus then turns, in chapter 6 of John, and immediately says, “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him will have eternal life” (6:40). The way in which people on earth faithfully respond to God is by faithfully responding to Jesus.
This is what I mean by Jesus coming to form a community around himself–to reject Jesus is to reject the Father, to accept Jesus is to accept the Father. This, in contrast to either everyone already being part of the people of God, in contrast to people being delineated the people of God simply by keeping Torah and faithfully worshiping according to the OT prescriptions, and in contrast to Jesus simply saying that the previously given covenant is sufficient to delineate God’s people.
Similarly, in a passage I discuss more than once in my book, Jesus says, in a statement that would seem to be to Jim’s point, “whoever does God’s will is my mother, sister, and brother” (Mark 3:34, CEB).
But how are these people worthy of the approval as those who “do God’s will”?
“Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, ‘Look, here are my mother and my brothers'” (Mark 3:34, CEB).
Sitting at Jesus’ feet, following Jesus, puts one within the will of God. Jesus does form a community around himself. Following him becomes the defining marker of the people of God. Yes, it is the people of God, the Father, who are formed; yes, it is the will of God, the Father, that is done. But it is done by following Jesus.
It wasn’t about Jesus?
No, this we cannot say. Jesus places himself in the middle of everything–“Whoever hears these words of mine and does them…” (Matt 7); “Whoever is ashamed of me in this wicked and perverse generation…” (Mk 8); “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Lk 4); “He came to his own… To all who received him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Jn 4).
Though each Gospel tells its own story of Jesus, each agrees on this: Jesus is the way to the Father, the one in and through whom the people of God is being reformed. It is, of course, about God, because “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” says Jesus in John. Or, “Jesus was a man, testified to by God,” says Peter in Acts.
So while I don’t want to disagree with Jim that this mission is about the Father, I can’t see how the Gospel narratives allow for this mission to be about the Father without it being also about the son.