May 10, 2009
?Fifth Sunday After Easter (B)
In my other job I’m a college professor, teaching courses in Bible, theology and ministry. As chair of my department, it recently fell to me to develop the lectures, visuals and exams to be used by all faculty teaching our general education courses of Old and New Testament survey and basic Christian theology. Driving this project was our president’s concern that the majority of the students walking our urban campus hallways were biblically and theologically illiterate. I was asked to simplify the message somehow without dumbing it down.
If you knew me well, you might assume that such a task suited me perfectly. My doctorate is in Practical Theology, with a concentration in homiletics. For years now the literature in my field has championed user-friendly methods and plain-spoken messages. Until assigned that academic project, I warily accepted the former and gladly endorsed the latter. I understood theological terms and even knew how to use them in a sentence; but I purposely shied away from voicing them prematurely in a sermon, if at all, and told my students to do likewise.
A strange thing happened along the way. The harder I worked at simplifying those archaic theological terms, the more I became convinced of their importance and value. I have since grown concerned about the prospect of what the church will lose if she stops altogether using her theological vocabulary. I fear that far too many of my students think that because they know that God loves us, Jesus died for us, and if we ask Him Jesus will save us, that they know all they need to know about spiritual things. Those who know a bit more because of their background in the church fare no better. There is an arrogance borne of ignorance that troubles me deeply.
The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t nearly as simple as one may think. The Ethiopian eunuch enjoyed the privilege of hearing it expounded by the apostles in Jerusalem; yet, on his way back home to the palace of Queen Candace, the words of Isaiah sloshed around as confusedly in his mind as the scrolls that bounced violently on his knees. He couldn’t even make enough sense of what he read to know whether the prophet was describing himself or some other. Around the time he may have been ready to give up, Philip ran alongside his chariot and, invited to enter, became in the words of Dr. Robert Smith Jr., the man’s “exegetical escort.” Philip began where the man was in Isaiah’s scroll,
Philip spoke of propitiation, a bloody term that drips from the phrase “as a sheep to the slaughter.” Propitiation is that act whereby divine wrath is appeased. It’s a bloody term in Scripture because there is no appeasement without bloodshed (
Philip spoke of expiation, a wooly term that grows from the phrase “a lamb dumb before his shearer.” Expiation is that act whereby guilt is covered. Adam attempted to cover his guilt with fig leaves only to discover that all such human attempts at expiation are doomed to failure. God Himself must provide the sacrifice that provides an acceptable covering (
Philip used the word humiliation, an earthy term used in
Philip used the word generation, a lively term signifying birth and that which is begotten. From the death of Christ sprang new life, as a buried seed produces a living tree.
If you think you’ve heard it all or know it all already, let your mind be staggered again by the impact of those weighty concepts that are packed into the terms propitiation, expiation, humiliation and generation. They’re enough to knock you out of your chariot and onto your knees.
May 10, 2009