A Response to Bill Phipps's Vision of the Gospel

by Harris Athanasiadis

We affirm Phipps’s emphasis on justice, but not his failure to relate it to the other affirmations of the gospel which must undergird justice

It is a credit to Bill Phipps, Moderator of The United Church of Canada, that he has been honest about what he believes and what is important to him. Justice is important to him. The particular issue that concerns him most is the appalling reality of poverty in a nation of plenty. On this issue, we must applaud him. Moreover, he has moved beyond a basic reaction to this reality (which he rightly calls sin) to some deeper reflections.

First, he emphasizes how consistently poverty is addressed in the Bible and by Jesus. Jesus' whole ministry is among the poor and destitute, and he is not reserved in bringing the judgment of God to bear upon the rich, self-righteous and comfortable. Secondly, behind the reality of poverty in Canada, as elsewhere in the world, Phipps perceives the rule of powerful financial and corporate institutions as well as governments in representing their own interests rather than those of the most vulnerable citizens of society.

Unfortunately, Phipps seems unable to relate the basic issue of justice to some of the deeper affirmations of the gospel which must undergird justice. These are the divinity of Jesus and his bodily resurrection.

I believe in the divinity of Jesus and in his bodily resurrection. But I do not believe this simply because we have held them as Presbyterians for generations. We need to struggle, as Phipps does, with the reason and ground upon which we hold any belief. In a pluralistic, sceptical, cynical age such as ours, people will not simply take our word for any of our beliefs. We need to persuade them with intelligence and with the testimony of our Christianity.

Phipps's Christ is a bare-bones Christ. As such, Phipps can only offer the world a holy man and a model. But what about Jesus’ declaration of the forgiveness of sins? Any ordinary human being who claimed such extraordinary moral and spiritual authority would be considered arrogant and full of himself if not a crackpot.

Christ is the forgiveness of God to us. He reveals who God is and mediates God to us. On the cross, Jesus bore the sin of the world. He also became one with the suffering of all the victims of this world. It is when we share in this suffering, absorbing it to its depths in Jesus, that God is then able credibly to forgive us for our contribution, actively or by neglect, to the oppression of the weak of the world. In and through Jesus, God becomes one with those who suffer, and their suffering is taken up into the heart of God.

Without knowing the forgiving love of God in Jesus, and receiving it with humble, penitent hearts, how can we -- confused, compromised and complacent -- have the power and inspiration to deny ourselves and live out of love and for justice? How can we be empowered and renewed to fight against material poverty if the forgiving love of God, mediated to us through Jesus, does not transform our poverty of spirit?

The issue over Jesus’ bodily resurrection seems to be an issue of whether we can believe that resurrection is possible at all. Simply spiritualizing it can make it more palatable to our age, but also innocuous and easily reduced to being merely a predicate of our imagination. Anyone who appreciates the biblical, Hebraic view of reality (as Phipps claims to do) cannot deny that body and spirit may be distinguished but never separated. Either Jesus was raised from the dead, body and spirit, or he was not. There is no half-way point. Resurrection is resurrection.

The resurrection experience of the disciples may have been spiritually transformative for them, but it was also rooted in a visible, physical witness of the risen Christ. The Apostle Paul may speak profoundly about the spiritual union of the Christian with the crucified, risen Christ, but this also has definite physical implications not least of which is the resurrection, in spirit and body, of believers after death. In both the physical and spiritual dimensions, the believer’s faith is rooted in the resurrecting power of God made actual through the Holy Spirit, rather than in some subjective experience of the imagination.

Indeed, we must ask why it is any less miraculous to believe that those trampled upon in life, abused, hurt deeply or in deep suffering can experience a resurrection in their being through a living faith in the risen Christ. Is it any less miraculous that those hardened by the brutal circumstances that befall many in this world can be transformed by love to seek out repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Is it any less miraculous that those wounded deeply in life can be moved to forgive and find room in their hearts for gratitude and joy? For those who have witnessed such transformation in themselves or others, Christ is no phantom of the imagination. To them, Christ is a living, active presence who seeks to draw all of life into the tender circle of his love.

It takes courage to have faith. It takes courage to struggle to understand and articulate our faith with intelligence and integrity. Watering down the faith to make it more acceptable to our age shortchanges this struggle which is necessary for all who seek a deeper spiritual foundation for their activism in the world. Let us affirm Phipps's vision of justice. But let us do so through the inspiration and empowerment of the living Christ: crucified yet risen, divine yet Emmanuel -- God with us!

Harris Athanasiadis is the minister of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, Don Mills, Ont. This article was first printed in the Presbyterian Record, national magazine of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Reproduced here with permission of the author.