Cherith Fee Nordling is Associate Professor of Theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. She earned her PhD in 2003 from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

From the beginning God has wanted his people to bear his image.

Edited transcript

JMF: You’re working on two books in the final stages of production. Could you tell us about the second one?

CFN: Yes. It’s less than final as far as the publisher is concerned, but I would love to tell you about it. The book has come into being because of the kinds of conversations that I’ve had with students over the last seven or eight years. I began to discover some concerns that were deeply problematic in my own receiving the life of Jesus for me. It was always this “idea” that I kept trying to cling to, instead of someone that I really knew, who I could see as a person standing for me.

The book is emerging out of some lively conversations, and maybe that’s a good way for books to be written. Sometimes I’m wondering why theologians ever write books. It seems like we’ve already said everything. This book won’t be anything new, but it will be revisiting why the humanity of Jesus actually matters. That has come out of conversations with students where either they have such a deeply held sense of Jesus’ divinity, that the idea that he truly is like us (let alone continues to be like us as we will be) is hard for them to believe and to trust, let alone try to get their heads around.

The opposite extreme is that his humanity becomes something that they keep trying to generalize so that he just becomes the person that we can kind of retrofit into all of our own experience, instead of his life being what it is, which is that my life isn’t your life, and your life isn’t my life, and his life isn’t my life either. It really is his life that he has lived.

The conversation that started to generate some of this came around the recognition of students realizing that they had a deep ambivalence about their own humanity. As we would discuss God being one who was saving their whole person, they were quick to discover that they weren’t sure that they wanted their whole person saved.

JMF: And by whole person you mean…

CFN: It’s like the fun phrase that Karl Barth uses when he tries to talk about us as embodied souls. The very next sentence he’ll use the term ensouled bodies or souled bodies, because he doesn’t want us to see one prioritizing the other. To be a person is somebody who is constituted this way. There is no way for us to be the deep inner-core soul person that we are, that does not have its physical male or female manifestation. This is what it means to be Cherith. There is no other Cherith who is trapped in this body or currently taking up residence in this body. Embodied Cherith, at her deepest, is all there is. I’m not just my body. There’s something that is deeply core that remains in terms of who I am with my new body. We’re landing in territory that’s hard to describe, so Barth plays those terms off of one another.

I discovered that like myself when I was younger and then through the course of having to deal with illness in my life and other ways of not taking my own body seriously—the limitations that it had, the struggles that I have, taking my femininity and femaleness seriously in relation to men and women, realizing that I had spent a lot of my life growing up in the church sort of neutering myself because I grew up in a household of all boys and had a mother who grew up in a household of all boys, so it was “try to be one of the boys.”

I was in worlds (in my many years in the law firm or in the church or the academy) that are mostly male-dominated worlds. To not use my femaleness in an inappropriate way, I always pretended I didn’t have any. “This is just my shell, but the real me is this person who you want to know.” That was unfaithful to the gospel, let alone unfaithful to real human relationships, and it forced me to not take responsibility for myself and what my sons were learning about how to honor women and men well, and how to help them talk through some of those kinds of things.

I had students who were saying, “I’m not sure that I can get past the shame of my embodied life” or, “I’m 20 and a healthy male and I don’t know how to think about women in an embodied sense that doesn’t trip me up or get me caught.” And, “I can’t wait to get to heaven and not have a body and not have to worry about how to think about stuff like this.”

I started to realize, “Instead of people who follow an incarnate Lord in freedom, we are quietly Gnostic in a way that tries to negate our humanity.” Then we let Jesus be a lot more docetic, or the Jesus who shows up in human form, or fills a human body—whatever these ancient heresies are (whether it’s Apollinarianism, or these different kinds of terms that came from people in the church trying to relieve the tension of saying that this one is the God-man, that this one is Yahweh in the flesh).

Because those things were so hard to hold together, these heresies (which always happen inside the community of faith—outside they are just something completely other), but it’s people within the community of faith saying, “Let’s make him a little more human and a little less divine, so we can trust that what he did, he did as an authentic human being, because otherwise it’s God just taking over his will and his mind.”

Or on this side, people are saying, “We know that the material world isn’t very good and God would never taint himself to really be like me, so I think he just poured himself into that human form and then got rid of it as soon as he could.” Most of us don’t get walked through the heresies that were lively debates in the life of the church in the early first centuries. They were always trying to figure out how…we’re trying to say this thing—have we said it faithfully enough without locking it down? Because we can’t lock this thing down and really get our heads around it, but we know that we must say that he is God and that he is truly a man.

I would sit in class, and watch and study these things, and ask my students, “Go back to your church background and tell me which of these heresies is the most common in your youth group, which is the most common that you think happens in the worship life, or your hymnody—where do we tell the story about Jesus in a way that releases the tension and causes us to see him as two people—so he’s the divine Son and then he’s Jesus of Nazareth, and somehow they got crazy-glued together (well, that’s another heresy!) …and all the ways that the church was trying to say, “What can we actually say?”

If we give even the slightest bit on either side of those, the story falls apart, we don’t have God present to us, and I can’t really trust that my humanity is redeemed and whole and kept in the presence of God by somebody who knows my story intimately and is for me in that story.

JMF: In spite of that story.

CFN: In spite of it. He actually heals that story – becomes the person who enters the human condition and becomes my lived healing by his very life. Lots of “on the ground” questions you deal with, with young adults, and they are trying to sort it out. It’s like, “How do you not fantasize sexually about somebody, as somebody who’s really trying to follow Jesus and who would take a lead from Jesus on this, and to trust him about ‘what does it mean to let this man or woman become a person again?’ How would you do that instead of let them be an object (which is what your culture is constantly asking you to do, is to objectify them and to de-personalize them for your gratification or for them to sell you something or whatever else is going on). How do you become one who is the image-bearer of God, who restores their personhood, without pretending you’re not a man who is aroused by them or a woman who’s aroused by that man?” How do you become obedient in your humanity – which is very different than pretending you don’t have any.

We would engage in some of these deep questions. In the process of doing that, I asked them to begin to hand in assignments that became reflections that were not prose. They weren’t written papers. They had to be things that showed me in some other form—I don’t give any restrictions around what it had to be—both their own body map and a God map. Not that you can completely categorize either, yourself or God, but how, through a tiny lens, how do you see yourself right now? What is your sense of your embodied person, and how do you see God? These were deeply far apart, because the incarnation wasn’t the way that they saw God first. God was the big far-away God, or the wrath of God, or the confusing God, or the God that you hoped liked you most of the time.

One student handed in her God map as a bottle of oil and balsamic vinegar. The instructions were to shake it up as hard as I could, and for that one instant that it looks like these things are held together, she said the oil represents the goodness of God, and the vinegar represents the wrath of God. “I can’t figure out how to hold those things together and trust that he really loves me, because I have this deep sense of his wrath.” She says, “I can hold it for just about as long as those things look like they’re mixed.”

To look at her way of perceiving herself by the kinds of things that she would draw or paint or construct, I realized that our poor sense of Jesus’ embodied life for us had deep ramifications, for these students would confess within their works – they would do their addictions, their self-mutilation, their sexual abuse that became part of their past story that they never felt like they could be released from, all kinds of issues that they felt like they carried with them, and they had no idea how to be that embodied human and trust that that was good news—that God loved that person, and that one, and pulls that person, me, this way—into the divine fellowship.

In the process of doing the word of acceptance and receiving me, is a word of reconciling, restoring and healing. Already before God, all that’s broken, it’s me who bears the effects of my brokenness, who has not yet seen what I look like when I’m finished. But he does. The parts that I don’t know what to do with in my brokenness, he also sees through his Son, and his Son mediates as my high priest, and the Spirit intercedes for me that anguish of being caught in “the already and the not yet.” The empower­ment, the worship, and the joy that Jesus offers on my behalf and that the Spirit offers on my behalf….

This book is trying to get to the core of why Jesus’ humanity matters every day, so that issues of justice do not become “topics of interest,” if I happen to be somebody who’s all about social justice or I’m all about creation care, or I’m all about immigrant issues, or I’m about this, or I’m about that. You are a human image-bearer who is already being called to enact the future that’s coming, where God’s justice and reign, and the flourishing of creation is finally the way it is, where you finally get your life back, and so does everything else (referring to Romans 8 – that you are already the person that creation is holding on by its fingertips waiting for the glory of the children of God to be revealed, because once we get our lives back, so does everything else).

When Paul keeps going with that metaphor, he says, “What is the redemption, what is this glory, what is this thing that you anticipate? It’s the redemption of your body.” You’re going to get your life back, and you’re going to be whole! We’re not going to be broken and screwed up anymore! Imagine relating to your husband and loving him the way you want to, instead of the way you do, Cherith. Those are my biggest dreams and joys, to think, I will love people the way I really want to. I will stop defending and hiding for fear that people will not love me if they really knew me. There will be a transparency in relationship that I cannot wait for.

We have been called as a people to begin to practice resurrection…we are called to begin to enact for the sake of the world, the story that we’re in, so they see what’s already going on and where this finally ends up as a new beginning in this final restoration of all things. It has a very practical aspect, and it allows the chance to go into some of these fascinating and wonderful lively church conversations.

These heresies or creedal constructs were in academic conversations. These were… “What do people say when they get baptized? What do we mean when we invite people into the life of God and to be followers of Jesus and to this new creation? What are we actually saying?” One side would find themselves saying one thing, and somebody else over here is saying another… When we say these things, we are trying to articulate in short form in a little confession or a creed that somebody will say… “I believe this whole big narrative story, and here are the bullet points.”

Those became life-and-death conversations. If you change that one word by this letter, it means something completely different, and it’s an iota of difference, and you’re saying either Jesus is God, or he is just sort of like God but not really God. These were deep conversations with deep ramifications in the everyday life of the community of the saints back then. They still are; we are unpracticed and unlearned at thinking through the implications of who Jesus really is. I speak for myself and my own church traditions—it’s easy to keep going back to the familiar and just seeing what we know, without going into the part that’s harder to say. We know what we need to profess, what we’re called to be witness to, what we’re called to say in worship.

At this stage I fall into doxology and worship and praise because I can’t explain it as a creature-child – I just have to celebrate it, because it defines everything about my life. I look forward to seeing how this book finally comes into its final stages. It’s also a book about “What does it mean to walk by the power of the Holy Spirit?” What does it mean to walk as people who are not just to model (which is never the word…to look at Jesus as some figure that I’m supposed to try to copy, which is impossible in my own strength and impossible to understand)…but to say “What would it mean to really be joined to what he’s doing?” – which is always about justice, about the restoration of creation, about the care for the poor and the alien and the stranger, always for the other, always on the side of all these things, because all these things are already under his reign and his rule.

If they’re already all-mattering to him and he would like to have something to say and do about them, where would he look but his human image-bearers, where he would say, “This is what I’d like to do about this today, Cherith, would you like to participate with me, would you like to play?” Or he’d say, “You know, Mike, this is what I’d like to do.”

Sometimes it will look astounding because healing will break in, new creation will already break through… Anytime he talks about it, breaking through the concrete of the old creation comes this grass of new life. It will look like that sometimes. Other times it’s that constant sense in Paul and Peter and John where it’s the call to be filled with the Spirit in order to walk this incredibly challenging witness, to walk in these places where God wants to go, which is in the place of suffering—to talk into the places that he has claimed as his own, which is to stand with people in their pain and to make their need my need and to endure the suffering that’s part of my own life instead of rail against God or run away from it.

He promised that I would participate in the fellowship of his glory, but glory for him, according to John 12, starts when he turns his face to Jerusalem and begins that final week of his life. It says, “And then Jesus was glorified.” The glory and participation in his fellowship is suffering…so our participation in the fellowship of his suffering. These things are not one or the other. It’s not “I want some glory, so I’m going to have to have a little suffering because Jesus suffered.”

Jesus has been trying to turn this around for me and say, “Cherith, I suffered because you do. I’ve entered into your situation. I knew what was coming for you. I know the human condition. I knew you would have this. And the only way for your story to turn out with a different ending than having that suffering be the final word, is to enter into your suffering and take it and heal it and redeem it, so that when you are in the midst of it, you see it as a participation in the fellowship of mine and you know the outcome, and you know that I can empower you to endure that, just as the Father by the Spirit empowered me all the way to and through the cross.” It’s become an earthy conversation in some wonderful ways. I am hoping by getting the book out there, that it will also create a lot more dialogue on some of these issues.

JMF: The sense of belonging and of being accepted from the beginning, and knowing that that comes before your life in the Spirit and before measuring up to anything (as though we could measure up to anything) seems to give a sense of freedom. We are able to enter into this suffering knowing that it isn’t a matter of a pass/fail, it’s a matter of you’re already belonging, you’re already accepted, and you’re entering into a life that is real and will work out right because it’s already been claimed and healed and redeemed. It makes all the difference. Many people fear, as you said, “I don’t know if I can measure up. I don’t want to embark on a journey I know I can’t finish or don’t believe I can finish.”

CFN: Or see failure at the end of every day.

JMF: Right.

CFN: That’s part of the challenge that gets addressed in Romans 7-8. Romans 7 is never Paul’s description of the Christian life. Let’s talk about three laws… If we’re going to use the term law (because we get that term, because we all used to be under that law…) how about naming sin and death a law, because it always turns out that way? This is the way it goes. So we have this law of Torah-keeping, we have this law of sin and death that absolutely cannot be…and we have this new law of the Spirit, as Jeremiah called it (or Ezekiel or Isaiah calls it). He says that to walk under this new law is to be set free from this condemnation that comes with… “I thought I would be able to pull it off, and yet again I blew it. Who will deliver me from this?”

Paul is saying, “Nothing from those two laws will ever deliver you from that, but in the Spirit, every day, by continuing to trust and release and invite God.” You don’t have to invite him to be present – it’s almost just letting him loose. It’s letting him have the moment. To say, “Lord, I won’t constrict you. I will listen when you talk to me and stop, and when I’ve prayed earlier today, ‘Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil,’ when you try to do that for me, I will listen to you and not go into my default setting or not go the easiest place of my kind of bent-ness.”

Over time, God begins to take that bent-ness and straighten it into conformity with his Son, which is an obedient submission, which is a “What are we doing today, and how do I be a part of that?” I’ll have things all through every day that need forgiving, but the Lord already knows that before I woke up, and he isn’t inviting me or not inviting me in based on how well I’m going to do today, I’m just in.

He says, as my dad used to say, and still does, “God has never been about the business of fitting individuals for heaven. He has been about the business of making a people for his name and presence.” He has done that through his Son, and nobody can alter that outcome, nobody can alter that reality. Either we can participate in it more and more and get on board with what the possibilities are by our life in the Spirit for the other…and realize it’s not a triumphalism of, “I get more and more power to see things look easier or amazing.”

Sometimes what looks amazing and gets easier is to just keep loving the person who makes you crazy, to love the person who is the most painful person in your life, to love yourself when you’re that person who is the most unlovable person. And to watch the power of God begin to enter in as a choice of love again and again, and it becomes the radical participation in the life of the Holy Spirit that will sometimes look like healing and sometimes look like endurance. It will look like suffering long, which is the character of God for those that he loves no matter what they do, whether they even recognize that.

The beauty of the gospel that comes in Triune form is that when Jesus shows up and says, “I’d like to introduce you to the Father and I’d like to give you the life that we have together by the Spirit.” The minute that offering is laid out there, there is nothing anyone has done or could possibly do to have earned that invitation. When he is offers that through his own life, there is also nothing anyone can do to run out the warranty on that offering. There’s nothing where that eternal-life insurance policy gets cancelled. There’s nothing that can stop that from being the way it is, because it’s grounded in God, not me, and my humanity is completely grounded in that, because Jesus holds my humanity in his own.

I know how this turns out because he’s right there with me and he’s saying, “Cherith, you don’t have to wait for the future, would you like to be part of what I am doing today in my reigning, in my standing in as a priest for the sake of the other before the Lord? Would you like to be an intercessor on behalf of… Would you like to go minister to the needs of… Would you like to stand for justice because I am the ruler over all things?” That means you have to stop and take the time to say, “That is not okay” instead of saying “well, that’s sort of inconvenient for me, or as an American I feel entitled to it,” or whatever it is.

He is saying, “I am Prophet, Cherith, which means that if you want to participate in that, then you need to tell the truth, and you need to be the first person who hears the truth as you tell it, which means that your life has to be conformed to the things that I am telling you. You can be a proclaimer of the gospel because that’s what I am doing, is giving out the good news. You can be an enactor of justice because that’s what I’m doing, is restoring all things for life and for good. I am being your high priest, and if you would like to be among the priesthood of believers, which you are, and offer worship through these different ways that I would invite you into this day that looks different than anybody else, and in some ways looks the same as everybody else every day, then you get to be doing what I’m doing until we’re finished, and you’re lodged in your whole new way of being human with me.”

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 7:24 PM