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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Do You Say That I Am?

 “We don’t need God anymore.”[1] Our culture holds belief in God to be, at best, a fanciful myth of a primitive pre-enlightenment people or, at worst, the cause of most of the atrocities of recent history. In the face of this range of responses, trending from amused indifference to indignant hostility, the question of the significance of the person of Jesus Christ to the modern world isn’t a mere academic exercise: it shines a blinding light upon the heart of the modern culture and on the struggle of the Church to either be relevant or be ruthlessly discarded and forgotten by that same culture. If this Jesus that we profess, if the message that he has entrusted to us, is to be anything more than a caricature from an dusty tome, the answer has to be loud and clear if it is to be heard at all.

Jesus is a person. Not an individual, but a person. An individual is a lonely, pathetic thing, a solitary, unconnected unit, but a person is a being that relates to others, connects with others, forms bonds and relationships and is faithful to others. It is part of our human nature to develop relationships. We are a social creature that longs to be with each other and that finds joy in companionship and relationship. Our relationship with each other is based on dialog, with intimate communication that reveals and accepts ourselves from one to another. Jesus, as a person, is like us. He is a man like us who by virtue of his presence among us can enter into a dialog that produces a relationship.[2] He is a man like us, with the same struggles and desires, the same hopes and fears, the same joys and sorrows. “He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind, acted by human choice and loved with a human heart.”[3] Jesus knew every human limitation and every human freedom that we experience. But unlike us, he is also God. Jesus is the divine man, unique in all of history. The expression of his divinity is this: he was a man like us in all things but sin.[4] He was a man like us in all things but one thing. If we eliminate everything but that one thing, if we take away everything that he holds in common with us, then what we're left with is his divinity: he did not sin, he forgave sin, he healed sin, and he conquered sin. In his power over sin, the person of Jesus, the divine man, relates to us sin-besotted beings in a unique way, not as a judge or an executioner, but as a divine-human sojourner who, unique in all who travel this earth, extends to others the healing power over sin.

Jesus calls to us. His is not a voice from the past, a distant echo of a long forgotten shout, but a voice heard in the here and now, at this very moment. He calls to us, beckons us to come to him. “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”[5] He calls us to repentance, to metanoia, to the fundamental changing of one’s mind that is not merely an exchange of like for like but is rather a radical conversion to God, an uprooting of all that we cherish and value. In answering his call, we exchange our existence for something completely new and different. Not satisfied with merely remodeling our human existence, with subtle and incremental change, he instead strikes at the root of all that afflicts us. His call to conversion takes aim squarely at what ails us, at what keeps us from him and from each other. Sin, death, disease, poverty, hatred, ostracism, chaos, and confusion are all evils he firmly rejects. But not satisfied with simply rejecting that which is evil, he offers us in his life the very alternatives to these evils: life, mercy, peace, simplicity, healing, virtue, and understanding. This he does “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."[6] Moreover, as we gather around him, answering his call to come and to convert, he extends to us his own hospitality. His hospitality extends to all, is open to all, regardless of whom or what they are. In his example we truly see a new kingdom where “God and man at table are sat down.”[7] In following him, in answering his call, he asks of us to imitate him, to follow him wherever he goes and to do whatever he does, to continue to allow him to call to us, to beckon to us wherever we are, and to continue always to change our hearts and minds. Thus we continually gather around him and sit down with him in hospitality and fellowship.

Jesus offers us salvation. There is not much to recommend a transformed life if it just leads to the same end that life has always had, to suffering and death and permanent loss. The transformed life he offers is much more than mere window dressing on an otherwise futile existence. As the events of his life demonstrate, he leads us to eternal life itself. Jesus has saved us, he is saving us now, and he offers to us the hope of salvation.

Jesus has saved us. By coming to live among us, he has given our fragile human nature a new existence, a hope that it never had. His incarnation among us redefined our lives and our deaths in a wholly unexpected way. Humanity and divinity have been forever joined together in a new creation. Likewise, his passion has united God with our own sufferings. His passion illustrates the nature of salvation in the kingdom of God. Living the kingdom leads to self-sacrifice, death to one’s self, taking up the cross, suffering, and finally dying with Christ. By hanging next to “the outcasts that were central to his ministry,”[8] Jesus promises heaven, salvation, from the cross. Thus, Jesus reveals the power of the cross in that moment, by demonstrating “how salvation is available to the community through the crucified and risen Lord.”[9] By taking up our cross and following Jesus, we too participate in the saving act. However, his saving act did not end with death. In his resurrection, he displays the great transformation that leads to life. The transformed life that he offers to us has the power to make even us poor souls into images of Jesus himself. “Frightened, guilty, and confused disciples were gradually transformed and became empowered by the Spirit of the Lord to proclaim the good news to the world.”[10] It was the experience of the transformed, resurrected Christ that in turn transformed the apostles. In each of His post-resurrection interactions with the disciples, Jesus did not cure anyone, or relate a parable, or feed a multitude. All the time that he was with them before His passion and death seemingly did little to change them – as soon as he was gone, they started to drift back to their old selves, their old ways of life. It was presence of the resurrected Christ that truly made Simon into Peter and doubting Thomas into believing Thomas.

Jesus is saving us now. The present state of our life cries out for salvation. Drugs, alcohol, and anti-depressants are used in such large quantities for a reason. They are inadequate substitutes for the justice, peace, freedom, and love that we crave. Jesus acts here and now to heal our sin and our painful separation from God and each other. Jesus continues the work of salvation through the members of his body who are his hand in the world. His work of salvation continues through his word being proclaimed daily. His disciples in this day and age continue to call our attention to those things that keep us from God. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.”[11] The followers of Jesus are sent to spread the news of the resurrection, of salvation in the here and now, not only in the past, to the outcast, the beggar, the unwanted and unloved. They have an advocate, a voice, in Jesus and in us.

Jesus offers to us the hope of salvation. We live in a kingdom that is now and not yet. Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God and he also taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come.” Our salvation is now and is a thing still hoped for, an eschatological hope that at the end of our lives, salvation awaits as we persist in answering his call and following him. “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” While the end of our world comes for each of us by turn, while inevitable death still comes for us, we still yet wait in hope, hoping to persevere until the end, because of his promise to us.

Jesus forms us as a community. His call to us, across time and space, gathers his followers together and forms a community. His Church is an intentional community that is being added to, renewed, and reinvigorated by the new additions, passing on what has been held to be true. It is a community that is directed towards salvation through the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus gives us work to do. He gives to us the gift of the work of salvation. It is our work to heal the effects of sin; restore people to their proper dignity, and make people whole again in body and soul. Our work is not purely spiritual or metaphysical, but includes both tangible reality and spiritual reality together as one. Ours is the work of saving ministry, announcing the kingdom of God, teaching the kingdom, living the kingdom by word and example, so that all who see us know that Jesus is truly present among us. We extend our presence out into the world, as an offer of help and friendship, so that others too may come to know Jesus in our lives and come to know him for themselves as he is.

Jesus sustains us. He did not abandon us. “I will be with you until the end of the age.”[12] His life and his salvation continue among us in our lives, in his word, in doing what we do in remembrance of him. His words continue to nourish us, restore us to right relationship with God, and uphold our spirits and bodies.

Despite our illusion of being sufficient unto ourselves, noble rugged individuals, there is underlying our self-confident swagger an unfulfilled desire for a sense of belonging, of being part of something larger than ourselves, whether it’s a family or a tribe or a community or a socially-conscious movement. At the same time that we long to belong, we are keenly aware of those things that keep us from belonging. We stand on the outside, looking in. We stand on separate shores, looking across the waters at each other, wondering what will bridge the gulf. Addiction, poverty, terror, ostracism, illness, sin, death, and our own self-absorption conspire against us, to keep us from truly being and from being together. Into this dilemma comes the person of Jesus Christ. He comes proclaiming the kingdom of God, a call from a person to a community to do saving work, all the while sustained by the very one who calls us. Are we truly listening?

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.
Hogarth, Jimmy. We Don't Need God Anymore. Comp. Jimmy Hogarth. 2006.
II, Pope John Paul. "Like Us in All Things Except Sin: General Audience February 3, 1988." Vatican web Site. February 3, 1988. (accessed April 23, 2009).
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Stamp, Robert J. God and Man at Table are Sat Down. 1972.

[1] Hogarth 2006
[2] Ratzinger 2004
[3] John Paul 1988
[4] Council of Chalcedon
[5] Matt 11:28
[6] Lk 19:10
[7] Stamp 1972
[8] Hill 2004
[9] Hill 2004
[10] Ibid
[11] Mat 28:19
[12] Mt 28:20