Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Is Jesus Worth Believing In?

Is Jesus the "son of Joseph, whose mother and father we know?" Or is he the one who has "come down from heaven?" In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:35, 41-51) we read that that was a question on the minds of the crowd who was following him, trying to understand his confusing, other-worldly preaching. I'll suggest, however, that it's a question for today, too. Who is Jesus? Is he a purely historical figure--the archaeologically verifiable Jesus of Nazareth who was the focus of the Jesus Seminar and whose legend grew as the faithful shared increasingly exaggerated stories about their master? Or is he really and truly the Jesus of the gospel--the one who "was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary?"

As mainline denominations see declining attendance and declining relevance in popular culture, it may be tempting to conclude that the old hallmarks of our faith need to change. "Surely the 'nones' are fleeing organized religion because we hold onto ridiculous, unbelievable doctrines like the virgin birth and the physical resurrection," one might say. "Our church is a progressive, non-confessional approach to faith--we're the perfect antidote to old-time religion!" But Tom Petty's "You believe what you wanna believe" is no way to call people to discipleship in Jesus Christ. It is a dead end--in more ways than one--and I pray our church will recover its passion for a faith built on the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. Anything else is just fluff.

Jesus said to the people, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." Jesus' teachings are remarkable. Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. Sell all your possessions. Blessed are the poor. The meek shall inherit the earth. Whether Christian or not, those are principles worth holding on to. They are a good way for structuring one's life. But then what? What about everything else? What about what comes next--after this well-lived, polite, egalitarian existence? What will nourish the soul for the cosmic journey that has no end?

If Jesus was only a wise teacher--a carpenter's son from Galilee whose interpretation of the Jewish law and human nature have garnered him followers for two thousand years--we, his followers, are most of all to be pitied. I don't know about you, but I'm not in this for the merit badge. I'm not in it for my epitaph (with God's help). I'm looking for the kind of help that lasts. I'm looking for a lifeboat that carries me beyond the troubles of this life. I'm looking for a savior--not a guru.

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." Never is an awfully long time. What could possible guarantee everlasting satisfaction like that? What sort of teaching (or teacher) could be so bold as to claim to provide never-ending nourishment? If we're not upholding a faith that offers that kind of sustenance, then we've abandoned the gospel in favor of "better living through philosophy." And that can only feed us until the bottom falls out.

I believe that the world needs a savior. I believe that the world wants a love that will not end. I believe that the "nones" want to be a part of something that matters--something that lasts longer than the latest diet or self-help fad. Of course we must adapt our presentation of the gospel to reflect contemporary culture's rejection of unquestionable belief. We can not present Christianity as a "take it or leave it" panacea to which we control access. But Jesus didn't present it that way either. We must invite the world to discover a savior who isn't interested in providing food for the stomach--which is to say relief for today--but who came down from heaven as the bread of life--which is to say the source of abundant, never-ending life.

Discipleship doesn't mean learning the teachings of Jesus and adopting them as a rule of life. That can only last until you screw it up--an inevitability. Following Jesus means letting go of our effort and clinging to his. Discipleship means following Jesus through the death of all that we have and all that we are and all that we have tried to do and clinging to the new life only he can give us. Jesus didn't come to give us a good life now. He came to bring us into God's kingdom. The only way to get beyond this life and discover the promise of the next is to understand that Jesus Christ is more than just a teacher. He is God-incarnate. In him God took upon himself all that is wrong with our life so that it and we might be transformed through his death and resurrection. If his life were just a model and his death were just a rallying cry, Christianity is worthless in the eternal sense. If our message is really the good news, it must start and end with the gospel.

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