Unfortunately, that’s where it ends for many. Jesus is their Savior and provider of eternal life. The purpose of their faith is to secure a place in heaven. The Gospel story is simply a series of acts carried out by God to solve the problem of our death and subsequent judgment.
This is all true, as far as it goes, but I think it goes much farther than that. There is more to this story than just solving our death problem. The life and death of Jesus is also about solving our life problem. And let’s be honest, there is much in our common life that needs solving.
It all begins in a single theological idea known as the incarnation — God in the flesh. That idea is as troubling now to thinking people as it was 2,000 years ago. The first group of believers were as astonished to be saying “God in the flesh” as their audience was to be hearing it. It just doesn’t make any sense at any level of rationality.
Of course, that’s because it is not a rational concept. The idea that God became flesh is a confession of faith, in fact a leap of faith. But it is not merely an exercise in theological gymnastics. Believing that God became flesh is an important and profound entry point for learning how we are supposed to live.
You see, not only was Jesus God, but for a moment God was human. And in that moment we were given a glimpse of what human life is supposed to look like. In that moment of incarnation, Jesus taught us how to be the sort of people God had hoped we would be from the beginning.
Amazingly, in some corners of the Christian world, the teachings of Jesus are treated as almost optional. They are characterized as not “essential to salvation.” Salvation, defined as life after death, comes “by faith alone” and not by works. But the biblical meaning of salvation is more than just something that happens in the afterlife. Jesus had some definite ideas about the conduct of our present life, and for that his teachings are essential.
In his teaching, Jesus offers us a vision of what it is like to live in an authentic human community. This community is characterized by a willingness to share resources and to care for the weak and vulnerable. In this community we trust God for our daily bread while forgiving those who act against us. And in this community we are challenged to relinquish violence and transform our enemies into friends by loving them.
By making the life and death of Jesus only about the afterlife, we miss this deeper meaning of the incarnation. In Jesus, God has revealed humanity’s purpose. In his life, as the old creeds go, we find life. Not just for later, but also for now. And the key is in the words Jesus has spoken. That’s why God took special care to say, “This is my Son — listen to him.”
And that’s why we say, He is risen. He is risen, indeed.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn. E-mail: email@example.com.