The Easter season is upon us. It’s often a time when the curious ask questions about Jesus and Christianity, sometimes in tones of skeptical cynicism. Here are a few words that might be helpful in answering them. Feel free to use it, making whatever changes you think appropriate. They are simple words intended to make sense to people who know very little about Christianity, but are curious enough to ask questions. A final note: I use ‘he’ in single quotes as a pronoun for God knowing that God has no gender. God’s desire for intimate relationship with us, and our desire for the same with ‘him,’ demands a pronoun unavailable in English. ‘She’ would work just as well, use it if you want.
A problem with Christianity is its unbelievability. Two bookends bracket it. One is Jesus’ birth, and the other is his resurrection. Neither can be explained within the context of human knowledge or experience. They are holy mysteries to be lived into, not solved.
Jesus is not a mythological figure. He was born in a real place at a real time in history; born of a virgin who had never had sexual intercourse with anyone at the time of his conception. To claim that God caused her to become pregnant is frequently met with ridicule, and reminders of fantastical tales about lustful gods who once upon a time sired demigods by seducing young women. However, God is the source of being and life, creator and sustainer of all that is, whether seen or unseen. ‘He’ is the God of history, not mythology. God is without form and beyond knowing, except as ‘he’ chooses to reveal ‘himself’ to us. Even the word God is only a placeholder for the holy name that no one knows. We don’t have language to explain the power of God to create and sustain all that is, so we use the ‘Word of God’ as another placeholder to substitute for what we are unable to name or understand. What we do know is that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, born of the virgin Mary, which is not a very big deal for the one who brought the universe into being.
There’s no point in getting into a debate about exactly how Jesus is both human and divine. Theologians have spent centuries trying to resolve it – in the end, it’s another holy mystery to be lived into. Suffice it to say that Jesus is all of God that can be portrayed in human form. St. Paul, writing to the new Christians of Colossae (in modern western Turkey) said that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Col. 1) Jesus was equally a human being who experienced life’s joys and difficulties just as we do. An observant Jew, he was born, grew up, and worked as a carpenter before engaging in his public ministry.
His resurrection is another holy mystery. When he was about 33 years old, Jesus was tried for blasphemy and executed as an enemy of the Roman Empire. He was buried in a sealed and guarded tomb. That’s attested to by holy scripture and the historical records of the time. Nevertheless, on the third day his tomb was found empty. His followers, men and women, several hundred of them, reported that he appeared to them, talked with them, ate with them, he touched and was touched by them, but not as not the same Jesus they had known. Now his godliness was fully revealed.
What’s the point? Why all the drama? Christians say that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. There are many ways to understand what that means, but in the end, and in spite of our selfish, violent ways, God was determined to save us from the disasters and death of our own devices. By his death, Jesus submitted to the ignominious end of would be saviors whose memory is soon forgotten, a trouble maker gotten rid of. By his resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that neither the state nor death had power over him. His resurrection proved that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. Was all that crucifixion, burial and resurrection necessary? Yes, because without it we would not believe it. Some things have to be seen and experienced. The point is, God revealed ‘himself’ only in part through the prophets of Israel, but God was made fully known in Jesus because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. He lighted the path to life in abundance that begins here and now, and leads through death to life everlasting. What makes Jesus different from other prophets and sages? He is the Word of God made flesh; his is the ultimate authority; there is no other and none higher. What he said and did is true because he is truth itself.
Sadly, it needs to be repeated that God is not only the God of the Jews and their gentile Christian step-siblings. God, the source of all that is whether seen or unseen, is the God of all creation. There are no exceptions. Christians know with certainty that the Word of God made flesh is Jesus, there is no other, and that through Jesus all of creation will be saved from itself, but how he does that is not for us to know. Therefore, we are not entitled to exclude any person or people from the saving acts of God. We are simply called to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, inviting all who are willing to walk with us on the path Jesus has set before us.
What that path looks like, and what we are to do as we walk on it, is contained between the bookends of Jesus’ birth on one end and his death and resurrection on the other. It is a path defined by love, healing, reconciliation, non-violence, and justice. And the Church? What is the Church, and why do we need it? Christians following in the Way of Love are called into communities of fellowship with one another. The Church, in its many forms, is the institution through which religious faith is expressed in community. As with any institution, it’s often failed and is always in need of reformation. Nevertheless, it’s persevered through the ages as the vehicle through which faithful people have carried the light of Christ that darkness cannot extinguish. Buildings and hierarchy aside, the Church is the community of those who want to follow Jesus. In the Church, they are nourished with whatJesus’ words, and strengthened for the journey with holy food and drink of new and unending life.