Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of 4 in a series on the Jesus of history.
Remember TV dinners? They surfaced in the '50s, but they became all the rage in the '80s once the microwave found its way into nearly every home. TV dinners weren't that good (nor were they well-made), but for a while it seemed they would last forever. Perhaps, if uneaten, they will last forever, as I am not sure they were even perishable.
The TV dinner is all about convenience. It is convenient, but it's also only OK. If you want to experience a meal that doesn't make you feel strangely unbalanced, there is no substitute for the inconvenience of using real ingredients.
If I am going to follow Jesus, I want to follow the real Jesus. I want to avoid developing a Jesus who is nothing more than a convenient imitation fashioned to be advantageous for my own self-promotion. That type of faith is sure to leave me perpetually unsatisfied.
In Part 2 of this series, I acknowledged what is perhaps the most troubling aspect of Jesus' self-description: He claimed to be God. Even if one believes the biblical record is embellished or even made up, the billions of people who have followed Him throughout history have essentially said, "I believe in a man who claimed to be THE God ... THE God walking around in human form." When put that way, being a follower of Jesus doesn't sound very safe.
But this self-description is not all Jesus said. In fact, unlike most of us, Jesus spent very little time talking about himself. The topic of most of his messages, and most of his parables, was something he called the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom, for Jesus, was the best way to describe what it means to fulfill the purpose for which you and I were created, and above anything else that purpose is to make the world know that the Creator himself is available to all. He wants to be involved in the big and small parts of our lives.
For Jesus, the Kingdom is what matters. For Jesus, the "Thou shalt nots" are important commands, but they are not the most important. In fact, Jesus takes things much further. His way is not about a handbook -- it's about the heart. Consider Jesus' reinterpretation of some well-known commandments:
Jesus says don't hate.
-Don't commit adultery? Jesus says don't lust.
-Don't divorce without a certificate? Jesus says honor your marriage covenant.
-Don't break your oaths? Jesus says true honesty makes oaths unnecessary.
-Eye for eye and tooth for tooth? Jesus says be the first to compromise.
-Despise your enemies? Jesus says honor your enemy with love and prayer.
(Matthew 5:21-48, my interpretation)
Jesus expected his followers to take the law more seriously than it had even been taken. If they obeyed the Law to its most subtle letter, but failed to commit their hearts to the God who is revealed by the Law, they were wasting their time. Jesus' message of the Kingdom, when lived with authenticity, would turn the world right side up.
But has Christianity truly made the world a better place? Some will say "yes," others will say "no" and some will join me in saying, "Hmm. I'm not sure."
I am sure of one thing, though. The Christianized world in which we live is far from a pure expression of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about. That's why so many people long for a West they can call "Post-Christian."
If I'm right, then where did it all go wrong? Some historical events to consider:
AD 313 -- The Edict of Milan issued by Constantine I -- The Roman church married the Roman state and the cathedral of Christendom replaced the corpus of Christ.
AD 1054 -- The Great Schism -- The Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church each pronounced the other as "accursed."
AD 1095 -- Pope Urban II Commences the First Crusade -- Massive losses of life in pursuit of fame, power, and riches, pseudonymously associated with the cross of Christ.
AD 1521 -- The Diet of Worms -- An irreconcilable rift developed between Catholics and Protestants, who each claim to represent the true presence of Jesus in the world.
Not to mention superfluous burning of "heretics," self-serving holy wars, church-sanctioned racism, and anything that comes from the Phelps' family in Topeka, Kan.
It is ludicrous to say the Christian faith is what it should be. Nevertheless, Jesus' main message was about the Kingdom. The Kingdom exists to facilitate the permeation of this world with the extraordinary pronouncement of God's goodness. Much is wrong but not the message. The message is right but it's waiting to be realized. All is not lost so long as the message is found.
Next up: Part 4 -- How should Jesus affect us today?
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
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