It’s a question worth pondering. Many Christians simply assume that Jesus matters without ever giving the question any further thought. They’ve been brought up to accept it as a matter of fact, and they expect that others will accept it as well.
They have an implicit understanding that Jesus matters because he is divine, the Son of God, who came into the world to save people from their sins. Therefore, it’s obvious to them that Jesus matters because he is exceptional, remarkable, extraordinary. But they have never really thought to stop and ask, “Why?”
Nevertheless, the question is worth thinking about, particularly because for many in our world, Jesus is problematic. He is a trigger for all kinds of negative emotions and feelings.
For some, Jesus conjures up a fear–based faith which proclaims that we are such evil sinners that Jesus had to come in order to die for us. For others, Jesus brings to mind all the bad things that have been done in his name by his so–called followers. For still others, it is a matter of what Marcus Borg calls a “puzzlement” because of the way Christians speak about Jesus: “He is both human and divine. What does that mean? He was born of a virgin. Literally? Or if not, what does that mean? Able to perform miracles that no human ever could. If so, then was he really one of us? Died in our place for our sins. If so, does that mean that God required his death, that it was God’s will? Raised from the dead. Literally? And if not, what does that mean?”
As you can see, Jesus is problematic. We can no longer simply assume that people accept or understand the Christian proclamation that Jesus matters in our world.
Let me offer three thoughts about why Jesus matters.
Firstly, Jesus matters because for Christians, he reveals what we know of God’s character and passion. Jesus shows us who God is, and Jesus shows us how to love what God loves.
It’s important to be clear that “Jesus matters for Christians”. Jesus doesn’t matter in this way for others, for Jews or Buddhists or Sikhs or atheists. We are Christians because for us, Jesus is the conclusive and decisive revelation of who God is. Other faiths see God in different ways. Jews, for example, find the decisive disclosure of God in the Torah and Muslims in the Qur’an.
One way is not better than another. It’s just different. Christians do not primarily know God in a book (the Bible), nor in experience, but in a person named Jesus. For a Christian, if you want to know God, look at Jesus.
Secondly, Jesus is the criterion by which we evaluate the rest of the Bible. When there is a conflict between the ways of Jesus and the words of the Bible — and there are such conflicts — then orthodox Christianity has said from the very beginning, “Go with Jesus”.
Some Christians would disagree with that. They claim the Bible is inerrant, which means that there is no mistake in the Bible. They believe that the Bible was dictated by God to human agents, and they claim that we can only know God through the words on the pages of this sacred text. For them, this inerrant Bible takes precedence. The difficulty is that they are going against 2,000 years of Christian tradition and theology which claims that Jesus is the full incarnation of God, and not the Bible.
The Bible is not a divine textbook. It is human testimony to God. The Bible contains the words of human memory which tries to tell the story of God’s character, passion, and love in the world. But the Bible is not that revelation of God. Jesus is.
Thirdly, Jesus is one of the two most remarkable people who have ever lived (Buddha is the other). In Jesus, we see a human possibility of living fully in the presence of God. What I am saying is that Jesus was not remarkable so much because he was divine, but because he was fully human. The church only claimed that he was divine after his resurrection. It became part of the doctrine of the church after his death.
But the church could only claim Jesus was divine after the fact because he was such a remarkable human being. The Gospels show an ordinary man, part of the poor peasant class who lived day to day, a man who was extraordinarily open to God and able to trust God deeply.
He taught in parables and aphorisms about the “kingdom of God”, his central message. It does not refer to life after death, but rather suggests what life could be like here and now if God were really in charge, and not the kings or emperors or presidents or prime ministers of this world. Under God’s reign, there would be justice. Everyone would have enough. Peace would abound.
He taught the value of nonviolent resistance to exploitation and violence. He didn’t teach people to accept the way things were. He taught us to resist, but without resorting to violence.
He was known and criticized for being uncompromisingly inclusive in his meal practice. In a society where sharing a meal meant that you accepted that other person as an equal, Jesus ate with and welcomed marginalized people (“tax collectors and sinners”). All are included in the kingdom of God.
In his teaching and his life, he revealed God’s character and passion. He showed the depth of God’s love and compassion for all people.
For me, that’s why Jesus matters. Not because he was divine. Rather, because he was an utterly remarkable human being. The kind who doesn’t come along very often.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook