Why do people need Jesus? Why, in other words, does Jesus matter?
After all, if we can’t answer that one, it’s hard to imagine that anything else we might say about faith and life will make much sense or have much credibility, especially to those we are seeking to invite into the faith.
As I mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, I’m chairing a new strategic planning task force for my congregation, and at our first day-long workshop, we pondered that very question at the insistence of our pastor.
It was a terrifically useful exercise that drew from our members lots of good answers, though had you been there you, too, might have noticed that no one worded an answer quite this way: “To avoid going to hell and assure going to heaven.”
We are not a congregation that dismisses the concept of personal salvation. Not at all. But our theology tends to emphasize the more communal aspects of redemption, including an acknowledgement of the joyful news that, in the end, God intends to redeem the whole of creation, not just individual (and, in the view of some misguided theologies, disembodied) souls.
And that way of doing theology requires us to be relentlessly concerned about the state of the wounded world outside our church doors today.
At any rate, I think our sadly divided denomination might find some paths toward healing if, instead of beating each other up over ordination standards and property rights, we’d all back up and think instead about why people need Jesus.
One thing this might lead us to do is to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about the gospel. What, in other words, was the good news that he proclaimed?
As I read the biblical witness it was much more this:
The kingdom, or reign, of God is at hand and you can experience the joy inherent in that today.
and much less this:
Jesus died to guarantee you a special parking place in heaven.
The latter is what, in various shapes, the gospel has become. The former is what, in essence, the gospel originally meant.
Well, what would be the purpose of sitting around asking such questions and discussing such things?
It would be a way of reminding ourselves that the church is different from a social service organization like the Red Cross or Rotary International. There’s an important place for such secular organizations but none of them is the church, which is to say the called-out body of Christ, made up of people who are being transformed by Jesus Christ, our risen and living lord. As the body of Christ, we are called to introduce others to the God of love, mercy and redemption so they can join us in working to help heal a world that hungers for hope.
Presbyterians could use a reminder like that every day of our gifted lives.
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at [email protected].