What’s the big deal about Jesus? Wasn’t he just another dude who lived a long time ago in a culture that is so different from ours that anything he said has no bearing on our situation?
That’s a valid question. This post is a visual exploration of why I think Jesus had to come. John 1:14 says “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us (he moved into our neighborhood).” The Word–the Logos–was a Greek concept that tried to capture the infinite, creative order of God. The Greeks thought it was perfection itself and could only be reached by the human effort to transcend the body and become pure mind. The Hebrews called it Wisdom, and also thought that it represented the mysterious, creative, otherness of God.
Then Jesus blows their minds and claims to be the Word…in the flesh. The Latin word is incarnation. Carne means flesh. in-carne.
Let’s use a metaphor to explore this mystery. Let’s think about the relationship between a child and her parents.
The child emerges from the mother’s body and draws food directly from her body. The infant is part of the mother.
Then this strange creature shows up. The father. All he does is contribute one tiny cell at the beginning of the process. He could be completely absent from that moment on and the child would grow fully.
The father is “the other” that stands across the room and has no experiential connection to the young child. The relationship between child and father is one that must be taught and developed by walking across the room and trusting that the father is as much a part of the child’s existence as the mother.
The Goal of parenting is to raise a child to become a mature adult that can then enter into a mutual, loving relationship with the parents as friends.
Now let’s transfer the mother/father metaphor to our relationship with God. We are the children.
Humans intuitively and experientially know that we come from the earth and are mysteriously interconnected to all of life. That’s why we call it “Mother Earth.” Many religions focus on the motherhood of God and the dynamic, complex, interconnection of the Spirit in all things. The fancy theological word for this is immanence, which means that God is very near and is in everything.
Then, some humans look around and ask, “but, where did this all start?” Humans intuitively believe that there must be something bigger than the world. We look for a creator that stands outside of us. This is the fatherhood of God. The fancy theological word for this is transcendence, which means that God is beyond the created order.
Some religious traditions focus more on the immanence and motherliness of God. Other religious traditions focus more on the transcendence and fatherliness of God.
Both are correct and good.
Here’s the problem…
Like a small child trying to understand her grown up parents, we cannot possibly understand or connect fully with either the complexity of the immanent God in the universe, or the difference of the transcendent God who created the universe.
That’s why Jesus had to show up. The infinite, mysterious God–the Logos–had to become human so that we could connect to it. We get what it means to be human.
Jesus shows us what it looks like when a human is in full union, in a mutually indwelling relationship with God. This union, this maturity is the goal of our human existence. Yet, without Jesus’ example, we would continually either cower in fear under the transcendence of God, or live in an enmeshed take-it-for-granted existence with the immanence of God (and usually try to control it).
So, why did Jesus have to die?
Jesus said, in John 14:6-7, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
The only way to truly be in full, mature, mutually-loving relationship with God is when we follow the Way of the Cross. The cross takes on two basic meanings.
- For people who have power and control: The cross shows us that we have to die to our own desire to be god, to be in control. We must admit that the universe is far more complex than our ability to understand or explain. I talk about this maturation process here.
- For people who have been beaten down by life: The cross demonstrates that God fully enters into our human suffering and takes on all the hatred, violence, and pain that humans have created in the world. Then he walks through it, lets it die, and rises from the dead to show us that there is a new way to walk.
As Walter Brueggemann says, The Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
In both cases it is a paradox. Jesus holds all the mysterious opposites of the universe in tension on the cross. He holds transcendence and immanence together. He holds human and divine together. He holds life and death together. He holds the mystery that the only way to truly gain the victory over evil is to let it kill you and then forgive it. Some call the way of Jesus a paradoxology.
Whether you need to die to the I, or you need the comfort of a suffering Messiah, Jesus demonstrates that the way to enter into the fullness of the Good Life, the “eternal” life for which we were created, is to not repay evil with evil, but to repay evil with love and forgiveness. As Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of Christ, who gave himself for me.”
This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples in John 15 to “dwell in me and I will dwell in you, just as the father dwells in me and I in the father.” Jesus said that the Spirit would also dwell in them as they dwell in the world. This mutual indwelling, where all people live for the good of all people, is the maturity and the goal of our existence. And, we only get there through the cross of Christ.
That’s why I think Jesus had to come.