Jesus doesn’t become the Christ. Christ becomes the Jesus.
We talk a lot about grace in the Episcopal Church but do we really believe it? Face it. At some level you probably think that those who are good get rewarded with heaven and those who are bad are punished in hell. Unless we cling to some sort of cosmic justice, we think, the problem of evil isn’t really solved. We live in the hope that somehow God will triumph over all that is evil, that the forces which corrupt and destroy life will be defeated, that being fully with God means the elimination of that which is evil. God isn’t just some pushover who lets bad things happen forever. At some point he’ll make it all good. Isn’t that what we think heaven is, the place where goodness reigns?
When we speak of the saving act of Jesus Christ on the cross, we are quick to speak as well of the importance of our choice to accept that saving act. God doesn’t force anyone to love or accept love. He expresses love and then leaves it to us to accept or reject. Even when we talk about the loving forgiveness that God gives to each and every person in the whole world, we also imagine our choices having some sort of eternal effect. If we keep saying no to the gift, it’s like the gift was never given, right? So at some point there’s got to be some cutoff, we think.
The problem with that thinking is that it elevates our choices above God’s choices. Jesus’s death on the cross and his rising to life again is God’s single action, in this way of thinking. It was gracious and generous and all that but God did his thing and now it’s up to us to buy in or opt out. If we say yes, well and good, but if we say no, out we go to the eternal fires where all the other ungrateful people will be thrown. If we say no, reward-and-punishment theology says that’s where grace stops. If you turn down the gift, you don’t get the gift. The importance of our accepting the gift can easily become our focus and the gift itself is discounted.
In Lent we focus on the earthly Jesus and the sacrificial giving of his life for us to see a model of God’s sacrificial way of loving. When we see life through reward-and-punishment lenses, it leads to a misunderstanding of this Jesus. It leads us to see him as the ultimate good person who is given Christhood status as a reward of sorts. We reduce Jesus to a mere example of that which is good and think our job is to become good too so that we can be rewarded. Goodness is a worthy aspiration, certainly, but the heart of Christianity is about a great deal more than that. Christianity begins with the truth that goodness eludes our grasp. And that runs the reward-and-punishment train right off the tracks.
Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of this Jesus and his Ascension. Here we speak of this earthly Jesus returning to the eternal Father. Returning is the key concept. Jesus doesn’t go there after his resurrection; he returns there, which means he was there before he was here. Easter doesn’t reveal Jesus as rewarded with Christhood status. Easter reveals the eternal Christ who has come to us in a particular form, Jesus of Nazareth. We celebrate the Risen Christ. Christ is the eternal expression of grace, part of the Triune God which has always existed and always will. In a way it is wrong to say that Jesus is God. Christ is God, part of the greater God that cannot be expressed in just one way, and Christ becomes Jesus for us.
To say that Jesus becomes the Christ is rather like saying that we are rewarded with heaven. Jesus doesn’t become the Christ. Christ becomes the Jesus. Similarly, salvation isn’t us working our way up to God. Salvation is God coming to us in love and forgiveness. Easter proclaims the truth that we are resurrection people. But resurrection has its deeper meaning in incarnation. God comes to us. What that means is that grace rules rather than reward-and-punishment. The Risen Christ reveals the eternal purpose of God. God comes to us in our Jesus. God comes to all people in all times and in all places. Jesus shows us the particularity of grace: it’s not just some fuzzy concept. Christ shows that grace is not confined to a particular expression: it always has been and always will be.
In Easter we allow this Jesus whom we love to return to the Father so that we may know the eternal love of God for the world in an even deeper way. The eternal Christ comes to us for a season to show us eternal grace. Jesus returns to his Father because grace is unconfined. God loves us into loving God and each other.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.