Jesus of Nazareth stands at the center of the narrative that best explains, for me, the world, the universe, and the reason for human existence. That narrative, with Jesus at the center, gives me a sense of purpose for my life and fills me with hope for the future.
Jesus of Nazareth, whom the early church came to think of as Jesus the Messiah (or Christ, i.e. God’s anointed one) embodies the nature of God while, at the same time, he exemplifies the full potentiality of humanness. I come closest to realizing my own potential by aspiring to be like him.
He is my inspiration, my model, and the source of my inner strength and resolve. The sphere of his influence is the kingdom of God, and the community of Jesus-followers is the agent of the kingdom in the world. This entire story is the good news of the kingdom, and sharing it with all who seek a source of meaning and hope is evangelism.
The spirit of Jesus breaks down barriers and promotes unity among those who had once been enemies. Paul reminds us that, in the spirit of Christ, there is no male or female, no bond or free, no Jew or Gentile. The Christian gospel should enable us to celebrate diversity while avoiding the awful divisiveness that characterizes too much of our culture today.
I have come to the unsettling conclusion that the “gospel” put forward by that stream of American Christianity with which I identified for decades is based on a theological premise that may actually contribute to the strife and division so prevalent in our nation. Consider the images that highlight and perpetuate separation, categorization, and division: saved vs. unsaved; true believers vs. unbelievers; members vs. non-members.
A lifetime of emphasis on the way Christians are different from others (and, by implication, superior to them) yields a mindset subject to classism, elitism, and paranoia. It also accounts for the popularity, in some Christian circles, of political candidates who exploit the tendency to divide humanity into “us vs. them,” and winners vs. losers, categories where WE are always the good guys and THEY are always bad or threatening or suspect in some other way.
Contrary to what we are hearing from many evangelical pulpits today, contemporary American culture is not becoming more hostile or alien to Christianity. It only seems that way to those who misperceive their version as the only expression of Christianity worthy of the name.
I actually perceive a greater openness to the way of Jesus, and I find a greater liberty to engage people in conversation, when I feel no pressure to convert them to that truncated view of the gospel. It is not Jesus that the culture rejects, it is the idea that he can only be experienced by way of a single, culturally-limited formula.