Jesus Came to Live — Abundantly (November 23, 2018)
I am revisiting this column which I wrote several years ago because it fits in with what I’ve been writing in the past few weeks.
One of the things we hear a lot from more conservative Christians is that “Jesus was born to die.”
We are about to celebrate Advent and Christmas, in which we celebrate the “Incarnation”. That word comes from two Latin words meaning “in the flesh”. It is the theological word we use to talk about what happens with the birth of Jesus. The Christian church has believed throughout the ages that in the birth of Jesus, we celebrate God crashing into our world in human flesh.
Last year, I saw a church sign online which read, “Christmas is the story of a baby born to die.” Unfortunately, it’s quite a common way of thinking about the birth of Jesus. He came to die so that we all can receive the benefits of God’s saving love.
But it ain’t so. It will come as no surprise that there are many other Christians who think quite differently about this.
To put it quite simply, Jesus was not born to die. Jesus was born to live.
Like any other baby, like any other human being, like any other of God’s creatures, Jesus was born to live.
Too many Christians look at Jesus and see only the cross. As if the cross was the only thing of value about Jesus. As if God’s only purpose for Jesus was for him to die. As if the whole of Jesus’ work and ministry in the world counts for nothing. As if none of his teachings really mattered because the only thing that really matters is that “Jesus died for my sins.”
None of that is true, of course. Like any of us, Jesus’ life counts. How he lived, what he taught, how he showed compassion and grace in the world—all of these are equally important as his death. Jesus was born to live.
I wrote a couple of weeks that the good news which Jesus preached and lived was the news of the kingdom of God. That is the overriding theme of most of the New Testament — not that Jesus came to die, but that Jesus came to point to God.
The gospels testify to this over and over again. Probably the clearest statement that Jesus came to live is in John’s gospel: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). In his own life, Jesus showed us what abundant life looks like. It is found as we share God’s love with others and as we give ourselves in service for the benefit of all.
His whole life long, Jesus showed us that people can experience God’s love in this world. Jesus’ life was dedicated to embracing, healing, loving people and treating all of God’s people with grace and compassion.
It makes me sad to think that anyone can look at the infant Jesus and see only his death.
It makes me sad that anyone can read the radical story of a baby in a manger and think only of a cross.
It makes me sad to imagine that for so many people, Christian faith is only about Jesus dying so that we can get to heaven.
It makes me sad that anyone can reduce the mystery of incarnation to the tragedy of crucifixion.
So let me repeat what I’ve said so often in these columns. It wasn’t Jesus’ death and crucifixion that set things right in the world. Rather, it was Jesus’ whole life that shows what a world set right might look like.
And Jesus showed us that abundant life looks like the kingdom of God: the hungry are fed; the wealthy and the powerful who are doing violence for their own sake are toppled with nonviolence and solidarity; the oppressed are raised up; outsiders, including refugees, are welcomed with open arms and open hearts; broken people are being made whole; lonely people are being welcomed into community; all people are learning to live together in peace for the welfare of all.
Abundant life looks like what we have seen in people like Jean Vanier, who gave up the perks and privileges of his life to live with developmentally handicapped men in community. Like Mahatma Gandhi, who led his people in nonviolent protest against the British Empire. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the fight for civil rights for all people in the US, regardless of colour or status. Like Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid, was imprisoned for it, and upon his release refused to give in to violence against his former oppressors.
And Jesus proclaims that this eternal, abundant life begins now, not when we die. Jesus shows us that heaven is found on earth, if only we have eyes to see it and the courage to live it.
The point of Jesus’ life is not the crucifixion. It is the incarnation. Jesus wasn’t born to die. Jesus was born to live—abundantly.
Death is inevitable, but the hope of incarnation is that life happens, that eternal life happens, and that it happens right now.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt