Monday, October 01, 2007

Life On Mars: 3. And was made man

Today is National Day here in China so we get a day off! As it is my birthday tomorrow I get to celebrate today. I am also taking the opportunity to catch up on work in my study.

Here is the third in the Life on Mars series.

Life on Mars: 3: And was made man

In the same Creed in which we say that Jesus was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, we also as Christians say:

‘For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.’

These words are part of the Nicene Creed, a Creed from the fourth century, accepted by all the Churches as expressing the central tenets of the Christian faith. This is as near the heart of the Christian faith as it is possible to get. Christianity with this statement has taken an incredible gamble. It has staked all on a person who lived at a precise moment in history. Let’s be clear about the claim. It is that the God who made everything there is, and who is above everything he made, and upon whom we all depend for our existence has chosen to reveal himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who entered our world and lived as one of us at a particular point in history.

This means we see the face of God in the face of a first century Palestinian Jew. This is a breathtaking claim and while a source of wonder and worship for Christians, it does also create problems for those who believe it. First of all, Christians are gambling everything on the person of Jesus. Now you may say: ‘of course, what’s so strange about that?’ Well, it means the significance for the Christian of Jesus is not what he taught, not what he did, nor even how he lived, but who he was. It means, as a consequence, that being a Christian is not about what you believe, how you live, or where you go on Sunday, but about your relationship with this man, ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. It is the person of Jesus that counts more than anything else.

St Paul says to people who had stopped believing in the resurrection that if the resurrection is not true then Christians are of all people most to be pitied. In other words, that for Christianity to be true then Christ must be alive now. But it also means that he must have lived and that he was who his followers claimed he was. That is, that Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the streets of Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, was the incarnate Son of God sent by God to reveal himself to us and to save us.

It also means that if either Jesus did not exist or was not who his followers said he was, but simply another mortal religious teacher, then Christianity is a fraud. Christians were first called Christians as a nickname in Antioch because they made so much of Christ. Everything stands or falls on what they claimed for him being true. Take away the existence of Jesus or make him just another teacher, then he has nothing to say to us. Yes, he might have said some nice things about how we should live and, doubtless, he said them in a very charismatic way, but what he says about himself and what his followers say about him is what matters.

St Luke records Jesus saying these words: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (St Luke 14:26)

John records him saying these words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (St John 14:6)

These are incredible demands and claims. The Biblical writers from a distance of two thousand years are asking us to stake our own lives on what happened at a particular moment of history: under Pontius Pilate. Christianity isn’t asking us to believe in abstract ideas, but in a historical person.

As I have been arguing in this series, if Luke and John are right in what they say of Jesus, it means that Christians are bound to history: bound to making the effort of going back in time no matter how hard and challenging it is, and it is hard and challenging, for in the past something happened that can change our lives in the present and give us hope for the future.

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