Asked the purpose of Jesus’ life, many Christians would say something like: “He came to forgive our sins and save us from Hell”; or “He taught us to love God and neighbor”; or “He offered us eternal life in Heaven.” Although true, those responses miss the beauty and heart of the Gospel: Jesus came to wed us to Himself so we could share in His eternal life and saving work. The obscuring of this central revelation is at the root of the crises facing Christians and the Church today. Its rediscovery is the solution.
A fundamental fact of fallen human existence is that we fail to live completely according to God’s generosity, wisdom, and love – even when he tells us what to believe and how to act. This means that if the Gospel is presented merely as information about God and the moral law, it reveals our errors and sins but is powerless to transform our lives.
Too often, the Gospel has been presented or received in that feeble way. When this happens, the discrepancies between Jesus’ call to holiness and the harsh realities of life appear insurmountable. That tension can lead to anxiety, fear, self-disgust, resentment, or efforts to alter the Gospel to fit our lives. These aren’t healthy or authentic ways forward.
It’s not surprising, then, that some older forms of Christianity, like Jansenist Catholicism and Puritanical Protestantism, produced a variety of legalistic and guilt-ridden pieties. It’s also easy to see why reactions to those movements led to novel, progressive forms of Christianity that promote relativistic and self-affirming spiritualties.
To be life-giving, the presentation and reception of the Gospel must center on Jesus: God the Son, born of Mary, crucified, and raised to glory at the right hand of the Father. Christ isn’t a theological or a sociological construct to be analyzed or adapted according to shifting preferences or paradigms. He’s a concrete, living person who has come to dwell in us, thereby uniting us to the Holy Trinity as members of his own Body and Bride. Jesus is Himself the only way forward.
Through baptism into Christ, God abides in us and fills us with all the gifts we need to share his divine life. Despite our fallen condition, we’re now able to live according to his generosity, wisdom, and love. This “divinization” (which the Orthodox call theosis) allows us to face the discrepancies that arise between our lives and the Gospel – between us and Jesus, between the world and the Kingdom – without fear, anger, or the need to alter the Good News. Although not yet perfected, we’ve truly been transformed and set free for the abundant life Christ promised.
And what a life it is! As Eve shared life and labor with Adam, so those united to Jesus share in his life and work. We’re not only God’s handiwork, we’ve become his coworkers. In Christ, we’re able to pour ourselves out through loving service to God and neighbor, which brings glory to the Trinity and fosters the salvation of the whole human race. (Phil 2:5-13; Col 1:24)
As long as we remain in Jesus, he’s at work in, with, and through us. Eternal life has begun in the midst of the joys and sorrows of earthly life. Whatever happens, good or bad, we find Christ there to strengthen us and draw us closer to Himself. Thus, nothing can separate us from Him except our rejecting Him by refusing to admit error, repent of sins, and live according to His love. All we have to do is walk with Him in the path He lays before us as we deal with the people and circumstances of life.
For many reasons, this nuptial and participatory understanding of Jesus, His Gospel, and our new life in Him has been obscured or eclipsed for the majority of Christians. This doesn’t deprive them of God’s grace or the hope of salvation, since they can still remain united to Christ. It does, however, deprive them of the abundant life He offers and distorts their witness, which harms them, their families, and the world.
This crisis isn’t simply a result of personal sin. Even innocent errors about Jesus – His purpose, and who we’re called to be – damage us and others. If you hand out poisonous opinions or bad advice, sincerity doesn’t lessen the injury. Because we’ve lost sight of the heart of the Gospel, many Christians are unintentionally bearing a defective – and sometimes harmful – witness to each other, our children, and our neighbors.
The gravity of the crisis is intensified for Christians in the West by the ascendancy of misguided cultural forces like radical secularism (which separates life from God and his love), autonomous individualism (which claims we create our own identity), and private conscience (which subjectively determines morality). These have adversely influenced the worldview of many Christians, whose opinions and behavior now often align with their unbelieving peers on the political right or left.
If we’re to meet the crises facing the Church and Western societies, we need to rediscover Jesus and the life He came to bring us. Efforts to inform ourselves about ecclesial and cultural problems and to implement strategies to resolve them simply can’t bear fruit if we aren’t deeply and intentionally rooted in Christ. We won’t have the vision and hope needed to respond to our own errors and sins, let alone those of our families and the world.
Our nuptial and participatory union with Jesus is the heart of the Gospel. As such, it’s the only way forward, regardless of where the current crises lead us.
In an effort to introduce Catholics and other Christians to this ancient understanding of the new life and mission we’ve received, I’ve written As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ, which has just been published by Emmaus Road. My prayer is that it will help us recognize His love and the work that he’s accomplishing in, with, and for us, our loved ones, and our troubled Church and world.