At the heart of the Christian faith, there is this irreducible and astonishing claim: roughly 2000 years ago, God came to live among us in the flesh and blood, mind and heart, limits and potentialities of one human being: Jesus of Nazareth. In this one brief life, the grace and truth of God were brighter, tenderness and strength of God were clearer, and the mercy and love of God were warmer than they have ever been in anyone else, anywhere else. In Jesus, we have seen the face, heard the voice, and felt the touch of God.
Christianity makes another claim, nearly as startling as that one: in the here and now, God continues to live in the flesh and blood, minds and hearts, limits and potentialities of human beings: not now in Jesus of Nazareth, but in those who have pledged to follow him. Of the church, Paul wrote: “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12). As God lived on earth in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, so now Jesus is present in the life of the church. God once had Jesus’ hands, the hands of a carpenter, and spoke with a Galilean accent; now God has our hands and speaks in our voices.
We are the body of Christ. We are more than an historical society or a museum dedicated to the memory of Jesus; the church is not here simply to preserve and to propagate an ancient story. We are something other than a voluntary association of like-minded folks who have chosen to band together to do things Jesus inspires us to do. We share a living relationship, a deepening friendship, and a growing partnership with Jesus. As Paul said (again, in 1 Corinthians), we have been baptized in his spirit—immersed in his vital reality, plunged into his living presence. We drink of that Spirit, Paul said; he slakes our thirst for the divine with his refreshing and empowering life.
We do not believe that the life of Jesus came to a shattering and final end when he was brutally crucified and hastily buried in a borrowed tomb. We believe God raised him from the dead and that Jesus has now poured out his presence, his spirit, on the whole world and particularly on the church. For us, Jesus is not “back there”—frozen in history, distant from our circumstances, and remote from our experience. He is here and now—present, active, involved and engaged in our time and place—still speaking and acting to make himself known and to change the world.
At a London street corner, G.K. Chesterton was approached by a newspaper reporter who said to him: “Sir, I understand that you recently became a Christian. May I ask you a question?” “Certainly,” Chesterton said. “If the risen Christ suddenly appeared at this very moment and stood beside you, what would you do?” Chesterton paused, stared straight into the eyes of the reporter, and then said: “He is.”
Jesus is not just alive; he is more alive now than he has ever been, and more present—present over the face of the whole earth, especially, though not exclusively, in the church which bears his name. The church is not called, therefore, simply to remember Jesus. We are called to represent Jesus: to be who he was and is, to say what he said and says, to do what he did and does.
Here is why the church matters so much—why its claim on us is so urgent: as God was in Christ, reconciling the world, so God now is in us. Through our love that the world comes to know of God’s love, through our mercy it sees divine compassion, and through our words it hears enduring and saving truth.