The essential question: Does Jesus matter?
April 18, 2019
It seems that Jesus isn’t all that important. One can think of several reasons. First, human beings have lots of needs, and we busy our lives meeting them. We work to buy food, clothing and a place to call home. Our free time is spent with family, friends and leisure activities. At best we might devote an hour or two to Jesus on the weekend. So if time reflects our values, Jesus is not very important.
Second, Jesus is largely missing from all dominant forms of media. Take television. Unless you’re watching EWTN, the Protestant cable channel or the "Charlie Brown Christmas Special," you hardly ever hear about Jesus. Instead, TV shows depict all kinds of other things as leading to human fulfillment. Thus, Jesus can be safely ignored.
Third, people who follow Jesus are supposed to become saints. But saints are hard to come by, even among Christians. What we find everywhere instead are sinners. Ghandi knew this when he told Christian missionaries why he would not convert: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Thus Jesus’ project of holiness is a failure from the get-go, and we can dismiss him as irrelevant.
But Jesus must matter …
On the other hand, Jesus himself said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me." And we, as human beings, want to see God. Therefore Jesus must matter.
What’s more, that Jesus matters is the bedrock conviction of the archdiocese’s pastoral vision and priority plan, summed up as "One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, living mercy." If Jesus doesn’t matter, then neither does the plan.
The question of Jesus is the first and most basic question for Christians. And, because of the unique, astonishing claims he makes, he also is the central question for anyone who comes into contact with his message.
What does Jesus say about himself? First, Jesus tells us that he is God: "The Father and I are one" (Jn 10:30). "Before Abraham was, I am" (Jn 8:58) he tells the Jews, again identifying himself with God (Yahweh, "‘I am’ who am"). And John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that the Word who "became flesh and dwelt among us" (1:14) "was God" (1:1).
Very few people in the course of human history have claimed to be God. And just about all of them were quickly discovered to be crazy or a fraud. Indeed, these were the very accusations made against Jesus by his detractors.
But Jesus was different. He performed enough public miracles to invite rational belief. And he made that invitation himself: "Even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize (and understand) that the Father is in me and I am in the Father" (Jn 10:38).
Second, Jesus tells us that he forgives sins. "Courage, child, your sins are forgiven" (Mt 9:2), he says to the paralytic as he cures him. This harkens back to his first claim, since only God can forgive sins (cf. Mk 2:7). Furthermore, he gives the power to forgive sins to his church: "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them" (Jn 20:23).
Who among us has not sinned? Who among us is not in need of forgiveness? If sins can be forgiven through Jesus’ power, then he is able to overcome perhaps the biggest scourge of human existence, that we choose to do the evil we do not want to do (cf. Rom 7:19).
Third, Jesus tells us that he can help us achieve human perfection. He exhorts us to "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). In the Sermon on the Mount, he lays out a plan by which we can achieve this perfection, beginning with the Beatitudes.
Human perfection or happiness is the whole point of our existence. Who does not want to be happy more than anything else in life? Yet Jesus did not simply draw us a road map for happiness and leave the scene; he wants to personally lead us on our journey. Only by cultivating a relationship with him can we truly achieve blessedness (cf. Jn 15:5).
So whether we consider Jesus as God, or as our Savior who takes away our sins, or as our friend and guide in achieving happiness, we must conclude that he matters. And he must matter more to us than anyone else in the world.
Responses to objections
In answer to the first objection we raised, how we spend our time does reflect our values. In order to develop our relationship with Jesus, we must spend time with him. This typically involves attending Mass, praying privately, reading the Scriptures, and participating in various devotions. People who are serious about growing in their relationship with Jesus spend time with him every day.
To the second objection, the media often depict wealth, power, sexual pleasure, and various forms of outstanding human achievement as forms of fulfillment. This says more about the writers’ and producers’ beliefs than it does about reality. By contrast, Jesus proposes poverty, meekness, and self-denial as conducive to blessedness.
And finally, to the third: A saint, strictly speaking, is one who is in heaven, which explains why they cannot be found on earth. People on earth are always subject to sin until they die (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 827). Nevertheless, people can make considerable progress in holiness by following Jesus and, in many people, this progress is evident.
New columnists in the Voice
Beginning with this issue of the Catholic Voice, we are expanding our list of columnists in our Commentary and Spirituality sections. In addition to our regular writers, some of whom have been faithful contributors for years, we are offering new ones especially to foster the archdiocese’s pastoral plan.
Encountering Jesus – The foundation of our relationship with Christ is a life of prayer. Connie Rossini has been writing on Catholic spirituality in diocesan newspapers for over a decade. She has four published books, blogs at contemplativehomeschool.com and has been a contributor in the National Catholic Register and at spiritualdirection.com. She also happens to be my wife.
Living mercy – As the archdiocese’s pastoral vision continues to take shape, our pages will welcome contributions from archdiocesan leaders who can offer key insights into the approaches and activities the plan promotes. In this issue Whitney Bradley, the archdiocese’s Respect Life coordinator, talks about how to reach people on the margins with the church’s message of life.
One church – The fruit of a commitment to holiness, to which we are all called by our baptism, is the desire to spread the Good News. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is one of the outstanding evangelists of our times. He is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the host of "Catholicism," a popular, award-winning documentary about the Catholic faith. His articles will focus on theology, the spiritual life, and the intersection between faith and culture.
All aspects – In addition to this impressive line-up, I will devote the next several installments of my own column to the fundamental concepts of the plan. Future installments will cover who Jesus is, what his mission is, what discipleship is, what it means to live mercy, and similar questions.
Comments on our new line-up? Feel free to share your thoughts. The best way to reach me is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Rossini is editor and general manager of the Catholic Voice.