I was having lunch with a Jewish friend of mine the other day, a man whose personal integrity and ethics I highly respect. We argue all the time. He asked a question that threw into sharp relief what my faith often looks like from the outside. As best I can reproduce it, the conversation went like this. “I have never understood why you [Christians] make the cross the center of your faith.” I replied, “And what should we make the center of our faith?” Without hesitation, he answered, “What Jesus taught while he was alive.” He went on to contrast this Christian attitude that he perceived toward the moment of Christ’s death with his observation that in the Jewish tradition it is actions, and only actions, that matter as far as a person’s righteousness is concerned.
I do not know if my friend realized that I had heard this before, from non-Christians, prominently atheists, who will very often say that Jesus was a good man, whose teachings should be followed. This is always followed up by the observation that Christians in particular do a very poor job of following His commandments.
I would like to start my response to this by admitting that I believe one of the greatest failures of the Church, both as an institution and as a fellowship — more, as a matter of my own personal conduct — is our failure to follow Christ as he taught us to live. I am not going to waste time with excuses, but speak plainly: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church visibly choked on its own success. Its cultural dominance tempted it quite successfully to condemn unpopular sins and refuse to forgive such sinners, while at the same time ignoring unpopular sins and concealing them, or what was worse: preaching that they were no sin at all. The Church will therefore have to answer for all those who rejected Christ, not because they were offended by His teachings, but because they were offended by the Church’s refusal to obey them, and with Thomas Jefferson, “I shudder when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
However, that historical fact has no bearing on another historical fact, and that is the matter of what Jesus actually did teach. And while Jesus taught us many hard lessons in personal conduct in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his teachings also include the following:
“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must… be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” Mark 8:31-32.
“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 9:31.
“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son not into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” John 3:16-17
“Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM,” John 8:58
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.
The problem that Christians have is that we focus, perhaps, too much on the identity of Christ, and we forget that surrounding His identity, and pointing us toward Him are all Jesus’ commandments to us. We want a relationship with Jesus the man, and with Jesus the God, but we wish to ignore the commands of Jesus the Lord, with the authority to demand we change our behavior.
Non-Christians who criticize Christians for this, on the other hand, have both the opposite and the same problem. They acknowledge the authority of Christ when he preaches commandments to do righteousness, but they ignore that alongside those teachings, and intimately bound up in them are the commands to follow him and trust in His sacrifice. They ignore that the commands to change our behavior all come from and point to Christ’s mission to save humanity by His death and resurrection. And of course, as C. S. Lewis was famous for pointing out, either Christ is who He said He was, and we must all follow all of what he said, or he is a lunatic, on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, and we need not trouble ourselves about any of what He said. And on a personal level, while I am aware of many other men who claimed identity with God, I know of no other who has gone on to be a great moral teacher. On the contrary, they were eccentric at best, and most often genuine monsters.
Jesus always knew that Christians would do badly in following him, and complained about it to His disciples: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not follow my teachings?” The question to non-Christians would perhaps be better phrased, “Why do you insist my disciples follow my teachings when you deny the ones you don’t like?”
If there is anything that the two groups have in common, it is that the Gospel of Half of Christ is very attractive to them: Christians want to get to the center without troubling themselves about the commands that surround it. Non-Christians want to stay at the edge and ignore the teachings at the center. Both are wrong.
If the New Testament documents are worthy of any respect, then the same man who said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do also to me” also said “I am the resurrection and the life.” The problem with both Christians and non-Christian admirers of Jesus is that both of them want only a part of what Jesus taught, but Jesus himself demands a wholehearted following. And since none of us is capable of such a wholehearted following, the true Gospel of Christ is this: that the Father stands ready to welcome the Prodigal Son because He loves him. That the Son poured out His life for His weaker brothers and sisters that they, too, may stand in the Father’s embrace. But to turn away from the Son is to turn away from the Father, and walk away from the embrace. And this a Christian cannot do. We must indeed, as my friend said, follow what Jesus taught. But following it leads us, step by step, to the Cross.