Andrew Greeley in 2007 wrote: “Jesus: A Meditation on His Stories and His Relationship with Women.” I sought out the book as I searched for an answer to a persistent personal question: Who was this man Jesus? I wanted to know him based on the facts of what he said and did. I wanted to get past the stereotypes. Frankly, I still do, and will to my last day. Can we even know ourselves fully?
Jesus can’t be put in a box. Not then. Not now. He was the human face of God. And so it is important to grasp at least the essential character of the man. What we think of God will color everything within us and around us. Is God a personal being who loves us, or an absentee creator who put the clockwork in motion? Is he a “Father,” or an “Idea” only? Does He even exist? The answers matter at the granular level. How we live, and what we live for, are in the balance.
There are two simple things I hold onto from my exploration: God is merciful and we are urgently to respond.
These character anchor points I derive from an examination of the Gospel stories. Jesus respected the Hebraic commandments. He affirmed their truth and utility. But he was after something more. He didn’t just focus on “Thou shalt not . . . ” but shifted to “Your delight shall be . . . ” For example, Thou shalt not lie. A sound principle. But Jesus taught the Spirit of God was Truth itself. He invited people to do more than know truth, but to be Truth. [Matt. 5:33-37]. His command was more like: Thou shall be the Truth itself.” How can this be, his disciples protested. “With God all things are possible,” Jesus answered. [Matt. 19:26]
So Jesus, the God-man, the very human face of God, knew we are broken and frail. At the same time, he invited us to this seemingly impossible level of living. He did not issue an invitation that we had no ability to accept. The invitation comes with a power. Like a nurturing mother or a protective father, God allows our mistakes, and offers us strength to learn from those mistakes. That is, God shows mercy. As hard as it may be to grasp, there is no sin God is not ready to forgive. He delights in mercy. All transgressions and guilt can be put behind us. We are made clean, and renewed each day. Mercy pours down upon us. Even as we persist in stubborn denial of God, God withholds justice and condemnation. He continues to bless us with mercy even while we curse Him. [Isaiah 1:18 — “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.“]
So there we have God’s mercy. What then is the urgency? It is that we die. We know nothing of an afterlife. We are tied to this physical world, and both emerge from dust and return to it. Yet, we individually and culturally build elaborate death-denying mechanisms. Many pursue religious practice for this reason. They seek the comfort of finding eternal life. That eternal life often looks a lot like a home-improvement project on the material world. The terms “heaven” and “nirvana” for example, may describe this “other place.” In this other place, there is either no suffering, or we are freed from the illusion of suffering, or maybe it is a place of freedom to copulate with beautiful maidens. The stories of the various religions abound.
Looking to the words of Jesus, and applying them non-literally for the parables they are, they communicate a process of becoming that continues even after our physical bodies cease. [Matt. 13:44-5-46; Matt. 13:31-43; Matt. 13:47-52; Matt 25: 14-30; Matt. 25:1-13; Matt 22: 1-14; Matt: 13:24-30; Matt. 20:1-16; Matt. 18:21-35; Luke 8:10; Matt 19:14; Mark 10:14; Matt 19:23-24; Mark 10:23; Luke 18:29-30; Mark 4:30-34.]. This point speaks convincingly to the existence of a consciousness that persists in some form after the individual body ends. This state of consciousness doesn’t enter heaven at death, but exists in degrees of awareness of “heaven,” during and after physical life. We may or may not have “bodies” after death, but if we do, we have no idea what they will be like. In the “Kingdom of Heaven” described by Jesus, we do not become an unidentifiable blending of consciousness with a Supreme Consciousness. There will be a host of qualities, talents, and characteristics that form a “person.” And we will overflow with creative life. We will produce a bounty of good outcomes by our work and play. All this within the design and will of God for His pleasure, and ours. More cannot be said.
The urgency then is found in the process of becoming. We are in the process of being more and more like God. The overwhelming and extravagant gifts of daily mercy are meant to facilitate this becoming. It is God’s will that we be “perfected in Christ.” [Matt 5:48; James 1:4; Matt 19:21]. We give up being perfect, and enter into the process of becoming perfect, we can breath more freely, without self-judgment. We can see the need and purpose of God’s mercy.
So physical death is a marker on a timeline in the process of becoming more and more like God. The process changes, but continues in some way we cannot know until we are reborn into that other state of being. Some Christian theologians argue that we are fully perfected and enter the “perfect place” of heaven instantaneously on physical death. They overstate the case. We cannot know.
What we can know is that we are to learn from the person of Jesus, and be transformed by faith, even day to day, all in anticipation of that next phase of growth following physical death. This earth is a training ground, a place of preparation, and a time of being ready. [Matt. 25:13; Matt. 24:44; Luke 12:40]. This “not knowing” is difficult, and calls for faith. But we are given enough understanding to ready ourselves. God’s mercy accords us time, but not unlimited time, to prepare for the blessed day of graduation to our next level of becoming.