This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. –1 John 3:16
You can’t go wrong with the three-sixteens, can you? (Try believing that after reading I Chronicles 3:16.) I’m reading a book right now called American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. In this book, the author traces the images and ideas about Jesus throughout American history. While I feel that he overstates some of his conclusions, the book is filled with marvelous insights. More importantly, it provokes thought.
Prothero notes the shifting emphases regarding Jesus as the years pass. For example, he argues that you’d be hard pressed to find a “Jesus as friend” hymn or sermon in 1700s and before. Along those lines, he notes the tendency of certain Liberal churches to focus on a de-historicized Jesus, taken out of the context of the Biblical narrative. After all, in the most prolific image of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” what is Jesus doing? Nothing! These same churches tried to ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. If they did mention the crucifixion, then it had nothing to do with atonement. No, Jesus, in their eyes, died simply to provide a great moral exemplar, a sort of noble gesture.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even consider making that sort of gesture. If I’m going to risk my life or give up my life, I’m only going to do it in order to accomplish something worthwhile. I might go to the gallows in order to keep somebody else’s neck out of the noose. That’s the move made by Charles Dickens’ Sydney Carton makes at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. If Carton’s death did not provide for Charles Darnay’s escape, it would be simply a suicide. But that’s not the case. If Jesus’ death had not provided for your and my eternal life, then it would have been a very showy, very misguided journey into torture and suffering.
Yes, we learn about the nature of love by looking to the great example of Jesus, but we have to see the whole Jesus. The whole Jesus, unlike Warner Sallman’s portrait, is not simply head and shoulders. It is hands that healed, feet that walked, lungs that struggled for breath on the cross, and every other portion of the frail human form, dedicated to the redemption of you. That’s love.