You’ve probably heard it one time or another. Someone, well meaning, says, “You know, lots of people will never darken the doors of a church or go to an evangelistic meeting. So if you are working with someone, or going through the line at the grocery story, remember, You might be the only Jesus some people will see.”
There’s even songs written to this effect. Like the old Imperials song, “You’re the Only Jesus.”
But is that true?
Karl Barth, in a remarkably short sentence (for Barth), puts it this way (with light edits for quotability):
“Jesus is immanent in the Church only as He is transcendent to it.” (CD 1/1, 100-1)
Barth’s big point, I think, is to remind us that while indeed Jesus is the one who is present to and in his people, the Church, he is always and only the transcendent Lord of the Church.
I happen to think Barth has it right here. There is an asymmetrical relationship between Jesus, the Head, and the Church, the Body of Christ. We can’t put a big equal sign between “Head” and “Body.” They are vitally (literally vitally!) connected, but they are far from being the same thing.
So if Barth is right, that means:
- Jesus is a self-giving Gift to the Church, but he is never a “Given.” Just because the Church is Christ’s chosen covenant partner doesn’t mean that the Church can presume that Jesus is present in all of the church’s witness and actions. Indeed, there may well be times when the Body acts independently (and rebelliously) against the Head. In those instances, we should be thankful that we aren’t the only Jesus people can see.
- Jesus works and acts in the Church, but is not constrained only to work and act in the Church. It is true again that Christ has chosen the Church to be his primary covenant partner by which he carries out his Father’s mission in the world. But we should be under no delusion that somehow Jesus is restricted to working only in the church and no where else. If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak his word then, he can surely use some other ass to speak his word today.
- The Church can point others to Jesus in their midst, but they can only point to the Jesus who is in their midst. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that by introducing people to ourselves as Christians that we have somehow automatically introduced these people to Jesus. Just because he’s in the room doesn’t mean people know him just because we are there. You might see something of me in my children, but there is no way you would make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve met my children that you’ve met me. Now if you’ve met Jesus, on the other hand, then you have met his Father (John 14:9)…but that’s a little bit different story!
- No, you and I aren’t the only Jesus some people will see. Actually, if Barth is right, people may very well see Jesus in our midst. But it is nearly blasphemous, or at least we are putting a little too much faith in ourselves and a little bit too much pressure on ourselves, to think that somehow we “need to be Jesus” to others.
Let’s make it simple this Christmas Season. If we want people to know Jesus, let’s be sure to do our utmost actually to introduce them to Him. In the words of the Samaritan woman,
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29)