The Lasting Impact of Jesus Mission

The lasting impact of Jesus' mission is most clear on two fronts: Christianity and the Gospels. However much or little we conclude it is possible to say about the mission and teaching and intention of Jesus. it is impossible reasonably to dis pute that the movement which became known as Christianity has been the most direct and lasting effect of his work. The above study, however, makes it clearer that there was a very substantive continuity between Jesus' mission and what followed. Jesus' mission did not end in failure. What followed was not merely an attempt to counter disappointment, to eliminate cognitive dissonance. These assertions, of course, need to be further explored and properly tested in vol. 2. But already we begin to see future in the way the story of Jesus ends — in the resurrection of Jesus.

Here again, whatever we may make of the facts (interpreted data), it is almost impossible reasonably to doubt that the sequel to Jesus' mission began with different members of his disciple group(s) seeing Jesus alive, seeing him as 'risen from the dead'. Not least, these experiences and the conviction which they embodied from their first articulation of them ('resurrection') must have signified God's confirmation of Jesus. Which is to say, the hope that Jesus was remembered as indicating in regard to his own future had been vindicated, as he himself had been vindicated; the son of man had indeed come on the clouds to the Ancient of Days and received his kingdom. Which is also to say that to that extent at least Jesus' hope and intention in regard to the kingdom of God had been realised. So too, we could go on to argue, the transmutation of the disciple band into 'the church of God' which soon attracted the ire of Saul the Pharisee (Gal. 1.13) was a recognizable realisation of Jesus' hope for a renewed Temple (supported on the 'pillar' apostles — Gal. 2.9), just as the Lord's Supper probably functioned more or less from the first as the continuation of Jesus' practice of table-fellowship and symbol of the new covenant inaugurated in his death. So too, it could be pointed out, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, only forty years later, proved as accurate a fulfilment of Jesus' other forebodings as one could ask for. So there was the continuity of fulfilment between Jesus' aims and hopes and what in the event transpired.

Over all, of course, it was hardly a complete realisation of all that Jesus was remembered as forecasting and looking for: his resurrection was not the beginning of the harvest of resurrection of the dead; the mission soon to be undertaken to the Gentiles did not match very closely any expectation Jesus may have entertained regarding the eschatological pilgrimage to Zion of Gentile proselytes; the final judgment did not follow; the eschatological reversal which took place fell far short of the sort of hopes which Jesus' words must have engendered. But it was ever so with prophecy expressed in the images of human experience. And the measure of fulfilment and the continuity which that expressed were all that the first Christians needed to sustain their claim that God had vindicated Jesus' mission and was continuing that same mission in a new and different form through them.

The point is made all the stronger by the further indication of the lasting impact of Jesus' mission — the Jesus tradition itself. For, if I am right, the Jesus tradition was itself the very mode by which the impact made by Jesus on those he first called to discipleship was made communicable, a bond which united those who shared it, at the very core and formative of their corporate identity as 'Christ-ians', an occasion for celebration in their gatherings, an epitome of Jesus' mission and teaching, a means of instruction, apologetic, and evangelism in their interaction with others. There is no indication whatsoever that any of the Jesus tradition was experienced as in tension with the fuller appreciation of Jesus' significance which came with the revelation of his resurrection or with the gospel's focus on the cross (as in Paul). The Gospels themselves show no such signs of tension, with their story of a teaching and healing mission climaxing in death and resurrection. And the suggestions that various groupings of traditional material (Q1, the tradition behind the Gospel of Thomas) would have been perceived as in tension with a gospel expressed only in terms of cross and resurrection actually have very little to commend them and depend to too great an extent on tendentious theses looking for evidence to support them. A fundamental fact of the Jesus tradition in its lasting form is that it was preserved precisely by those who preached Jesus' death and resurrection, precisely as gospel.

Not least of importance to be recognized at this point is the continuity of impression made regarding Jesus himself. For it is evident from the tradition that Jesus was heard as speaking from God, as a spokesman for God, for some at least as the eschatological representative of God. Nor does it appear that this conviction arose only with Easter hindsight. For it is enshrined in the Jesus tradition in not-yet-Christian terms and is expressed in terms which Easter faith broke through. As with the issue of Jesus' messianic status, it is hard to see how Easter faith could create such a weighty christological affirmation from the start, had the pre-Easter impact of Jesus not already been measured in terms of divine authority and power. The tradition indicates that Jesus' authority and role caused his disciples puzzlement and confusion. But the function of the Jesus tradition at this point is to retell these pre-Easter impressions, now clarified by the climax of the Jesus story and by the context of Easter faith in which the retelling took place within the communities of discipleship and faith. In short, it is not only the impression of Jesus' words and actions which is imprinted in the Jesus tradition, but also the impression of who Jesus was. And the unexpectedness of Jesus' 'resurrection' in the event only deepened the impact already made by Jesus in his pre-Easter mission.

We should simply add that the Jesus tradition's recollections of Jesus' teachings and manner of living and socializing evidently continued to serve the early Christian groupings as a model for any or all responsible living in community, as part of society. As Jesus himself lived in the light of the coming kingdom, so the Jesus tradition continued to serve as a resource and inspiration for all car ing and concerned living. Not as a for such a life, nor as an instruction manual for a complete social ethic or politically mature society. But as indicating the character of the deep personal relations and priorities, values, and motivations without which any social structure or political manifesto will fail to realise its best ambitions. The Jesus tradition heard responsively could and can still function as a test of the caring community, as a rebuke and challenge to any self-indulgent society arrogant in maintaining its own prerogatives and careless of the needs of others. But the same tradition shows that to hear Jesus speaking only in these terms is to diminish what Jesus himself stood for and to lose the key to the realisation of his vision of the kingdom. For, once again, we need to stress that Jesus is recalled as characteristically linking love of neighbour to love of God, the former presumably to large extent dependent on the latter. We need to stress that Jesus himself seems to have seen his expected death and hoped-for resurrection as of a piece with his kingdom preaching and living. And, again, we need to stress the retention of the Jesus tradition only within the Gospel format, and the wisdom of so retaining it. The lasting impact of Jesus in the Jesus tradition should not be fragmented but perceived afresh in its wholeness.

In short, through the Jesus tradition the would-be disciple still hears and encounters Jesus as he talked and debated, shared table-fellowship and healed. In hearing the Jesus tradition read from pulpit or stage, in sacred space or neighbour's sitting room, we sit with the earliest disciple and church groups as they shared memories of Jesus, nurtured their identity as his disciples, equipped themselves for witness and controversy, celebrated and learnt fresh lessons for life and worship from and in that celebration. Through that tradition it is still possible for anyone to encounter the Jesus from whom Christianity stems, the remembered Jesus.

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