Here is a great quote from Jack Good, in his book The Dishonest Church:
On one issue there is increasing agreement among those who treasure and study the New Testament: Jesus's teachings focused on this world. He spoke time after time about the Kingdom of God. The phrase suggests the way human life would be organized if God, not Caesar, were in charge.This captures in a nutshell what is so wrong with much of contemporary Christianity. This focus on me manifests itself in all sorts of ways within Christianity; the ultimate example of this kind of self-centered focus can be found in the churches where the so-called prosperity gospel is preached. But that is just a more extreme example of a problem that really, in my view, pervades the religion; the ultimate issue is that a kind of me-ism, one that perverted Jesus's outward focus on the Kingdom of God, has existed for a long time in Christian history.
The church has been especially dishonest on the subject of Jesus's focus on the present life. An uninformed visitor to most mainline services would be convinced that Jesus was concerned primarily about life after death. Such a visitor could easily conclude that the current life is only an obstacle course on the way to a blissful existence beyond the grave....
The modern church that makes the afterlife the near exclusive focus of religious attention is violating the most elementary of Jesus's commitments. Rather than expanding the horizons of people, it reinforces inwardness. Instead of challenging people to live as if God were in charge right now, the church offers its people an inexpensive ticket to the rule of God in an undefined afterlife. Instead of encouraging a broadened concern, the modern church allows people to remain in their consumer-oriented state: "What's in this for me"?
Years ago, when I was living in Colorado Springs (a haven of fundamentalism), a pair of proselytizers once knocked on the front door of my apartment; their first question to me when I opened the door was whether I knew if I was going to heaven or not. If that's the first question they ask a potential convert, that tells you right off the bat what the focus of their religion is.
Me, me, me. What's in it for me?
It isn't just fundamentalism that is to blame here. This hollowing out of the core of Jesus's message in favor of easy platitudes goes back very early in the history of the faith. One need only look at the Apostle's creed to see what I am talking about. Here we have a statement, meant to be recited by believers, that claims to assert the essentials of the Christian religion. But what does it say--and what does it not say? It talks about the virgin birth, it talks about Jesus's execution, it talks about his resurrection. Not a single word about the life and teachings of Jesus during the 33 years that separated his birth and his crucification. Nothing that he did during his public ministry is considered important enough to make the cut in a statement that supposedly captures a fundamental creed of the faith of his followers!
The life and teachings of Jesus are thrown by the wayside. Instead of focusing on the Kingdom of God, we focus on how Jesus's resurrection earns us a ticket to a blissful life in another realm than the one we live in today. Sure, we have four Gospels that tell mythology-laden accounts of Jesus's life. But his life and teachings are always secondary in this scheme of things, always part of a grander scheme that is ultimately not about his teachings, but about me, and how I can get a ticket to the afterlife.
Last Sunday, Christians celebrated Easter. Christian services the world over proclaimed a hopeful message--"Christ is risen!", we are told. But what does that mean, really? Why the celebrating? Does it mean that Jesus was literally brought back to life as some sort of conquest over physical death that we all can partake of so that we can see our dead grandparents in heaven? Or does it mean that Jesus's ideas about the Kingdom of God outlasted his own death, that there is hope that all of us can work together towards building a better world, that he showed the way through humble self-sacrifice that the way to conquer the Kingdom of Caesar is not by emulating the ways of Caesar?
The best way we can honor Jesus's self-sacrifice on the cross is not by ignoring the life and teachings that brought him to that fateful end. And the way to do this, in my view, is to get back to the real essential task of building the Kingdom of God--in the here and now, as Jesus sought to do.