The vibrant frescoes Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel depict humanity’s need for salvation portrayed in nine scenes from Genesis, ending with the last judgment. Michelangelo’s crowning achievement serves as a reminder that we are created in the image of God, and to be in a relationship with God as we live in a world of meaning, transcendent order, and beauty. Yet over time, the frescoes were dirtied and dimmed by layers of grime and candle wax that obscured the original colors and images. So a team of restorers meticulously cleaned the frescoes, completing the project in 1994. People were amazed by the difference, even shocked by the bright colors, but some preferred the familiar, dim images to the new.
In a similar way, the missional role of the church can be partly described as “washing the face of Jesus”. Just as the Roman soldiers spit in Jesus’ face during his crucifixion, His features continue to be muddied today by watered-down religious interpretations or false representations, making His face almost indistinguishable to many of our neighbors. When people reject Christ, often they have rejected a pseudo-Christ, the image they have in their minds. Through evangelism we bring His true features to light, making Him visible to those who have never seen.
Dr. Peter Kuzmic, an authority on Christian ministry in post-Communist contexts, came up with this picture of the mission of the church.
Kuzmic described it this way:
“We must renew the credibility of the Christian mission. Missions and evangelism are not primarily a question of methodology, money, management and numbers, but rather a question of authenticity, credibility and spiritual power…. In going out to evangelize I frequently tell our seminary students that our main task may be simply to ‘wash the face of Jesus’, for it has been dirtied and distorted by both the compromises of institutional Christianity through the centuries and the antagonistic propaganda of atheistic communism in recent decades.” 1
Jesus is the cornerstone of our faith and the impetus for our mission. But He is far greater, for all of history is summed up in Jesus Christ, this person who was fully God and fully man. God entered the brokenness of our world, becoming incarnate to save humanity from sin. As theologian Wayne Grudem stated, “The fact that the infinite, omnipotent, eternal Son of God could become man and join himself to a human nature forever, so that infinite God became one person with finite man, will remain for eternity the most profound miracle and the most profound mystery in all the universe.”
There has never been nor ever will be anyone like Him. No other religion can point to a perfect, loving God who suffered for humanity and knows how to comfort us in our suffering, yet conquered sin and death once and for all to deliver us and break its power.
Yet, in the post-Christendom spiritual landscape of Europe, many people are confused and conflicted about His identity. Throughout history, culture has distorted the image of Jesus in different ways, while many people have been deeply wounded by bad religious experiences. People sometimes know about the Holiday Jesus, mentioned during Christmas and Easter; the Cultural Jesus they acknowledge because of their Christian history; or the Iconic Jesus who is one of many images they may pray to in time of need.
While meeting with a Ukrainian student, I asked her to choose an image from a group of photos that most represented God to her. She pointed to a picture of a hand holding a lizard while the lizard was biting the hand. “This is what religion is like to me,” she said, “but I think faith is different from religion. I want to find out more about faith.” I told her that Jesus not only points the way to faith, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In the Bible, we find an accurate picture of Jesus Christ.
It is vitally important that the Church, the body of Christ, accurately portrays Jesus in word and deed among the pain and suffering of the real world, in real time. Now.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14