One of the biggest differences between modern Christians and Jesus' first followers revolves around faith in His resurrection. Each believes He rose from the dead, but early Christians were much more emphatic about Jesus being alive among us here and now than many of us are today.
Accustomed to looking at the Lord's ascension as a definite leaving of earth, we believe He's alive but up in heaven with our deceased grandparents and all those other members of "the Church triumphant." Rarely do we think about Him alive on this earth, living in the people we encounter every day: "The Church militant."
We demonstrate this faith-difference in the way we portray Jesus. Our paintings and statues usually depict Him wearing 2,000-year-old Holy Land clothes and hair styles, the way He would have looked during His earthly ministry. But Christian artists of the first centuries always showed Him in the clothes and hair styles in vogue at the time, and in the place their works of art were being created (as we know from the famous Good Shepherd statue from the Roman catacomb of St. Callistus). Jesus' first followers were much more interested in showing Jesus as He is, than how He was.
That's why Ezekiel's image of Yahweh the Shepherd takes on a deeper meaning when we apply it to the risen Jesus than to the historical Jesus (Ez 34:11-12, 16-17). Though the prophet originally was talking about a specific point in history in which Yahweh would appear to shepherd the Chosen People, Jesus' disciples were forced by their Lord's resurrection to break through history. They believed that Jesus is among us today, rescuing, pasturing, seeking, bringing back, healing. No longer limited to His earthly ministry, these saving actions are now part of Jesus' risen, living ministry.
Yet, that far-reaching shepherd theology doesn't exhaust all the implications of Jesus among us. Matthew adds another dimension in the Gospel (Mt 25:31-46). Not only is Jesus the caring element in our lives, He's also found in those for whom we care. Every person to whom we give ourselves " whether hungry, thirsty or a stranger, naked, sick or in prison " becomes the risen Jesus for us.
It's not surprising that Matthew's community finds the Lord in the weak and helpless. Remember what Paul says in chapter 12 of II Corinthians about the power of Christ springing forth from powerlessness? "I willingly boast of my weaknesses," the Apostle writes, "that the power of Christ may rest upon me....For when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong."
One of the most interesting aspects of Matthew's judgment scene is that the just didn't realize when they were helping the helpless that they were helping Jesus. We'd expect those "on the left' to protest that they didn't recognize Jesus in those who requested their help. But even the just ask, "When did we see you...?" Obviously, the risen Jesus becomes present to those who imitate Jesus. We find Jesus only by looking at others through the eyes of Jesus.
But no matter how often or on what level we discover Jesus alive around us, the Lord's main goal is to actually instill life in us. That's the reason for chapter 15 of I Corinthians. "Death came through a man," Paul reminds his community; "hence the resurrection of the dead comes through a man also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again" (I Cor 15:20-26, 28).
Jesus' followers long to have a never-ending life. But there's a big difference between how we and His earliest disciples conceive of that life. For them, eternal life doesn't start only after we physically die. Jesus' resurrection isn't just God's "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" on everything Jesus said and did during His earthly ministry. It's actually the beginning of our own immortality.
We step into eternal life when Jesus steps into eternal life, but only if we start taking steps now to make the risen Jesus a part of our everyday life.
On the other hand, those who believe only in the historical Jesus might have to wait until they physically die before anything really important happens in their life.