The message of the classic movie "It’s a Wonderful Life" is conveyed by contrast. The angel Clarence lets George Bailey see the role he’s played in the lives of people around him. He experiences the same individuals with George Bailey and without George Bailey. The contrast is staggering.

Sunday’s readings use the same methods. They show the difference people of faith make in the world by contrasting them with people of no faith.

Jeremiah dealt with faithless people every day of his prophetic ministry (Jer 17: 5-8). "Cursed is the one," he proclaims, "who trusts in human beings, who seeks strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from Yahweh. This person is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season."

Meanwhile, "The person who trusts in Yahweh, whose hope is Yahweh, is like a tree planted besides the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green."

Blessings

Luke’s Jesus copies Jeremiah’s technique during the "beatitude" part of his "Sermon on the Plain." Unlike Matthew’s "Ser-mon on the Mount" in which Jesus clicks off eight situations in which His followers experience blessings in the midst of pain, Luke has Jesus give only four beatitudes. But He quickly contrasts them with four curses.

"Blessed are you," He proclaims, "who are poor,...who are hungry,...who are weeping,... when people hate, exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.

"But woe to you," Jesus warns, "who are rich,...who are filled,... who laugh,...when all speak well of you."

Contrasting have-nots with haves, Jesus shows that whoever has Him is happier than someone who has everything except Him.

I often remind my students that Matthew and Luke’s communities have already experienced this contradictory bless-edness. Jesus’ words aren’t a prediction; they’re a reflection. Christians live daily with this contrast.

Yet it’s Paul who surfaces the most significant distinction between Christians and non-Christians: belief in Jesus’ resurrection (I Cor 15: 12, 16-20). The Apostle tells us why he’s addressing this topic. "How can some among you," he asks, "say there is no resurrection of the dead?"

Eternal life

None of Paul’s Corinthian readers doubts Jesus rose from the dead. They’ve believed that from the beginning of their faith in Jesus. They have difficulty believing in their personal resurrection. Believing Bill Gates is a billionaire, for instance, doesn’t put a nickel in the believer’s pockets. It’s just as possible that someone can believe a Jewish carpenter rose from the dead without that event having any effect on the believer’s pros-pects for eternal life.

Paul sees one basic difference between the two "believers." Whoever imitates the death of the risen Jesus becomes one with the risen Jesus. He doesn’t argue from Jesus’ resurrection to the Christian’s resurrection. He does the opposite.

"If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain. You are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen sleep in Christ have perished."

What happens to Jesus happens to the Christian. If the followers of Jesus mirror Jesus, then resurrection is an essential part of both their lives.

It’s hard to remember what faith was like before we formed ourselves into an organized religion. What originally contrasted Christians with non-Christians wasn’t a hierarchical structure, a liturgical system of theological dogmas. It was a simple relationship with the risen Jesus, a relationship which transforms people into "other Christs."

(2/12/04)