It's often difficult for Jesus' followers to accurately convey to others His importance in their lives.

If we regard Him only as the founder of a specific religion, we don't have that problem. In that case, Jesus simply provides us with an institution that offers us the means to get into heaven. He's not someone who relates to us -- and we to Him -- as a real person.

But His earliest followers, including those who gave us our Christian Scriptures, had yet to experience an institution through which they would filter their experience of Jesus. They just had Him, risen, alive and present in everything they did.

Valued presence
We have some inkling of how they valued His presence when we hear the early Christian hymn Paul inserts into the second reading (Colossians 1:12-20).

Listen to the different concepts that come to the author's mind and pen when Jesus is mentioned: "Image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation,...head of the body, the church,...the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, all things, pre-eminent, Him all the fullness,...making peace by the blood of His cross."

In the first reading (II Samuel 5:1-3), we get a small glimpse of how Jesus' ancestor David was regarded by the people about 1,000 years earlier.

Originally, David was king only of the southern half of the Promised Land, Judah. Saul's son, Ishbaal, was king of the northern half, Israel. The latter eventually was assassinated. That's when the elders of those northern tribes asked David to lead their nation also.

Scholars tell us the best thing David had going for him was his unifying personality. Though an adulterer, a murderer and, without doubt, the worst parent in Jewish history, he could unite the 12 disparate Jewish tribes and all other factions, molding them into one nation.

This unifying dimension of David's personality seems to have prompted the blind Jericho beggar, Bartimaeus, to cry out, "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me!" The good that David brought to all Jews is what Bartimaeus expected Jesus to bring to his life.

We see some of the significance that people attached to Jesus in Sunday's Gospel (Luke 23:35-43). He certainly didn't fulfill everyone's messianic expectations, or else He wouldn't have had to endure these Golgotha taunts. But He did make a difference for some, especially for the thief who asks, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

His request and Jesus' response is even more significant when we know the history of the community for which it originally was written. At first, Christians believed Jesus would return quickly after His resurrection and escort His disciples into heaven. At that time, the question most asked was, "What will happen to those who die before Jesus' return? Do they lose out on the heavenly goodies?"

St. Paul assures his readers that those who die before Jesus comes back will simply spend the interval in the grave, biding their time until that glorious occasion arrives. Then they'll be the first to rise.

Today in heaven
Thirty years later, when Luke writes, Christians are facing a crisis in faith: Jesus hasn't returned, and there is no sign He will in the near future. Luke is the first Christian author to dump the "time-in-the-grave" belief and reach the conclusion that Christians who die receive their own personal Parousia. At the moment of death, they instantly find themselves in heaven with Jesus. That's why Luke's Jesus can assure the thief, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise!"

Only someone who had a deep relationship with such a living person could have dared take such a drastic step.

(Father Karban's latest booklet, "The Gospel Truth," is available through the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity, PO Box 31, Belleville, IL 62220. The cost, including postage and handling, is $3.50. There's a discount on orders of 10 or more.)