Was the mission the message or was the message the mission? Did Jesus come with a message about His mission or did He come with a message the deliverance of which was His mission?
Tradition would indicate that Jesus came primary to be a sacrifice and that this sacrificial death was the essential reason for His incarnation. His teaching under this paradigm is either preparatory to or incidental to His mission to die. This is what I mean by the mission was the message. In other words the message explained the mission of dying. If this is primarily true, Jesus taught in preparation for His impending death. With this biblical understanding, the significant teachings of Jesus must be related to His death and closely associated aspects such as His burial, resurrection, ascension, return, and the establishment of the church. Under this paradigm, the counter intuitive ethical instructions of Christ are easily overlooked or ignored.
Another view is that the primary mission of Jesus was to deliver an essential message, not about His death primarily but about a new picture of reality. That picture was embodied in the very counter intuitive lessons which Orthodoxy so readily dismisses as not essential or maybe even relevant to the real mission of Jesus, namely to die. All would probably admit that the Sermon on the Mount sets a mindboggling ethical standard, one which the church rarely if ever wants to address much less internalize in its theology and display in its actions. Jesus was undeniably God’s Truth bringer. This implies that His was a messenger’s mission. What was the essential Truth which Jesus brought to earth? How did that truth address the issue of sin? Could that Truth be nothing more than new commandments and requirements to please God and gain His eternal favor? If so, Jesus was wasting His and our time. That message had already been delivered by Moses.
Instead, I would suggest that Jesus came to earth to instruct in essential truth, a truth which relates to the here and now life. It was a message which debunked the idea that we can serve God other than by serving our fellowman. This message denied that we are or ever were separated from God, emphasizing the omnipresence of the Creator who by definition cannot be distant from His creation. Jesus called man to embrace abundant life, a here and now existence based on love and self sacrifice.
All of these ideas were foreign to the people of Jesus’ day and they are summarily dismissed or effectively ignored in the theology of most churches. In the place of teaching this route to abundant (eternal) life now, prevalent theology says that real living is secured in the hereafter by engaging in moral conflict and acts of piety now. There is a vast difference between a mission which was the message and a message which was about a mission. One view leads to anger, fear, frustration, resignation, self righteousness, and alienation (separation). The latter view brings to mankind’s attention the transformative power of love. The former embraces the power of Moses and the other the counter intuitiveness of Christ.
There is a choice in how the work of Jesus is seen. One can accept the historical doctrine of the church, making Jesus mission to appease God and thereby assuage His wrath. Or one can recognize Jesus as essential the deliverer of Truth, a transformative and wholly counter intuitive principle. Maybe reality is every bit as bizarre as transformative love now seems. Is it not possible that reality lies in the most incomprehensible words of Jesus as opposed to the perfectly “normal sounding” teachings of the present day church?