“A Christianity which will not help those who are struggling from the bottom to the top of society, needs another Christ to die for it.” – Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit
“A Christianity which will not help those who are struggling from the bottom to the top of society, needs another Christ to die for it.” – Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit
This summer I presented a brief series at my church called “Christianity for Dummies” about the basics of the faith. It was a four-part series with the first three parts being Knowing God, Loving God and Serving God. For the finale, I decided to write a letter to a fictional seeker, one who I imagined asked me about my experience with God, about why I choose Christianity. Below is that letter…
You’ve asked me to describe to you the experience of being a Christian. Why believe this way? Why Jesus? Why bother? It’s a big set of questions. I can’t necessarily address the “why Christianity” angle of these questions in the sense of comparing and contrasting with other faiths. I don’t know enough about other faiths to work out that kind of argument. No doubt I would horribly misrepresent what others believe, anyway.
Really, I can only speak from my belief, from my experience, from my experience of God – knowing God, loving God, serving God. Ultimately, I believe that experiencing God is at the core; that experiencing is all those things – knowing, loving, serving – happening all at once, all the time. And I believe that Christianity offers the ultimate experience of God. That belief statement hinges on Jesus. You can’t talk about experiencing God as a Christian without Jesus. That equation doesn’t work.
Funny thing, though: Many Christians shy away from connecting Jesus directly to any faith statements they might make. You’ll hear a Christian say, “I believe in God” or “I follow God” and seem to think that covers it; that is all that is needed to convince you of their devotion to Christianity. Though there is nothing wrong with those statements, there is also nothing particularly Christian about those statements, either. In fact, it could be argued that saying “I believe in God” is a very human thing to say, to believe. Belief like that is very universal in our world, one shared by literally billions of people, give or take a few million dissenters.
Knowing God, loving God, serving God – these concepts are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. But these concepts are also at the heart of what it means to be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, etc. Of course, Christianity puts its own particular spin to these concepts. And that spin has no momentum at all without mentioning Jesus. It is odd, then, that the name of Jesus is not often included in a Christian’s statement of faith. Perhaps they are afraid of offending (a not uncommon Christian trait). Perhaps by stating “I believe in God” they are just trying to fit in with the few other billion people on earth who would agree. But a Christian leaving Jesus’ name out of any statement of faith is like not mentioning beef in a recipe for beef Stroganoff. People might eventually notice and it won’t help anyone who is trying to cook up the recipe for themselves. I mean, “Where’s the beef?”
So let me make it really plain for you and very straightforward: I believe in God because I believe in Jesus. I believe in God because of Jesus. I believe in God because I likely would not without Jesus. And it is Jesus that I follow. My experience of a life lived in faith is all wrapped up in Jesus. And tied with a bow.
How does this impact my experience of God? How does it make things different? To understand that, you need to understand what I believe: I believe Jesus is the only Son of God, born to a virgin named Mary over 2,000 years ago in a town called Bethlehem in Judea, in Israel. I believe that he is (not was but is) 100% human and 100% God (Yes, I believe in a mathematical impossibility. Sue me – it’s why it’s called faith). I also believe Jesus was both human and divine for an extremely important reason: So that he could take on all the sin of humanity, bear the weight of punishment for our sin and yet conquer it too. As a human, he could represent us all completely. As God, he could save us all completely. In other words, he was the only person who has ever lived who could possibly accomplish this. I also believe Jesus lived among us to set a pattern for life, an example to follow, a way to ensure that your life is full of purpose and meaning. I believe he went ahead for us to mark out the Path – peace, justice, love, forgiveness, truth, grace, mercy, light and joy. I also believe that died but came to life again (Yes, I believe a scientific impossibility, too… faith, remember?), that he ascended back to his Father, and that he sent us his Holy Spirit to guide us in that path he marked out for us.
That last paragraph is full of stuff that most Christians, give or take a slightly different angle here or there, would be in complete agreement with. From a purely theological standpoint, there is nothing earth-shattering in what I’ve professed to believe. It is when all that theological stuff gets translated into flesh and blood, into my real walking around, eating, sleeping, working, complaining, laughing, crying, whining life that things really start to take off. When it moves beyond the head knowledge, beyond the theology to life practicality, the Jesus Experience really kicks in, and a simple human being like you or me can begin to understand every moment lived in the presence of God.
Now, I’m not going all mystical on you here. I know the language sounds mystical but the Jesus Experience is way more pragmatic than that. In fact, it is downright earthy, grubby, hardscrabble and lots of other gritty adjectives. This is where I believe the experiencing of God takes on a different feeling as a follower of Jesus; a follower of the God-Man, the One who became one of us to makes us one with God. You see, because of Jesus, in all the very things that make us human, God chooses to dwell. In all the things we associate with being a man or a woman on this earth, God imbues himself and his will and his love and his truth.
Sorry – this is sounding all mystical again. But what I’m trying to say is that you can experience God down to your very DNA because God created that DNA and God, in Jesus, is that DNA. Because God chose to express himself as a human, because he chose to pursue us and love us and save us all by becoming a human, because he didn’t despise us for the lowly humans we are, we can now experience him in every aspect of what it means to be human. We don’t have to graduate to some elevated spiritual plain. We don’t have to achieve some state of non-personhood. We don’t have to cast off our mortal coil to begin to grasp the immortal. We can experience God as fully as a fully human being can.
In other words, when I love I experience God because God is love. When I enjoy good food, good company, good sleep, good sex, good art, good music, good books, good movies, good days I experience God because God is good. When I create, innovate, speculate; when I think, ponder, consider; when I move, feel, breathe – God is in all of that and all of that is in God. As a believer in a God who is human, too – in Jesus Christ – all that makes me who and what I am is an avenue to experience God.
Of course, this means more than just the good and lovey stuff. Experiencing God because of Jesus also includes a deeper understanding of God in the pain, heartache, depression, doubt, anger, sorrow, loneliness. Jesus lived a truly human life and, therefore, lived a life like ours: a beautiful and terrifying thing. But because of Jesus, we realize that God is not removed from the miry clay, above the dirt and the filth; no, because of Jesus, we realize that God is right there with us, up to the neck sometimes in the crap of life. So a great part of truly experiencing God is in the shadows, in the dark, knowing that he doesn’t pick and choose what aspects of the human reality to reveal himself; he’s there always, all the time, and in all moments and places.
The Jesus Experience is so interwoven with the Human Experience that they cannot be separated. God meant it this way.
That’s what I believe and why I believe there is no deeper experience of God than through Jesus. Of course, I am very limited to understanding God by my humanness and so are you. But isn’t it an incredible, amazing thought to consider that God knows that, too, so he made a way, through Jesus, for us to understand and experience him as completely as we can in our limited humanness? That sounds like a God who truly loves me… and you, too.
What do you think?
As a Christian on Good Friday, I can’t help but consider this day and its events, its impact on history, its resonance despite the distance of almost 2,000 years. The fact is that the day wouldn’t hold such prominence if not centered on one man; a man whose life and death transcends easy categories.
Jesus is so many things to so many people but to me on this day I remember the man who battled the religious and died with terrorists.
His most heated debates, his harshest words, his greatest rebukes were directed at those who loved God and sought to worship Him with all their heart, mind and strength. They were believers living under the rule of an unbelieving Empire and they fought desperately to maintain their sense of right and wrong, their faithfulness to the Bible, their calling to represent their God in an increasingly wicked world. It is easy to cast these characters of the Gospels as villains; but that would be forgetting that they were very sincere in their desire for the wholeness of their faith. They believed that it was crucially important to guide their fellow Jews along a true path. They saw Jesus as a threat, one who would undermine this goal. Increasingly they saw the man of Nazareth as a religious rebel, a “blasphemer” who was sullying the name of God and tearing down all the distinctiveness of Judaism and therefore dragging the faith into the mud. For people who saw themselves as defenders of their beliefs, Jesus became an adversary that had to be dealt with before he dragged more people down to his irreligious level.
An honest reading of the Gospels makes it much easier to understand their perspective, especially if you are a believer and put yourself in their shoes as you read. Jesus seems to go out of his way to pick fights with the upright of his day. He recasts the Law time and again, putting his own spin on things, telling people “this is what you’ve been taught for hundreds of years but I say this“. The seeming arrogance of his statements, the casualness of his apostasy, would have rankled so many of his fellow Jews; particularly those who felt the pressure to live true to their faith in the midst of a world that was dominated by the non-believing, the godless and the secular.
Jesus invited the presence and the influence of the non-believing, the godless and the secular. He didn’t live as if there was an ever-increasing gap between those who believed and those who did not. In fact, he lived as if that gap didn’t exist, as if the warfare that waged between the faithful and the wicked did not influence his goals or his mission. In other words, he doesn’t seem at all motivated by the factors that motivated his Jewish peers. His agenda was not their agenda. Their fears did not play a role in his mind, words or actions. Unlike the religious, he boldly stepped into the breach. He brought hope instead of fear; love instead of law; he said “Yes” virtually everywhere they said “No”.
And, yes, he did die with terrorists. The Gospels record the fact that he was crucified between two criminals, often called “thieves” in a traditional recounting of Good Friday. However, it is highly unlikely the Roman authorities would resort to their harshest form of execution over a couple of common thieves. It is much more likely that these two men were insurrectionists, Zealots: Jewish men who felt so strongly about their people, their nation, their faith that they were willing to kill and to die for the cause. To them the evil Empire that dominated their land and lives needed to be directly opposed and attacked. Their crime was probably killing Romans or others they saw in league with the Empire. Therefore, the two men crucified with Jesus were, in the eyes of the Romans, terrorists; those who would use fear, violence, intimidation as a means to their end.
The Gospel of Luke tells the simple but profound account involving these two terrorists on either side of Jesus. In Luke’s account, one of the men joins in with those who came to the cross to mock Jesus, to rub salt into his wounds. It is really not a surprise that this man would do so, especially if he was a hyper-committed Zealot. Jesus had spoken and acted like he was the Messiah but had failed miserably to live up to that promise. To this criminal on the cross he was just a pathetic poser with delusions of grandeur. Even as his own death was imminent, this terrorist would feel anger and resentment towards Jesus, someone who was undeserving of a martyr’s death.
But the second criminal, instead of sinking deeper into the void of bitterness, seems to gain insight as he sees the specter of death approaching. He rebukes his fellow terrorist for his harsh words directed at Jesus saying, “We are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in one of the most heart-wrenching and direct statements recorded in scripture, he turns to the young rabbi hanging next to him and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Did he understand at that moment the deeper implications of the death of Jesus? Or was he professing a faith that no matter what transpired that day, this man crucified next to him must be the Messiah; he had to be, he could be no one else? Whatever was the motivation, a man who likely killed out of his fierce ideology was now proclaiming faith out of the glimmer of hope his soul still clung to.
Jesus rewards this gasped confession of faith with the powerful words, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
These words of Jesus, as his own life was ebbing away, is just another example of the fact that, time and time again, when he was faced with an opportunity to respond to those around him, he says “Yes”. Jesus never turned someone away and he always saw a movement towards him as a movement towards truth, towards good, towards what God had in mind in that moment. And he approached each of these moments without fear, without a judgment based on the moral character or background of the people before him. He showed us over and over that when given the chance to do so, he was a Yes Man.
I am pondering this on Good Friday at a time when there is firestorm of debate on social media surrounding the recent events in Indiana. From one side of the story it is a triumphant expression of religious freedom; on the other side it is a cloaked and dangerous form of discrimination. I am in no position to take any one of these sides as I am simply not informed enough. However, as a Christian, I am saddened that non-believers automatically associate the discrimination, the negativity, the exclusion, with followers of the same Jesus I have been writing about here. To those outside the faith so often we are people who, when confronted with the opportunity to engage with the world the way Jesus did, give a loud and undeniable “NO”. As people who believe and follow a man who did not act out of fear, we continually and repeatedly rely on fear as our “fall back” position.
This disturbs me on this Good Friday. As I see it, Jesus died to free us from sin, to give us forgiveness and eternal life. His resurrection on Easter seals the deal. It is God’s great act of restoration and healing for us and all Creation. We can make the theological proclamations and re-affirm this belief. But in day-to-day living what does it mean? Ultimately I believe it means that we are meant to live and engage in our world the way Jesus did, without fear, without our actions being tainted by our mistaken notion that we are “defenders of the faith”. We get so caught up in the wickedness of the world, in our concern that religious freedoms will be stripped away, that a godlessness will descend on our lives that we miss the moments, over and over and over again, to display to our world the powerful example of Gospel grace and truth, love and mercy, openness and engagement without fear.
We are meant to embody hope to people who so desperately need it. Our world is full of sadness. We are not meant to make life more of a struggle to a people stumbling around in darkness. We are meant, like Jesus, to shine; to take those moments offered to us, when our world needs a word of love amid its gasps of pain, to speak and act as our Lord did. Perhaps this was one reason Jesus was so critical of the religiously upright of his time. He saw their attempts at preserving a pure faith as laying heavier and heavier burdens on people who were already feeling crushed. He reacted to their expressions of fear of their world by throwing it back in their faces, confronting them with the actual God they thought they knew and understood.
I’m not sure what it means to you to follow Jesus. But to me it means that every time I am presented with an opportunity to be Jesus in someone’s life, I want to say “Yes”; recognizing that these opportunities will often come with a heavy dose of challenge to my values, my belief system, my understanding of what is right and wrong. Because it is not my job to make sure everyone lives in accordance to the will of God. It is my job to do the will of God, period. And the will of God has never been more powerfully on display than in the life of the one I follow: Jesus.
On this Good Friday, I ask God to grant me the strength to be a Yes Man to my world. To be present and real and a source of hope; to not live my faith out of fear but out of joy; to act and speak from a place of trust in my God and love for all. In other words, I ask God for the strength to be more and more like Jesus.
A happy and hopeful Easter to you all.
I am a Christian. For most of my life I have identified with the Evangelical camp in the broader Christian world. At least, if I had to give a definition that most people would understand, I would tell them I was an Evangelical Christian. I’ve never been one that likes labels, but after considering many things that are currently connected with being an Evangelical, I began to realize that I am not very good at it. I am a hopelessly lousy Evangelical.
However, I suspect I am not alone. In fact, I think there are many of us out there. You may be one, too.
To help in determining this, I’ve compiled a very un-scientific list. If you can relate to any of these statements, you may be as hopelessly lousy at this as I am.
So, without further ado…
You may be a lousy Evangelical Christian if:
Did you find yourself anywhere on this list? If so, you may be struggling at this Evangelical Christian thing, too.
I want to follow Jesus. But after considering how badly I am doing at this, I think it’s time we had a new category for Christianity. Either that or it’s time to cast aside categories altogether and live and let live. Jesus was clear that it would be love that would be the defining characteristic of his followers. It sounds too simple but maybe we are guilty of making it too complicated. The first believers were called “followers of the Way”; Jesus has laid the path out and we’re to follow. It is we who’ve added the tons of baggage and trappings and rules and regulations and expectations and limitations to the deal. He put it so straightforward and unencumbered: “Follow me.”
I want to be able to do that free from labels, free from the shackles we put on others and on ourselves.
I just want to be known as someone who believes in, loves and follows Jesus. I might still be lousy at that but at least I’ll fumble along in joy instead of confusion.