Essay / Theology

The Christian Religion

Last week I spoke at the annual Religious Diversity Forum at the University of California at Irvine. Most of my time there was spent in open discussion with a small group of people, including a rabbi and a nice Muslim woman who was fascinated by the idea of Baptist foot-washing services. But here are my opening remarks on the subject of what the religion called Christianity is. They are geared for a religiously diverse audience of intellectual students.

Christianity begins with Jesus. It is the religion, among the religions of the world, which starts with Jesus Christ. As religions go, Christianity is one that begins with its founder in a sense that is unique among the major religions, because it starts with him, ends with him, and never leaves him. It does not just view Jesus as a symbol of values that are greater than him, or as an instantiation of truths about something other than him, or as a conduit of a message that is about anything higher than him. Christianity recognizes Jesus as the alpha and the omega, the unavoidable and unsurpassable, the beginning and the end of the relationship between God and humanity.

A Christian is somebody who never gets over Jesus.

The habit of taking Jesus as the inescapable starting-point is not one that was made up by Paul the Apostle, the early church, the dark ages, or the fundamentalists. It is a habit that Christians learned from Jesus himself, who knew what he was about, and who offered himself as the starting point, as the necessary site for salvation.

In the shortest and probably earliest of the four gospels, the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus did something so surprising that the church has never gotten over it. He had already been healing people of various diseases; that’s not the surprising part. Four friends carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus, and lowered him down through the roof to get him close enough for Jesus to heal him.

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins—” he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-12)

Why is it more amazing for Jesus to forgive somebody’s sins than for him to heal their paralysis? Because sin is a personal offense against God, and since it is personal, nobody can forgive “but God alone” as the scribes rightly noted. An almighty God can send somebody else to bring physical healing. An angel will suffice for the delegation of such a task, or even a good and obedient man. But for “the Son of Man” to have “authority on earth to forgive sins,” he must be, in person, the offended party. He must be the righteous God, the one against whose holiness each of us directs our rebellion (whatever collateral damage we may inflict on others). Standing there in Capernaum, Jesus was the Son of God who has authority to forgive.

What is salvation? There are a lot of different ideas of salvation on the market. The paralyzed man and his friends, understandably, thought of physical healing as salvation. Jesus knew that the salvation he needed was something else: reconciliation with God. Christians are people who agree with Jesus that our problem is sin, and that salvation is personal forgiveness.

Think how many details of the Christian religion flow directly from that starting point. What Jesus announced on that day for the paralyzed man, he went on to enact through his own death and resurrection. That is the Christian doctrine of atonement. And it only works because of who Jesus is: the Son of Man who has authority to forgive sins, and to make atonement for sins. He is fully human and fully divine, which is the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.

So, like the paralyzed man rising from his bed and taking his first few steps, we have stepped from forgiveness, to atonement, to the incarnation. But there is another step. If Jesus is divine, then who must God be? If we said that Jesus is God, then we have to admit that the definition of “God” must somehow include Jesus. The eternal Son, who in the fullness of time became incarnate for us and our salvation, belongs essentially to the definition of the true God. Of course we will have to come to understand what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit, but there is time for that later. Recognizing that Jesus belongs to the identity of God is the big step to take. After that, the logic of the doctrine of the Trinity is as easy as it is inevitable. One theologian has called the doctrine of the Trinity “the change in the conception of God which followed, as it was necessitated by, the New Testament conception of Christ and His work.”

A Christian is somebody who never gets over Jesus, and the church has never gotten over that surprising testimony that Jesus bore about himself: He has authority to forgive sins, so he is God, and God is Father, Son, and Spirit. We start with Jesus, and get to the three biggest doctrines of the Christian religion: atonement, incarnation, Trinity. No wonder the picture of the paralyzed man carrying his own bed away was one of the most popular images in the ancient catacombs. In fact, it is a painting of the story of that forgiven man with his own bed on his back that is the oldest depiction of Jesus to have survived in Christian art. It has been found from the year 235, painted on the wall of the House-church at Dura Europos.

The theme of this year’s Religious Diversity Forum is community service, and having described the three biggest doctrines of Christianity, I should also say something about Christian motivation for service. I could point to the paralyzed man again and notice how Jesus cared for his physical needs as a sign of his spiritual deliverance. I could even point out that the newly-healed man was so community-minded that he cleaned up his own bedding!

But it would be better to show another way that Jesus surprised us in a way that we have never gotten over. Ten chapters later in Mark, a scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Notice that he asks for one commandment. Jesus, however, answers with two:

The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these. (see Mark 12:28-31)

The first part of that answer is surely the certified right answer for any observant Jew: The Shema from Deuteronomy 6. But the second part is the surprise: “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not from Deuteronomy, but from Leviticus 19:17. Asked for one command, Jesus gives two, and yokes them by saying “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Do you see something in common between this surprising answer, and the surprising forgiveness he gave in the first story? In both cases, he established right relation with God the Father, and in both cases he also threw in the more earth-bound concerns. The paralyzed man had his sins forgiven, and then rose up unparalyzed, to carry away his own bed. The greatest commandment is to love God with all you’ve got, and then to love others as yourself. Jesus never let the vertical relationship with God be disconnected from the horizontal connections to others.

So Christian motivation to service also begins with Jesus. It begins with him and never gets over him, because it does not just see him as an example for imitation. It sees him as the Son of God, living out in person among us the truth that he taught. The Gospel According to John reports the most dramatic enactment of this serving:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him… When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13)

He said this, of course, on the night when he was betrayed. He did this on his way to the cross where he provided the basis for the free forgiveness and reconciliation that only he, the Son of God, can give. There is a lot more to say about the Christian religion, the beliefs of its adherents, and the actions of Jesus’ followers. But the inescapable and unsurpassable beginning point is Jesus himself, in his surprising teaching, his unity with the Father and the Spirit, and his power to forgive and heal.

That’s the Christian religion.

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