Most of us reading this hold our faith because we were raised in it. We may ask questions and challenge some assumptions, but ultimately those of us raised to be Christian tend to remain Christian (or Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist etc.) I was one of those who left only to come back later – but why?
I had an experience of God calling me to return to faith, but why this faith? What makes Christianity unique – not superior, just different – among thousands of other traditions? To me, it all comes down to the person of Jesus Christ.
Last Christmas, when my elementary school-age neighbor was excitedly reporting her holiday plans to me, I asked her what she knew about why we celebrate. Her answer was blunt, almost teasing me for asking: it’s God’s birthday!
It’s a silly way to speak of the Incarnation, but she was absolutely right. For us, God was actually born into a mortal body, into a poor family living on the periphery of Empire. It’s easy to get lost in the divinity of Christ and de-emphasize the fact that he was both fully God and fully human. When we surrender our struggles to Jesus, we can be sure he understands them – because he experienced them, too.
Jesus was tempted to abandon his principles to win earthly glory. He partied with friends and got into arguments. He experienced joy and suffering too. Though not recorded in the Gospels, we can assume he also went to the bathroom!
There is an inexplicable closeness in the dual nature of Jesus, the knowledge that the Creator of the Universe saw fit to endure a human life for our sake.
Love & Good Fruit
Jesus’ parables are open-ended stories that have been mined for wisdom for over two thousand years, but they aren’t my area of focus today. Instead I’ll highlight some of his teachings made in direct statements or simple metaphors. Here we can really see how far ahead of his time he was.
Peter comes to Jesus asking how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him. Seven times is pretty generous, right? But Jesus answers him – no, seventy times seven! (Matthew 18:21-22) The Lord’s mercy is incomprehensible, yet it is what we should all aspire toward. And we all know the simplicity of the Greatest Commandment: love God with all your heart and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. How easy to hear and difficult to practice!
One lesson I find especially useful is the one on true and false prophets. Evil is rarely done by mustache-twirling villains reveling in their wickedness. It’s done by people who think that they’re acting righteously, who either deny the harmfulness of their actions or think them justified in service of some greater good. It’s not always easy to tell the difference.
Jesus gets to the heart of the matter: “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matt 7:15-20) It cannot be otherwise. This helps me when I’m trying to discern which voices I should listen to, or which course of action I should take. Is what I’m saying/doing producing good fruit or bad fruit? Is the course I’m on likely to bear more peace, joy, love and gentleness in the world, or their opposite?
Perfect in Weakness
Picture the gods of the ancient world – mighty, aloof, far removed from mortal weaknesses. Roman emperors were deified and called “Son of God” after military conquests. It was all about glory. How absurd, then, to proclaim as Lord one who is killed with the cruelest, most humiliating method of execution known to Roman society!
For believers today the cross signifies victory over the powers of death, but the Jesus followers of the 1st century were keenly aware that the cross was a sign of abject weakness. This would have complicated the sales pitch when trying to win new converts, to put it mildly. The Crucifixion only makes sense as something that turns the world on its head, away from human power structures and toward God.
The Good News is not only about the literal triumph of life over death; it also promises a life renewed, one where the lowly are raised and the powerful put to shame.
Paul put it best:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 27-29)
Take some time to appreciate what Paul is saying here. In fact, go ahead and reread 1 Corinthians in its entirety. God chooses the weak, and the things that are weak in each of us. That’s why he walked among us as a poor tradesman instead of a king. That grand, cosmic reversal of power – that is the uniqueness of Christianity to me.