Saturday, October 11, 2014

What is Christianity?

My church is going to be having a baptism soon, so the last time I preached, I touched upon the subject of baptism as it is developed in Romans 6. There I saw that the reality of baptism includes a mysterious, mystical union with Christ, a union by virtue of which the baptized person dies to sin and comes alive to God in Jesus Christ. Just as Christ had incarnated and taken upon himself a human nature such as ours, and yet through his death and resurrection the power of sin within that nature was destroyed and defeated, so also we are united to Christ in baptism and experience to some extent that same victory over sin within us.

Now certainly there is the mystical element of baptism that Paul discusses in Rom 6. There is further the changes in identity which come along with baptism as it is discussed briefly in Gal 3.24-9. But perhaps for those to be baptized it is important to ask a more basic question: what is Christianity? If we are going to be baptizing persons to become Christians, we ought to have some kind of answer to the question of what this Christianity is into which they are being initiated through baptism.

If you listen to some persons talk, you might get the impression that Christianity is a set of rules to be obeyed until death so that you can win for yourself a favorable afterlife. You don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't chew, you don't go with girls that do, and you keep these and a number of other rules as best as you can. Then, when you die, if you were good enough, you will be allowed to enter into heaven and enjoy the rest of eternity in bliss and happiness.

Other persons talk about Christianity as if it were a system of beliefs and doctrines to be affirmed with rigid, immutable fidelity. If you are a Christian, you believe x, y, and z, and you reject as dangerously heretical everyone who denies these things. There is no room for discussion, no room for disagreement -- either you believe and you are saved, or you are not. Moreover, you cannot put too great an emphasis on what people do in order to be saved, because people can't be good anyway; the point is to believe.

I think both of these groups -- caricatures, I admit -- are mistaken. I think Christianity ought to be understood differently. I myself have a different understanding of Christianity. Furthermore I think all persons who are seeking baptism should be careful to understand Christianity properly, since the baptismal step they are taking is an important one. They are, by their own admittance, renouncing their former life and the deceits of the devil; they had better be doing this out of sincerity, less the event of their public baptism have been done in vain and become a spectacle. How do I understand Christianity, then?

Now I have been in seminary for a year now, and I have really been enjoying it. One of the things I've particularly enjoyed about my seminary education is the connection that I have with the other students. I did my undergraduate degree at Arizona State University studying philosophy, and one of the difficulties of that was the very arid, secular environment of the philosophy department. I was among the very few who were Christians, and most of the time I found I had very little in common with my fellow students. There was little to talk about with them, since we disagreed on more or less everything I thought was important. Our worldviews were wildly divergent. At Fuller, however, I am surrounded by persons who love Jesus Christ and who want to serve him, and this has proven to be a refreshment for my weary soul. I can talk about the important things with my fellow students, I can become real friends with them, we can pray for each other, and so on.

As I listen to the other students in the seminary tell about their lives and the course they took to arrive at Fuller, I find an important common denominator among many of them. They might have lived their entire lives as Christians, or else they might have been raised in thoroughly secular households only to become Christians later in life. Some of them went through periods of deep worldliness, promiscuity, drug abuse, generally irresponsible living, alcoholism, and the rest. Nevertheless they determined to go to seminary and wish to serve Jesus because they had a moment in which they realized: God loves me! Even me! They came to the realization that in spite of their past, in spite of the mistakes they had made when they were younger, in spite of troubling events which had previously disposed them to atheism (e.g., the early death of parents), and even in spite of their present failings, God loves them more than they can imagine, more than they love themselves.

To my mind this is precisely Christianity: the realization that God loves you, in spite of everything which has happened to you and everything you've done, and that this love finds its most complete expression in what God accomplished in Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity apart from the message -- both its expression and its acceptance on the part of the believer -- that God loves you, and that Jesus Christ shows you what this love looks like.

The Bible describes this love of Christ in many different ways. Consider the example of Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost: he tells his listeners that they put Jesus Christ to death (Acts 2.22-3), but they may repent and be baptized and receive the promised Holy Spirit (vv. 36-9). Now imagine what that means! God loves these persons so much: they kill Christ, the Son of God, and Peter nevertheless informs them that the promise of the Holy Spirit was for them; they, the deicidal who looked God square in the face in Jesus Christ and decided to kill him, they are promised the Holy Spirit of God who lives in their heart and deifies them! God takes the deicidal and deifies them even through their act of deicide -- that is the deep love of God!

This is a point that Christians have appreciated throughout the long history of Christianity. It has made its way into their literature. Consider Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, in which a Portugese priest under persecution XVII century Japan is forced to make a difficult choice: Japanese peasants will undergo extreme torture unto death unless he agrees to renounce his priestly work and 'apostatize' by placing his foot upon a wooden icon of the crucified Christ. He is not asked to renounce any beliefs, only to go through the motion of placing his foot on the icon and to cease his work as a priest. The struggles and tortures of the peasants audible, he lifts his foot over the icon and just at that moment, Christ speaks to him from the icon: "Trample! Trample! That's what I came into the world for, to be trampled upon by men."

This is the deep love of God in Jesus Christ. It is willing to be trampled and put to death so that you, a miserable sinner, can enjoy eternal life and fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Apart from this act of intervention and vicarious suffering, there would be no hope for you or for anyone; but because Christ has died for our sins, we can have life with God and escape the destruction of death. This is all because God loves us, as T.F. Torrance said, he loves us more than he loves himself, and he is willing to undergo loss for himself in order that we can gain everything.

Becoming a Christian is realizing that God loves you, and that this love is most completely expressed in what Jesus Christ accomplished for us. But if God loves us like this, what can be expected of us in return except to love God and other people with the same love? If God loved you so dearly, how can you be baptized apart from loving God so dearly as to be willing to die and be trampled upon for him? And if God loves the person next to you so dearly, how can you love God and hate the person whom God has made your brother or your sister?

Christianity, to my mind, is about love and love alone -- the love that God has for us, the love that transforms us and makes us love God and everyone else. When you are baptized, you are uniting yourself to that Jesus Christ who loved you so dearly, and you are simultaneously announcing to the world that you intend to love others in the same way. It means dying; it means being trampled; but it is what God demands, because that is what his nature is, to love.