BIBLE READINGS: Romans 12: 1-8 Matthew 16: 13-20
A young women came to her minister and asked her to explain the difference between Christianity and Judaism. She was in love with a student who was Jewish. They were both law students, thinking about marriage. How would they deal with the difficult differences?
The minister discussed the issues with her. The differences that troubled her were between two related but disparate faiths. They discussed rituals, festivals, beliefs. Then she asked a fundamental question. “When it comes down to it, what is the one thing that makes Christians, Christian?”
The answer is not Morning Tea after church, knowing the right bible verses, or pushy preachers. The thing that makes us who we are is who Jesus is. Jesus Christ is Christianity.
Other faiths have love, have beliefs about the good and the true. Only Christianity has Jesus. If God had kept a part from us, if God had only given us a book, then we would have the Bible, but we wouldn’t be Christians. We would be another philosophy of life, or a system of ethical virtues.
But what God did, we believe, is to come to us in the flesh, as a Jew from Nazareth named Jesus, or Joshua (as it would have been said by the Jews), meaning God saves. We believe that the peculiar way God saves, that God gets to us and gets us, is Jesus. It is our astounding claim that we look at the Jewish carpenter’s son — who was born, lived briefly, died violently in his thirties, and rose from the dead unexpectedly — and we see as much of Almighty God as we hope to see.
Now, we can sympathize with those who look at Jesus and see only a noble teacher, or only a great moral example, or even a wild-eyed revolutionary. After all, from the very beginning who Jesus was, what he was about, was far from self-evident. There were people who stood face-to-face with Jesus and said, “This is God incarnate.” There appear to be many more who said, “This man is crazy.”
So, from the first, that God came to us as Jesus meant lots of people didn’t get it. Jesus frustrated people’s expectations about how a Messiah ought to act. Jesus didn’t directly say who he was. He didn’t walk around with a sign on his back saying, SON OF GOD. Messiah were supposed to have power, were supposed to take charge, set things right, fix all of our problems.
Jesus refused to force anybody into following him. He refused to dominate or to take up arms. Looking at his life work, many people would say that Jesus was one of history’s most noble failures.
So it wasn’t just that God came as Jesus, it was that God came as Jesus. He just didn’t seem like we thought God ought to be God. Eventually, Jesus was executed for doing the things he did and saying the things he said. He wasn’t killed for walking around bragging, “By the way, I’m God.”
Jesus was killed for saying, “This is God’s way: the poor are precious, the rich are in big trouble, Caesar isn’t God despite what his PR people claim, not everybody who cries ‘Lord, Lord’ is going into God’s kingdom. In fact, whores and tax collectors get in before you.”
You just don’t say things like that to people and expect to be welcomed with open arms. And Christianity, being a Christian, is about following Jesus, doing what Jesus did, speaking as he spoke. Certainly we don’t all succeed at that. After all, Jesus warned that his way was “narrow.”
Time and again Jesus said things we wish he had not. I don’t know what he was getting at when he said, “Hate your mother,” or “go sell everything you have and give it to the poor.”
Well, to be honest, I knew what he meant when he said some of those things, but I don’t like it! For most of us, it isn’t that we’ve listened to Jesus and found him incomprehensible. It’s that we’ve listened to him and found him too difficult.
I have had someone say to me after a service that I had been offensive in a sermon I had just preached – and I thought to myself, “Where on earth did they get the notion that preachers won't be offensive? This is Jesus! It’s going to get rough from time to time!”
Being Christian is about the challenging, life-long struggle to be friends with Jesus and to allow him to be friends with you.
It’s about a relationship. Richard Niebuhr said that conversion happens when the God whom you thought was your enemy to be feared is really your friend to be loved.
We love God because, we believe, God first loved us in Jesus. So Christianity is not first adherence to a set of great ideals (ethics), nor is it the comprehension of a set of great ideas (philosophy), it is a way of life, a way of walking with Jesus, a relationship.
We really believe, not only that Jesus spoke to us but that he came to us, he speaks to us, comes to us. If Easter had not happened, who would still think about Jesus? Most of his teaching was unoriginal, his inheritance from the faith of Israel. He was not particularly effective in getting his program across to his followers.
But when he came back to us, even from the dead, we then say that Jesus — who he was, what he taught, what he did — had been vindicated by God. That’s what those early Christians meant when they exploded out into the world shouting, “God has raised Jesus from the dead!” Easter was like God saying to us, “In case you have ever wondered whether or not Jesus was truly, truthfully revealing my will for the world — with all his talk of forgiving enemies, and loving the unlovable, and finding the lost — then be assured, this is exactly the way I see it. When he speaks, I’m speaking. When you look at Jesus, you’re looking at me, the one who hung the stars and flung the planets into their courses.”
I know this seems an amazing statement to those who have not experienced it, but Christians believe that Jesus is present with us, walks with us, is closer to us than we are even to ourselves.
St Augustine wrote an autobiography called Augustine' Confessions. If he had written it today it would have been all about him about his thoughts about his reflections on himself. The modern biography deals with a person looking into what motivates them. “Discover yourself.” “I’m trying to find myself,” we say today.
But that’s not what Augustine does. He begins by saying, “I’m going to tell you the story of my life.” Just like a modern biography, but after a few pages of this, you become aware that he’s not saying much of “I” and is more frequently saying “You,” “Thou.” He thought that his desires and longing arose from within himself; but what he finds is that it was really God desiring and longing for him. “I was searching everywhere for you, O God, only to find that you had been searching everywhere for me.”
That’s the presence I’m talking about that Christians learn to name as the Risen Christ. Say a prayer, tear open a loaf of bread, have a sip of wine, we believe Jesus is with us. When just two or three of us show up on Sunday, Jesus has promised, “I’ll be there.”
So that’s what makes Christians who we are — Jesus. We’re here, not because we were searching for more meaning in our lives and found Jesus. Rather, most of us were minding our own business and from out of nowhere he found us. Or we were just biding our time trying to make it through a Sunday service without dozing off and he grabbed us. It’s about Jesus.