Why Be A Christian?

Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

My favorite part of our church’s mission statement is the part at the end where we declare that we are “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.”  I like to remind you of those words at the beginning of worship every Sunday because they speak volumes about who we are and what we do in this community.  The world at large desperately needs to hear this message about a community that is truly “open to all”.  So many other groups and organizations, even churches, divide themselves from one another along ideological lines.  Here in this church, it is my privilege to be a pastor to so many people from so many different political and religious backgrounds.  I can testify from experience that the Spirit who binds us together is deeper and broader than any one set of ideas or opinions.  This is a church that has been built from the heart up, not from the mind down.

Almost everywhere else you can go in the world, the exact opposite is true.  Most people want to know if you agree with them before they enter into a relationship with you.  But we are different.  We’ll move over and make room for you in the pew no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you think.  We’ll just keep on telling you that we love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Yup, we’re “open to all and reaching out to the world in love”.  I want you to know this morning how rare and unique that is, especially for a church.  I personally believe that this part of our identity is the key to our future as a church.  This commitment to openness is what makes us different from so many other Christians, who make people pass some kind of dogma test before they’ll accept them.

Recently, I was engaged in an intense discussion with one of these “other Christians”.  This person said to me, “You think it’s okay, in God’s eyes, for people to practice other religions.  So then, why would anyone want to be Christian if it’s not the one and only true religion?”  I thought that was a great question.  Why would anyone choose to be Christian if they could also choose to be Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim?

I was reminded of this conversation when I read this week’s gospel passage from the lectionary.  It’s the story of a woman named Mary of Bethany, who knelt at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair.  This was an incredible act of affection and devotion toward Jesus.  Mary obviously loved and cared about him very much.

That got me thinking: if I was in Mary’s place, what is it about Jesus that would make me fall down on my knees in love and devotion?  What is it about Jesus that makes me want to commit my life to him?  Why am I a Christian?

I think this is a question that each and every one of us should ask.  Whether you’ve just started coming to church or you’ve been here your whole life, you’ve decided to be here for a reason.  We owe it to ourselves and the world to know what that reason is.  I can’t answer that question for you.  But what I can do is tell you why I’ve decided to be a Christian.  I hope that my answer to this question might help you answer it for yourself.

So here’s what Christian faith means to me.  This is what has driven me, like Mary of Bethany, to kneel down before the feet of Jesus and offer him all that I have and all that I am:

For me, being a Christian is all about love.  Love is what I have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.  When religious scholars quizzed Jesus about the most important part of the Bible, he told them it all comes down to love: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Jesus embodied love in the way he lived his life.  He broke bread with tax collectors, Jews who sold their own people out to the Romans in order to make a quick, dishonest buck.  He pardoned the sin of a woman caught in adultery when the rest of her village was ready to stone her to death.  He nurtured relationships with Samaritans, the ethnic and religious rivals of the Jews, and saw the best in them.  He praised the faith of a pagan Roman soldier.  He reached out and touched a leper, who had been shunned and exiled from society because of his disease.  Finally, he spoke words of forgiveness to his executioners as they waited for him to die.  This is love.

Love, he said, is the first duty of any religious person.

When he wasn’t around, Jesus called upon his followers to love each other in his place.  Any good deed rendered unto the most despised and forgotten members of society, Jesus said in Matthew 25, he would count as service rendered unto him.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”

The love that shone through Jesus came to have a profound impact on his followers.  The apostle Paul declared that, if it wasn’t for love, all his words, knowledge, and faith would be meaningless.  John the Beloved went so far as to let Jesus’ example of love redefine his idea of God: “God is love,” he said, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

What I learned through Jesus is that God is not some angry judge, sitting high up on a cloud, hurling down lightning bolts at people he doesn’t like.  No, God is that dynamic energy of love that flows out from within us.  God works through persuasion, not coercion.  This divine love takes on an infinite variety of forms, depending on the person and the situation.  As we open ourselves up to this love more and more, we are continually filled with God’s Spirit, and we begin to resemble Jesus.  Love, then, is the measure of our faith, not religious dogma.

Through Jesus, I learn how to love and I learn that I am loved.  Jesus didn’t just teach people about love, he didn’t just point to love.  No, Jesus embodied love in his very being and person.  Love shone through his every word and deed.  That’s what I mean when I praise Jesus as the Son of God and the Incarnation of God: Jesus is the embodiment of divine love who invites me to do and be the same, in whatever imperfect and limited way that I am able.

This is what takes my breath away when it comes to Jesus.  This is why I want to fall down at his feet and offer everything I have and all that I am, so that I might be part of that love too.  This is the kind of God that I can believe in.

For me it is no contradiction to believe that the dynamic God of love I discovered in Jesus can be active in the lives of people from every time, place, culture, and religion.  I hear the voice of this God whispering to me in the pages of the Bible and singing to me in the clouds at sunset.  Jesus has opened my eyes, ears, mind, and heart to experience the presence of God in all things.  For this, I am amazed and give thanks.  What else can I do but collapse to my knees before Jesus and worship?

That is why I am a Christian.  It has nothing to do with creeds, dogmas, or being the one and only true religion.  It has everything to do with love.  I hope and pray that the people around me will experience through me, in some degree, the love I have received through Jesus (whether they recognize it by that name or not).

How about you?  Why are you here in church today?  If you call yourself a Christian, why do you choose that label for yourself?  I want to encourage each and every one of you to answer that question for yourself today.  Something has brought you here.  You are not sitting in this church by accident.  It is therefore incumbent upon you to ask yourself: Why?

In your imagination, put yourself in Mary of Bethany’s place: kneeling at the feet of Jesus, offering the very best of what you have and who you are.  What has brought you here?  Even as you acknowledge and respect the faith of others who are different, something about this faith and this person, Jesus, has captured your attention.  What is it?

Answer that question for yourself and don’t be afraid or ashamed to share your answer with the world.  There are people out there who need to hear what you have to say.  Go out there today and tell them.

“Preach the gospel always… use words when necessary.”

May your words and your deeds say to the people of this world: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

8 thoughts on “Why Be A Christian?

  1. aric

    I was raised as a Christian an always believed what was told.
    Now i came to a point when i asked myself why? I cant find an answer to that question, and nobody can tell me why i should.
    I saw that you are open to all kind of religions so i think that you know what these religions teach, and tell me why be a Christian instead of something else?
    I saw that you only werd wrote of the love, that god loves everyone and you cant help it.
    I would love to see it that way but i cant
    If god is all about love i think that you cant declare 1 Samuel 15. I think that chapter is all about revenge. I think that revenge is not really love
    And if god is not about love, what makes the bible so special or is it just a story book and is Christianity just a nice story, and nothing more?
    I would like if you can help me this way with some of my questions

    Sorry if my English is not so good, but its not my native language

  2. Aric, that has got to be the deepest and most honest comment I’ve ever received on this blog. The internet is unfortunately full of so many angry, thoughtless voices shouting over one another. Your comment provides us with a rare moment for real dialogue. Thank you for this. I raise my glass to you on account of your courage: Cheers!

    So then, why do I choose to call myself a Christian? I would say that, for me, it comes down to a combination of background and experience. Like you, I was raised in the church. The figure of Jesus and the traditions of the church have been part of my life since birth. As I’ve grown up and cultivated my own spiritual practice, I’ve naturally interpreted my personal experiences of the sacred through the lens of the Christian tradition (particularly that of liberal Protestantism).

    I don’t think Christianity is inherently superior to other religions, but I find it more congenial to me. Converting to another religion at this point in my life would involve learning entirely new myths, rituals, and symbols. I don’t think Christianity is ‘better’ than other religions any more than I think English is ‘better’ than other languages. The Christian religion, like the English language, simply provides me with a practical and effective means for understanding and communicating about reality.

    That being said, no language is perfect. Something always gets lost in translation. Likewise, no religious tradition or interpretation of the sacred can fully express the unfathomable mystery in which we all live, move, and have our being. Everybody has blind spots, including Christianity.

    I share your trouble with 1 Samuel 15. It’s a brutal passage. If that’s who God really is, you can call me an atheist. But I don’t believe it to be a true reflection of the divine will. I don’t see the Bible as an inerrant, infallible document that was “beamed down” from heaven (a la Star Trek). I see it as a collection of stories, poems, and letters written, edited, and complied by multiple communities of fallible human beings over the course of several centuries. This library of documents chronicles their interpretation(s) of their spiritual experiences. It is not the literal “word of God”. In its best moments, the Bible is (in the words of biblical scholar Marcus Borg) “a finger pointing to the moon.” If you’re focusing on the finger, you’re looking at the wrong thing… look where the finger is pointing.

    How do we know which parts are “best”? We have to approach the text critically, using our own minds and hearts. I don’t believe God asks us to “check our brains at the door” when we come to church.

    Of course, this will result in Christians disagreeing about which parts of the Bible are most important and authoritative for establishing doctrine and morality, but I don’t necessarily see disagreement as a bad thing. Maybe it will lead us to listen and learn from one another as we journey together toward the discovery of greater truth. Maybe it will also lead us to grow in the virtue of humility: a trait that is conspicuously absent from most religious discourse in the contemporary public sphere.

    For more on the subject of biblical criticism, I recommend the following book:
    Reading the Bible Again For the First Time
    by Marcus J. Borg

  3. Aric

    thank you for your reply

    i think that you are saying that you are a christian becouse you are raised as a christian?
    how do you see chrisitanity? as the truth or as a myth that discribes the things you want to see?

    how can you believe in a bible that in your eyes is not 100% truth?
    i cant trust a history book that is not 100% correct becouse i dont know, and cant check if there are more mistakes in that same book
    im not saying that you have to agree with all that is told, but i think the that the basics (for christians the bible i think?) must be true, that there wont be any doubt about it.
    there are more things that, if the bible is correct, show that god is not all about love like:
    1 kings 18 and romans 9:13 and 15.

    and how can you accept a religion like the islam, while they say that Jesus wasnt Gods son? i think that is the most important thing in christianity.

    sorry about my english. i dint write this to upset you or disrespect you but i just dont know how to say this in better english
    i am just looking for someone or something that could bring me closer to the thruth

  4. No need to apologize. Your English isn’t as bad as you think and your sincerity is apparent.

    Am I only a Christian because I was raised as one? Partially. My background certainly plays into it. However, I’ve also made conscious decisions to make this path my own. This decision was certainly informed and influenced by my upbringing, but my decision wasn’t totally determined by it.

    I certainly don’t see the Bible as 100% historically and scientifically accurate. Like the myths of ancient Greece or Egypt, I rely on the stories of the Bible for meaning and insight. In other words, I come to the Bible looking for truth, not facts. If I want to know how old the universe is, I’d ask an astrophysicist.

    One key difference I’m noticing in the way we’re talking about Christianity and the Bible has to do with literal vs. metaphorical meanings of words.

    All religious language is necessarily metaphorical. For example, I can honestly say that I believe in God, but I don’t accept the idea of an “old man in the sky” or even an omnipotent, benevolent being that exists outside the space-time continuum and is responsible for creating the universe. The notions of God, Father, Lord, and Trinity are all human-made metaphors that describe the relationship between humans and “that which is greater than all yet present in each” (in the words of Forrest Church). Traditions, rituals, myths, and symbols are meant to describe the reality of the sacred.

    My favorite story for understanding the interaction between religious perspectives comes from the Buddha: three blind men are in a room with an elephant. When asked to describe the elephant, one steps forward and takes hold of the leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” The next steps forward and takes hold of the tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope.” A third steps forward and takes hold of the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake.” Now, asked the Buddha, which one of these blind men was right? In a sense, all of them. Each one was really experiencing the real elephant. Which one was wrong? In a sense, all of them. Each of them had accurately described (via metaphor) part of the reality of the elephant, but none of them had encapsulated the whole. Even if they combined their metaphors, they would still have an incomplete and inaccurate picture of an elephant.

    Again, this process leads me back to the place of humility in my experience of the sacred. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I believe I have experienced something real and Christianity helps me to understand that experience.

    The Bible itself is a helpful and central part of that tradition, but I continue to read it critically. The plain fact is that it does indeed contain contradictions that cannot be harmonized away. This doesn’t diminish its truth value for me. I see it as a chorus of voices in conversation with one another. The point is not the final answer, but the process of getting there. Brian McLaren writes: “The Bible is like a mathematics textbook. It’s not valuable because the answers are in the back: it’s valuable because, by working through the problems, you become a wiser person.”

  5. aric

    I can see how you look at religions now, however i think i will never agree with you on that point of view. Like you said, disagreement isn’t always a bad thing. there is more to learn if people disagree than if people agree.
    And indeed i take the bible literally, maybe too literal, i don’t know.

    About the ‘old man in the sky’, do you believe in the afterlife of any kind?
    Maybe its me, but i cant live with a thought that i live, build my career, just to die at top of my career, just like everyone else. That would make life useless to live while we all have the same destiny. maybe one a better stone than others or maybe burnt, but nothing more.
    I think life is more than that, to learn for whatever is to come. Whatever that might be.
    It might be or might be not an old man, but wouldn’t there be something that can be called god or the source, a consciousness of any kind?

    As for the metaphor of the elephant, it looks like you are saying that if you combine all religions, that there must be a definitive truth that can be found?

  6. Indeed, understanding is preferable to agreement.

    As for the afterlife, I’m an agnostic when it comes to the technicalities. Even the Bible itself offers multiple theories about what happens when we die. And yes, I do believe there is a reality, a source, a ground of being, from which all things come and to which all things return. My tradition expresses this reality in personal terms and names it “God”. We conceive of our connection to God as similar to a parent-child relationship. And in the patriarchal societies which gave birth to Christianity, it makes sense that this parental relationship would be expressed in primarily male terms. Hence, that is what I think my co-religionists mean when they pray to “Our Father, who art in heaven”. Indeed, I myself recite this same prayer on a daily basis, even while acknowledging privately that I don’t accept the idea of an old man with a long, white beard who lives on a cloud. To me, it’s not a contradiction: it’s a metaphor.

    My favorite image of an afterlife is borrowed from the Hindu tradition: that of a raindrop falling into the ocean. In one sense, the raindrop ceases to exist when it hits the water. It becomes nothing. In another sense, the water molecules of the raindrop are absorbed into the vast ocean. It becomes everything. I am actually okay with the idea that my personal, individual ego might cease to exist on the occasion of my biological death, but I believe that my true self, the core of who I am, will live eternally in God. Do I know this for sure? No, of course not. Nobody knows for sure. It’s simply an image that I find compelling, attractive, and comforting. So I would say that, when we die, we do not wander into the darkness, but welcomed into the light; we are not enveloped by oblivion, but embraced by eternity.

    As for the elephant in the room (pun intended), I would say yes, there is an ultimate reality toward which the best in all religions points. I would further agree that the followers of different religions can learn more about this ultimate reality by listening to one another. However, I don’t think that religions can be successfully combined or syncretized without doing real violence to each tradition. I would rather be a Christian who listens to Buddhists than a Christian-Buddhist hybrid.

    Even if we could somehow successfully combine two or more religions, I still don’t think we would ever possess a complete knowledge of the eternal. When the finite encounters the infinite, there is always more territory to explore.

  7. aric

    Thank you for all the open answers you gave me, and all the time you took to post them.

    However i do not agree on most of what you said, i have learn much from this conversation.
    My purpose of posting my reply was not to take over someone else believe, but to learn, and i did
    I doubted if i should post my first reply, you made me not regret it.
    Im glad that the internet makes it possible to speak with people on a total different place on earth, what made this conversation possible

    Again, thank you for this interesting conversation.

    I will remain subscribed, so if there would be any reason to continue this conversation, i would be able to respond or find this blog if i have more questions

  8. Wonderful! Thank you, Aric, for a most interesting conversation.

    Yours have been, by far, the most in-depth and thought-out comments I’ve ever had on this blog. Thank you for challenging me and offering an opportunity to communicate and grow.

    Conversations like this one give me hope for the future of the human race. Thanks again and many happy trails to you!

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