Do Christians Let Christ Influence Them?- Variations On A Theme

A few days ago I wrote an entry called “Do Christians Let Christ Influence Them?” in which I tried to answer why I would call myself a Christian when through history so many shite things have been done by Christians, even to co-religionists.

I was thinking about this topic again today and a thought struck me. This thought will forever be attached to a particular book I read this year but it has been a common theme throughout my Christian life, especially in the last three years. The book is NT Wright’s Challenge of Jesus. It is a spectacular work and if you are a Christian past the spoon feeding stages I would strongly recommend it. If you are an agnostic with an interest in actually understanding this belief system that has given us the underpinnings for everything we prize, then you should also track it down. I’ll help you through the hard bits if you want.

How big is Jesus?
Anyway, one of the things I took away from the book is the idea that Jesus is a whole lot more than even we, Christians, give him credit for. I did a straw poll with a group of Christian university students from a number of countries this summer. I asked them to define who Jesus was for them and about 80% said something along the lines of:

Jesus is my personal saviour.

He certainly is that! Amen! As the old slave song goes, “What can wash my sin away? Nothing but the blood of Jesus”. But one of the many points that Wright makes is that Jesus is depicted in the Bible as being much much more than that. A lot of the New Testament was written by a fellow called Paul. This is the guy who suffered the Damascus Road conversion experience that you may have heard reference to in popular culture. He was a Jewish teacher of the Law, a rising star at the synogogue, who was impressing with the passion with which he was hunting down these heretic followers of Jesus. On the way to catch them in the act in Damascus he was struck from his donkey by a blinding light and Jesus came to him in a vision. He revealed the whole deal to him and commissioned him to be his message-bearer to the non-Jewish world.

Anyone who claims that God doesn’t have a sense of humour will have a tough time explaining why he chose a rabidly xenophobic Jewish fundamentalist who was willing to kill Christians to protect his dream of a pure Jewish homeland, as his ambassador, with the message of doors thrown wide open to the rest of the world. I write all this to try to communicate how mad it is to read what this zealous monotheist writes in a letter to one of his churches in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. As an orthodox Jew in the 2nd Temple period he would have been familiar with a prayer from an old old Old Testament book. The prayer was called Shema and it was recited twice a day. Here is how it begins:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Now look at what Paul, super Jew amongst even the priests of Judaism writes after his Christ-encounter to the Corinth church:

Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One

we have

But for us:

One God

the father, from whom are all things and we to him

and one Lord

Jesus the Messiah,

through whom are all things and through whom are we.

There is no way I can do a better job of explaining this than NT Wright himself but put your thinking caps on because he packs a punch:

Paul, in other words, has glossed “God” with “the Father,” and “Lord” with “Jesus Christ,” adding in each case an explanatory phrase: “God” is the Father, “from whom are all things and we to him,” and the “Lord” is Jesus the Messiah, “through whom are all things and we through him.” There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world.

The Shema was already, at this stage of Judaism, in widespread use as the Jewish daily prayer. Paul has redefined it Christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of Christological monotheism.

In other words, Paul says to us (and firstly to the church at Corinth) that Jesus is not just your personal Lord and Saviour. He is that and more. He is the Lord of the Universe. He is the King of the Cosmos. He lays claim to everything. There is nothing that he doesn’t look upon and say “I made this” (like at the end of the Simpsons).

What does a big Jesus mean for Christian behaviour?
If you are living in the stereotypical Little-Jesus world of Christianity where you become a Christian by being born in a western country or by saying a prayer one night on your knees after confessing your sins, then behaviour doesn’t mean a lot. A Jesus who forgives all your sins when you bow your knees is not a Jesus who seems to expect any change from that. The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would have called this cheap grace. In this model, we are clients of the sin washing service offered by Jesus that makes us clean. It is a good service because he gives us “personal” attention.

It is true, so very true, to say that Jesus has come to clean our sins and make our way to God clear. But he has come to do more. He has cleaned us so that our way to our fellow human is clear. He can do that because he is responsible for putting us and everything else here. Although he personally plucks you from a hell-bound path and brings you home, he has not come to pluck you up. Jesus comes and cleanses your sin, guiding you on the path to heaven. He also seeks, on top of that, to make you new; to regenerate you so that you are who you were meant to be when he took delight in planning you before the beginning of time. But these personal aspects of Jesus’ ministry do not suffice as a description of his mission. His mission is to glorify himself by making all things new.

That would only ever seem big-headed or self-centred if Jesus wasn’t who he claims to be. He is the God of everything. The most generous thing an all loving, all powerful God can do is make it so that we can share his company. He forgives our sin, he heals our pain, he makes friends with us so we can make friends with others. But he does all this because he is the God of the world that has been occupied by an alien force. On Easter Sunday he defeated Satan and now we await his coronation. Jesus is more than we can possibly conceive. His mission is not about you but you are a vital part of it.

Maybe Christians have done such a very bad job at living as followers of their King because they have understood the journey to be a moment in time when you “commit” to him. This conversion point is not the beginning and the end but the beginning of a journey that will never end. How many times have I been asked “When did you become a Christian?” Everytime I have responded like the smartass that I am by saying, “I am being made a Christian now.” If Christianity is defined as a relationship with the Creator who loves and treasures you then there is a lot of space for this living God to challenge your behaviour patterns that dismay him. If Jesus is defined big, as the Alpha and the Omega, the source of all truth and love, then there is nothing he cannot speak to. He takes even the sin closest to your heart and with the expert scalpel of the Great Physician he removes it.

When we define him small, as our personal saviour, then his job is to set us right with God above. He can’t speak to us in our workplace. We have to warp our definition to let him teach us about the environment. The sin management Jesus doesn’t get to talk often about culture. A Jesus thus defined does not lay claim to everything in your life and it follows that we can keep some things from him. Be that sectarian bitterness, materialistic discontent or a fondness for 1980s fashion.

So maybe the problem highlighted in the Hierophant’s Survey about internecine conflict amongst Christians of different traditions is often one about who we let Jesus be. Is he the Managing Director of our moral life or is he King?

Your Correspondent, With A New Logo Will Change Everything

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