THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 63
What is Christianity?
All down the ages people have tried to work out what the essence of Christianity is. There have been countless theories, endless speculations. Every church has its own theory. Each of us has a theory.
Mostly the view has been that the essence of Christianity is a transformative experience that changes the way you live. There have been all sorts of patterns of life evolved by people as they have tried follow Christianity through the passing centuries.
St Francis of Assisi is a case in point. He had a transforming experience as a young man. So radical was it, the story goes, that he stripped off all his clothes and handed them to his father when he renounced the plans and ambitions foisted on him by his father. Instead he turned to God and started to live a simple life. As we all know, he continued living that life with such honesty and joy that he soon attracted a small band of men who became his disciples. Then the band grew to include women. Eventually his simple life attracted a huge following of people and the Franciscans have continued to flourish to this day. The spirit of St Francis still permeates the movement and his vision of what life is all about still inspires and creates followers who want to emulate his way of life – a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Or take Mother Teresa. Nothing spectacular here. She was an ordinary girl, but she had a vivid sense of God being present in her life. That experience eventually drove her to the streets of Calcutta where her love and compassion reached out to the many people who, she found, were abandoned on the streets to die. These people had no possessions, no home to go to, no family which cared for them, no church in which to find refuge. They just lay there dying.
Soon her transparent love and caring attracted like minded girls – some of them from wealthy backgrounds. They congregated around her and did the same work of caring for the destitute and dying. They took a house where these desperate cases could lay themselves down in peace to live through the remaining few days of their life. They cared for them, doing all the menial jobs - the dirty jobs that nurses are called upon to do without flinching. Soon the group grew and there was another house, and another. They started to call her Mother Teresa and their numbers grew. All inspired by the same outlook, the same love of Christ. Mother Teresa still kept on doing the same work. She didn’t retreat into an office where she spoke to people by telephone. Instead she stayed at the job. She cleaned toilets. She nursed. She held the heads of those destitute people while they died.
And now there are numerous houses like these – all over the world. They carry on the same essential task of caring for the destitute and dying, and have spread the net to include other needy people. They don’t elevate themselves in any way. They live a simple life – a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Well, do I hear you say, we can’t all give up everything and go into some monastery or nunnery and serve the poor! And you are quite right. But what is the common factor between those people – who obviously have caught the Spirit of Christ – and ourselves, working away in the midst of modern cities and embroiled in everyday matters?
The common factor is that we are all – those of us who are Christians anyway – are trying to follow Christ.
So what is it what holds us together, when the ways that we follow Christ are so different? I have to buy a new car soon. My old one is getting past its sell by date! I am looking at adverts and exploring the second hand car market. Shall I buy new or second hand? How shall I spend my money? What will govern my decision? Do the values Christ espoused whilst on earth – the values that inspire a St Francis and a Mother Teresa also permeate my life?
The answer to such questions lies in what we believe about why Christ came. I take it as axiomatic that Christ came to open the way to the Father for us. I believe that his mission was divinely planned and executed. I believe that death could not hold him and that he arose from the dead and is now alive for evermore. I believe that he came to impart life to all.
But these beliefs, although quite essential to my philosophy of life, are not what actually motivate me. What actually fuels my daily attempts to follow the way that Christ shows us is something quite different. It is the fact that I feel I have experienced the Spirit of Christ within me. Indeed, that he walks and talks with me every day, through His Holy Spirit.
So does that mean that I am striving all the time to be a better Christian? And what does being a better Christian mean anyway?
Christianity it seems to me is not an attainment race. It is not an obstacle course in which we try to be better. It is not even about striving to be better. All of that effort follows as a consequence. If we make it the priority then we are simply living religious self centred lives.
No – Christianity is not about attaining a particular state that we think of as ideal. Life is not about striving to reach some mystical level of attainment whereupon we can call ourselves, or regard ourselves, as having arrived. Christianity is not about attainment at all. It is about realization.
What realization? The realization of the truth of the gospel message. The realization that God loves us. That God cares for each one of us – even abandoned dying beggars on the streets of Calcutta. The realization that we can never put ourselves outside the love of God – that, like the Hound of Heaven, he will go on seeking and saving the lost – even me. It is the realization that nothing I can do, nothing whatsoever, is of any use at all in attaining a state of acceptance to God. I cannot get there, no matter how hard I try. No matter how many mountains I climb. I simply cannot make myself acceptable to God. Why? Because I am already loved by God. Any attempt by me to make myself acceptable to God is probably an expression of my ego trying to enclose God in my grasp.
So what is this realization? How does it happen? How can I acquire it?
This moment of truth comes to us when God speaks to our soul. It is his initiative and his outreach that brings the good news to me. I cannot manage the process. My part is simply to say yes. To accept the free gift of life offered through Christ. It is given to open hands, received as a gift from God. It is love, dawning for the first time on the soul, when it sees the love of God.
That is what made Francis take off his clothes and hand them back to his father and walk across the square to the church. He was responding to a revelation from God that he was a son of God, loved beyond anything he had ever understood. Such love demanded his life, his all. This revelation of God’s love was what changed Teresa from an ordinary country girl into the woman that the whole world now recognizes as a saint. Through her the love of God streamed out to the dirty, smelly, puking and dying mass of humanity that lay around the streets of Calcutta. The glory of God in a gutter!
How does it happen – this realization? It cannot be engineered. If it could, then we would be in a cage again. The cage of our own efforts, trying to produce the key to salvation. It can only be received. But rest assured of this – every person ever born into the world receives this light from heaven in one form or another. The gospel (John 1.9) tells us that there is a light that lights every person who comes into the world. Every person ever born becomes aware of God at various times in their lives. And, becoming aware, also realizes that they have to decide how to respond to that light. Those who respond positively become the doers of good in the world. They may or may not be religious. Those who resist the love of God are those who eventually cause all the trouble and the anguish with which we are all so familiar. They, too, may or may not be religious.
When the Christian gospel is preached – or when the Christian gospel is lived as by a Francis or a Teresa - then there is a powerful pull on those around to down tools and follow. That is why in each case a movement grew up around the people at its heart. Others wanted to respond to the same love they felt in their hearts.
How can I acquire it? Although you cannot engineer it – otherwise you would be in charge and God will not allow that – you can receive it. How? It is simple. Turn to the person around you. Look at them with open eyes, seeing where they hurt. Offer them your help. Before long God will lead you into deeper service, wider understanding, greater love.
But that is just good works, I hear you say. Yes – that is right. Just good works. But that is also the route by which God reaches out to us all. If you boil down all that Christ said it is easily encapsulated: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Well, do you?
It is so easy for we who have a religious bent to get hung up on church and on all the liturgy or ritual. So easy to get diverted into service of an institution. So easy not to face the challenge of actually expressing the love of Christ in a practical way to those around. Sometimes we hanker after some great task. Some huge calling – perhaps to the middle of Africa? Well, surprise, surprise! Nowadays the Africans are sending missionaries to us here in Britain! Our picture of them as being the needy one in that old fashioned missionary sense no longer applies. They have heard the gospel – by preaching, reading and radio, by television and internet. But the man next to you on the train travelling into the Big City has not heard – not really heard - of the love of Christ. The trouble is – his mind is so occupied he will only ‘hear’ the gospel when you live it out for him as he goes about his life. So what are his needs? Where is he hurting? That is where you need to preach the gospel – using words only if absolutely necessary.
Only when we stop our churchy activities and turn to be a channel of love to the person living next door will we actually become effective missionaries. And if we do that, it will be a sign that we have understood - that we are not in some race to try to be holy, but rather are letting the love of God flow through us to others. That is true Christianity.