Saturday, October 26, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? 4 things

What is special about Christianity?  What is unusual, striking, telling - and at the very heart of what Christians believe?
Special Thing #1 - Incarnation
The Incarnation: we believe that God "became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Other religions do not believe this; in fact, Jews and Muslims shake their heads, puzzled, pointing out the absurdity, the sheer impossibility of God somehow being just a small person. This is the scandal of Christianity, our odd peculiarity.

Logical definitions of God involve a laundry list of in- and omni- words: infinite, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, ineffable... The Bible tells us God did something even greater than all the greatest attributes our language can muster. As Martin Luther taught us, God became small for us in Christ, showing us God's heart, so our hearts might be won. God was too much love to dwell in remote, heavenly transcendence. God wanted it to be personal with us - as personal as a mother cradling her newborn infant. Knowing the tender wonder of childbirth, God said I'll do that, I'll be that, and perhaps they will then know me, and even love me.

Risky for God to do such a thing. Infants are entirely vulnerable: they can't fight or defend themselves; control of their destiny rests in the hands of others. God put God's self into our hands, yearning for love. Small children can evoke a gentle tenderness in even the most muscular, gruff people; God wants tender care from us.

God could have become something we admire, or fear, or obey - like a general riding a stallion, a king sitting on a throne, a tycoon jangling gold in his pocket. God could have been married, or tall, or a father. But instead, God came as an infant, because that is the one thing all the people God wanted to reach had in common.

The beauty of this? We need not be scared of God; we are invited to love - and even to remember being small ourselves, back when we were young children, or maybe just yesterday when somebody made you feel small, and you felt in some peril, and you had to depend on others. God says I know that feeling; I know you and I love you, not at a distance, but from the inside, and I want - with you! - the kind of intimacy a baby enjoys being held joyfully in its mother's embrace.

This is special, lovely, and helpful. But there's another aspect to this God becoming small by taking on flesh - as we will see come Monday.

"Lord, how wonderful, risky, and engaging of You to enter into our human world! We praise You, and long to know more of Your heart, and love You more deeply."

Special Thing #1 (part 2) - Crucifixion

The idea of God becoming flesh was a bit jarring and intellectually ludicrous - and yet in the ancient world, pagan mythology featured tales of the gods coming down to earth. What was utterly appalling, and laughably absurd, was the Christian insistence that this God in the flesh suffered, and died - and as a convicted criminal. This is the very soul of the Christian faith, not shared or even deemed rational by any other religion.

Skeptics and atheists have declared "God is dead." In the crucifixion of Jesus, we witnessed the suffering and death of God. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16). Jesus loved the wrong people; he took on the powers of his day; with courage he marched into the teeth of mortal danger - but instead of crushing his foes, he let evil do its worst to him. Now, when we ponder the crucified Jesus, in agony, rejected by his closest friends, misunderstood, mocked, even forgiving those who just executed him, we see clearly into the tender heart of God Almighty. What wondrous love is this?

Whatever we suffer, pain, illness, fractured relationships, any misery, even death itself, God bears that with us, and for us; God knows the darkness from the inside. Jesus even cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" - so this God in the flesh even experienced what it is like to feel abandoned by God.
Rick Lischer tells of his son's bout with incurable cancer. They entered a church where a crucifix of Jesus hung over the altar. The message this church was sending to this young man, skinny, discolored, gaunt, and to his numb, bent father was this: "You are no freak, and we are not freaked out by your suffering." Because God entered fully into our suffering and dying, we need not be ashamed to suffer, and we need not be frightened of death.

Plenty of religions believe in life after death, and so do we. But ours has an edge: it was the God in the flesh who suffered terribly out of an abundance of love for us - this is the one God raised up from the dead. The resurrection, for us, isn't a mere continuation of life beyond the grave. It is a healing, a vindication, a redemption of what has been suffered. No denials, no escapism, but an embrace of bodily suffering as having a place in God's ultimate plans for us and for the universe. All our loss, pain and darkness are enveloped into the loving, healing arms of the God who raised Jesus from the tomb, and all is made well, it all finds meaning and purpose.

"Lord, we cannot fathom the depth of love You spread to us by enduring the cross. Thank You that You are closer to us than our own tears and pain, and that You redeem it all."

Special Thing #2 - Grace
The heart of Christianity is our sense of the grace of God. "By grace you have been saved... This is not your doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). Our salvation is not by stacking up good deeds, and salvation is not achieved through ever deeper states of spiritual mysticism. It is all grace, unearned, unearnable, all mercy, sheer gift, love you can't outrun.

Jesus' best story was about a wayward son being enfolded in the loving arms of the father he had despised, disappointed, and wounded (Luke 15:11-32). The father didn't demand he shape up first, or re-earn his place. He loved, and there was nothing the rebel lad could do to lose it or gain it.

You don't choose grace; you don't really even accept it - since God's tender, loving grace isn't deterred by those who try to bolt, or shove God away. Frederick Buechner pointed out you can't bring it about any more than you could bring about your own birth. The God who fashioned the universe loves you more deeply and intimately than any parent or lover; God loves you unconditionally - yes, even you. Knowing you better than you know yourself, God loves - so your true self is free to emerge, butterfly-like.

Unconditional love need not lead to bad behavior. If I am loved irrevocably, no matter what, I guess I could recklessly misbehave - but not if I understand the love. Grace moves me to love boldly in return; only grace can motivate me to be a better person.

In fact, this grace that is peculiar among the religions is the grace of God. It is God's active presence, and transforming power in our lives! God's grace looks like Jesus - touching, inviting, challenging, cleansing, forgiving, comforting, empowering every person to realize whom God made us to be. It's not a mushy love; it's powerful.

Grace is something we enjoy with others. On Christmas Eve, I could stay home and raise a candle alone, and it would be pretty. And since there are like a thousand candles being raised in the sanctuary whether I'm there or not, it doesn't depend on me. But I wouldn't miss it for the world: the beauty, the joy of being part of something glorious I didn't and couldn't create or pull off myself.

"Lord, the very word 'Grace' is amazing, puzzling, astounding, and unfamiliar apart from You. I once was lost, but now am found. All I can say is Thank You; I am obviously Yours."

Special Thing #3 - a social revolution

Christianity has been, since its inception, a social revolution. Jesus was unimpressed by social standing; if anything, he exhibited a pronounced bias toward the poor, the marginalized, the people society despised. Some of his followers were people of means - but no special favors fell to them because of it.
The first Church in Corinth was a curious mix of rich and poor, and Paul scolded the rich for assuming what they assumed before they became Christians - that they got the best seats, they curried special favor, they ate the finest foods. There was to be an equality, a sharing of resources, a dissolving of barriers. There were to be no haves and have-nots among the Christians: "No one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they shared everything in common. There was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:32).

But why? To be close to God, we cannot remain closeted off from the others in God's family. We grow in faith and love when we befriend, break bread, and bear burdens with those from whom society would keep us apart. God is a warrior for justice and good for all people - so how could we lazily remain unengaged?

This egalitarian impulse is at the heart of our faith. We share this with Judaism - for it was from the Old Testament that the Christians learned to welcome the alien, the stranger, the outcast, to care for widows and orphans. Given our DNA, stratifying people into castes - class distinction, or social exclusion - is abhorrent to us Christians.

And yet we Christians have forgotten who we are in Christ's eyes. We hang with those like ourselves; we enjoy benefits that we've earned or lucked into, and either pity or blame those who have little. We are segregated by race, and economics on Sunday morning. We avert our gaze from our society that blesses some while denigrating others; we don't know people who are different, and become as self-interested and rancorous as the rest of society.

But then at times we rediscover our vocation. The churches have occasionally led the rabble-rousing, as in the Civil Rights movement. We're the peace party, we're the champions of the rights of the marginalized - and not surprisingly, faithful Christians are tagged with ugly labels in our society that too blithely settles for social stratification, and prefers a status quo that benefits one group while crushing another.
"Lord, remind us that You were (and are) a revolutionary; we are ready to meet Your beloved children we do not yet know."

Special Thing #4 - Love

And finally we come to the fourth "special thing" about Christianity. When we are at our best, when we are true to our Lord and the mission we are in no position to abandon and remain faithful, we love.

But everybody loves, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - right? When we began this series, I pointed out that in its infancy, for the first few hundred years of Church life, outsiders observed that the Christians loved - not just parents loving their children or lovers smooching. In a cruel world of despicable conditions among rising urban populations, where there was no social net, the Christians tackled hunger, homelessness, sickness, the elderly and abandoned. They did something.

They didn't mail in charity, but they cared physically for hurting people; they included them in their own lives and homes. The anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate complained, "Those impious Christians support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people get no aid from us."
This was a novel practice. In those days, the rich endowed public games and marble buildings - but the Christians were determined to embrace the outcasts and focus their energy on those in need. And why? This wasn't just what Jesus told them to do; this was precisely what Jesus did. And they had come to a theological awareness that they too were impoverished, in soul if not in body. When we love, we are close to Jesus. When we love, we actually love Jesus himself.

Perhaps we can see how these "four special things" are intertwined, how they really are just one thing. Jesus. God gave us a direct look into the heart of God. An infant in his mother's arms, a healer, a teacher who turned society's values upside-down, a revolutionary whose friends were rich and poor, sane and insane, admired and despised, holy and decadent, prostitutes and rabbis, fishermen and tax collectors.
We call this determination to deliver hope to any and everybody Grace. And if Grace is real, the known world shifts on its axis and nothing is ever the same. We find ourselves at lunch with a stranger who's no stranger than we are. We feel God's sorrow over what's broken in our world, and we do something. We discover a deep humility of soul, that will never have enough days to offer up our thanks and praise to God. We feel special - not superior, but as special as a newborn infant, which is where God wonderfully chose to meet us.

"Lord, Christianity is a great mystery, with marvelous treasures, and some bumbling fools who've lost their way. We would meet Jesus again, and know the grace, and let it take on flesh in our lives, and in our world."