[This post is part of a series: How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]
If we're honest about it, the invitation of Christianity is absurd.
Apparently–we are told–two millenia ago, a Jewish boy was born in questionable circumstances to peasant parents. We know nothing about most of his life. Somewhere around the age of thirty, he became something of a wandering, unsanctioned rabbi. Though he gained enough of a following to cause a stir, it was largely among uneducated, lower-class, people who were at least as motivated by the hype of being around an up-and-coming new celebrity (who was rumored to have done things like heal people's dead children and fill the stomachs of crowds of people who had no food) as they were for any religious reasons. There must not have been much real allegiance to him among those crowds, since he died utterly alone, executed as an enemy of the state, after being betrayed by one of his closest friends.
So now, 2,000 years later on the opposite side of the globe from where he spent his short life, we are told that we should dedicate the entirety of our lives to him–this ancient Jewish quasi-rabbi about whom the majority of us really know very, very little. If I asked you to take any other invitation with that level of preposterousness to it, I expect that spurning the offer would be a prerequisite to being considered an intelligent person.
If we are able to step back and look at it objectively, we might have to admit that when we claim allegiance to him, the primary reason could be an accident of geography: the majority of us have been born and raised in families who lived in places where devotion to him was the socially accepted (or even socially expected) norm, and so we have simply continued to do what is familiar to us: we give our assent to the claims and stories about him, and we sing the songs about him–even if we neither understand nor believe what they say. If you or I had been born in today's world but in the part of the world much closer to the geography Jesus knew, the likelihood that we would identify ourselves as his followers now is certainly drastically smaller. Perhaps this kind of conformity is a recent thing and new to us, or perhaps has been the pattern through the generations.
All of those things are legitimate parts of Christianity's invitation, and here I am as a person of (as far as I know) a normal degree of sanity and rationality and yet I have accepted the invitation. Not only have I accepted it, I have chosen to organize the entirety of my life around it to the best degree which I know how. I–a North American male in my mid-30s–have somehow become convinced that the best possible way to live out the relatively few days of my life is to devote them to following this ancient, poor, Jew who was condemned to death before he reached my age.
As is probably normal for anyone born into a Christian family, for the first decades of my life, I certainly fell into that category of people who believed in and followed Jesus because it was what the people around me did, and had been doing for generations. I'm deeply grateful for that part of my own history, and I don't disparage it in the least. But there comes a time in the maturation of our faith when we have to face whether it is actually ours or someone else's. Regardless of whether or not each of our parents claimed to accept the absurd claims and invitation of Christianity, do you and I? Is Christianity part of our lives because it is part of the culture around us, because it was part of the way we were raised, or because we have actually become convinced that there is no other way of life that compares to the one we enter when we seek to immerse ourselves in the life and teachings of this carpenter from Nazareth who said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me"?(1)
When I came to the point of wrestling with the questions for myself, it was a bit frightening. I was already receiving my education to spend my life helping others get to know the ancient Jewish rabbi, but what if it was all a hoax? Did I really want to give my best efforts to following someone I know so relatively little about? (At the time, I knew more about the lives of a good number of my sports heroes than I did about his.) Every experience I had ever had with other people taught me easily observable yet important things like: bread doesn't multiply, human feet sink if they're on top of a body of water, and–perhaps the most preposterous part of the claims about Jesus–every dead person I had ever known was still dead.
So there I was: a young adult academically prepared for ministry, but with some pretty difficult, even seemingly dangerous, questions under the surface of what was going on in my life.(2)
Thankfully, the course I chose was not to give up on my efforts to follow this rabbi because of these difficult questions, but rather to make sure those efforts were well-informed and then put them to the test. Because of wise guidance I had been given in various places(3), I began to operate on the assumption that if Jesus really was who Christians throughout the centuries have claimed him to be, there had to be something more authentically formed by him than the kind of life I was experiencing to that point. If Jesus was who we claim, I knew that he would be exactly the kind of person who could relax and encourage me to seek the truth about my questions wherever they would lead, because if it is all true, they would lead to him.(4)
I am now about fifteen years into this experiment of wrestling with the questions and putting the claims of Jesus to the test in my life the best I know how, and I am as convinced as ever that living our lives as his students is the best option available to us. Over the next ten weeks, I will do my best to explain why.
(A note on the readings and prayers for each week in this series: These are taken from the tools I normally use in my own reading and praying, which lead us through a yearly cycle. Because we're essentially in the middle of a year, the readings pick up in the middle of a sequence. That's okay. I recommend reading the four scriptures below, with the accompanying prayer, repeatedly throughout the week so that it can sink in, and then the sequence will continue through the weeks to come.)
Scripture Readings for the Week*:
- 1 Kings 21:1-21a
- Psalm 5:1-8
- Galatians 2:15-21
- Luke 7:36-8:3
A Prayer for the Week*:
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) Mark 8:34, ESV (2) I don't mean to give the impression that all of this happened at one specific time in my life. It was a sum of experiences and questions over several years. (3) Much of this was through personal relationships, but also particularly through reading the works of Dallas Willard and C.S. Lewis. (4) I certainly am not the first person, young or old, to wrestle with these questions. But I'm thankful that I didn't make the mistake of some, in that I never considered separating myself from the Christian community (the Church), regardless of what question I may have been wrestling with.