The Importance of Starting with Jesus

I loved the place where I attended college. That alone isn't unique, but the older I've gotten, the more I've realized how different my college experience was from many people's–and I am continually grateful for it. I became interested in attending there because of people whose lives with God impacted mine as a youngster who had attended there and/or spoke highly of it. I wanted to learn to live an authentic kind of Christianity, and I wanted to be around people who would help me move in that direction, so after visiting a few places and taking my first few courses at a community college, I really wanted to be at that Christian college.

Going there has certainly been one of the most pivotal decisions of my life to date, primarily because of the people I met. I got to know faculty, staff, and students (including the one who would eventually marry me) who all helped me along toward the kind of life with God that I desired.

It almost didn't happen, though. I remember one night, sitting alone in my room at my parents' house, feeling down because it seemed like my hopes of going to school there couldn't come to pass. After visiting the school and taking a serious look at it, I had concluded that it was too far away and too expensive. As I was in my room thinking (pouting) about it, I heard my dad's footsteps coming down the hallway. He was my hero, and someone who never used any more words than were necessary. He stood in the doorway, paused, and said, "If that's where you want to go, we'll get you there." Then he turned around and I heard his footsteps heading back to the other side of the house. I graduated three and a half years later, full of encounters and relationships with people who knew God (and a good academic side of the education too).

I mention all of this not as an advertisement for my alma mater, but to point back to an idea that was planted in my mind by one of those people who impacted me. His name is Dr. Dennis Kinlaw. He was a former president of the school, and continued to return and speak in our chapel services regularly while I was there. He is a brilliant man, an inspiring speaker and author, and–though I never got to know him personally–I looked forward to any chance to learn from him.

One of his ideas that has stuck with me is this: If we're talking about anything involving Christianity, the best place to start is with Jesus.(1) That statement may not seem profound on the surface, but it needs to be stated because it's surprising how often we start the conversations elsewhere. For example, today's most influential critics of Christianity often focus on the horrible things that have been done in the name of Christianity throughout the centuries. Even though those parts of the story matter, it makes more sense to start with the life story of the ancient Jewish rabbi to whom groups so radically different from one another have all claimed allegiance. Let's not start with our history, though it matters tremendously. Let's start with Jesus.

Perhaps something that comes up even more commonly than Christianity's checkered history in firsthand conversations is people's claims of personal experiences. On the side that affirms Christianity, people will sometimes make claims about how God has interacted with them in some degree–that they saw, felt, or experienced something. The other side is more subtle, because it professes an experience of gaining knowledge that such things do not, or even cannot happen to people. Our experiences, or the absence of them, are very important, but they can't provide the right foundation for all of the questions. We have to start with Jesus.

Or, what about the typical college freshman's first exposure to a higher education course in philosophy or biology? Young people who were sure that God had a plan for their lives a year earlier while living with their parents suddenly have their entire structure of beliefs challenged with questions they may have even been taught to avoid. Then, within the course of one semester, God can go from having had a plan for their lives to suddenly being a psycho-socially constructed figment of their imaginations. The impact can be overwhelming of, for the first time, seriously being faced with challenging philosophical/scientific questions like where the world came from, how a good God could allow so much evil, etc. Again, these issues matter tremendously and need to be addressed, but they aren't the logical place to start. Let's start by looking at Jesus.

As I mentioned last week, the invitation of Christianity can seem absurd because of the kinds of claims it makes about Jesus and the kind of complete devotion Christians are supposed to give to this ancient rabbi who lived in a world so different from our own. Because those claims are so outlandish, we miss the point when we start by looking at what Christians did during the crusades, or what your super-religious aunt might claim to have been told by God, or even whether or not God is good or even exists. The only logical place to start is with him–with that ancient, total-obedience-demanding rabbi at the center of it all. As Kinlaw says, "I began to feel that the key to understanding all of this was to start, not with the question of whether God exists and what can be known about him, but rather with Jesus himself..."(2)

So, having spent these first two weeks trying to frame this exploration, next week, we will begin digging into it. Even if we agree with the idea of starting with Jesus, what do we know? Can we trust what the Bible tells us about him? Did he really even live, and if so, what do we know about his death?


Scripture Readings for the Week*:

  • 1 Kings 19:1-15a
  • Psalm 42
  • Galatians 3:23-29
  • Luke 8:26-39

A Prayer for the Week*:

O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Scripture readings are taken from the Revised Common Lectionary. Weekly prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer. (1) See Dennis F. Kinlaw, Let's Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology. It isn't long, but can be fairly heavy reading. Another great option is his daily devotional book, This Day with the Master. (2) Kinlaw, Let's Start with Jesus, p. 13.

[This post is part of How Jesus Got Hold of Me: Why I Believe and Why I Follow]