Last week, I wrote about two things which I don’t believe describe what it means to be a Christian. It’s not about believing the right things, nor is it about what happens to us after we die. Today, I try to describe my view of Christian faith in a positive way. (This column often uses words by Marcus Borg — I share much of his viewpoint.)
If I were to describe the heart of Christianity for me, it would be the word “transformation.” Christian faith is about a change of the heart. It is about the transformation of ourselves at that deep level that shapes our vision (how we see), our commitment (our loyalty and allegiance), and our values (how we live).
My starting point is the great commandment (recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.” This is how Jesus answers the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” (Matthew and Mark) or “What must I do to inherit eternal (or abundant) life? (Luke)
In the great commandment, we see that Christian faith has to do with how we live. It calls us to “love” — to love what God loves, including our neighbours. In the great commandment, “love” doesn’t refer so much to the emotion. It is an action word; it refers to a commitment we make. At the center of being Christian are these things:
1) A yearning and passion for God. About 1,600 years ago, Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their home in God. Yearning and passion are closely related, even though the former can mean seeking without yet having found.
2) A passion for Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus shows us most clearly what the character and passion of God look like embodied in a human life. The centrality of Jesus is what makes Christians Christian.
Other faiths are different. Jews find the decisive revelation of God in the Torah, Muslims in the Quran. Christians find it in Jesus — in a person, not in a book. That doesn’t mean the Christian way is superior. When I affirm that we discern God in Jesus, it does not require that I have to deny that God is known elsewhere. Of course, Christians also find revelation in a book — the Bible. But for Christians, Jesus trumps the Bible.
3) Compassion. This is the central virtue of a life centered in God as known in Jesus. In Luke 6:36, Jesus summarized theology and ethics (the character of God and how we should live) in this way: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” (Luke 6.36; most English translations read “Be merciful as God is merciful,” but the Greek word is best understood these days as “compassionate” rather than “merciful”.)
In the Bible, compassion has a rich metaphorical meaning. In Hebrew and Aramaic, it is related to the word for “womb.” God is “womb–like,” giving birth to us and nourishing us. God feels for us and the whole of creation as a mother feels for the children of her womb: willing our well–being, and sometimes becoming fierce when our well–being and the well–being of creation is threatened. We are to be compassionate as God is compassionate. Like love, compassion is not only a feeling but a doing. We don’t just feel compassion; we act with compassion, acting in accord with the feeling.
4) A passion for the transformation of this world. Compassion —love — in the Bible has a social form. We participate together in God’s passion for a world of justice and peace. Together, they are “the dream of God,” God’s dream for what our life together on earth should be like. This is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of God” — it is how the world would be if we lived according to the dream of God.
In this sense, justice does not mean punitive or criminal justice. It has to do with a fair and just distribution of the bounties of God’s earth, for the earth belongs to God (Psalm 24). It is about economics: everybody should have enough of the material necessities of life, not simply through charity but as the product of the way the social system is put together. In the same way, peace is about the end of violence and war, and making life whole for all people.
Being Christian is about being captivated by these passions. They are not beliefs as much as they are convictions and commitments. That’s what being Christian is about. It is about the heart and its convictions and commitments. It is intensely about how we live in this life, in this time, in this place.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook