What is Christianity? In ten minutes I can only scratch the surface, but in one sense, the name tells you all you need to know – it’s Christ-ianity: the worship of Jesus Christ, and obedience to his teachings. Of course, Christians don’t just worship Jesus Christ. Christians are monotheists, and worship one God. However, for Christians God is a trinity, one God expressing himself in three persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. But he is one God, not three. I know this may be a difficult concept to grasp, and can be as well for Christians themselves. One way I could express it is to say that within the trinity there is such complete unity of thought and purpose that the concept of “separateness” has no meaning. The three persons think, speak and act as one.
Most of what we know about Jesus and his teachings comes from four written accounts of his life (known as the gospels) found in the New Testament. Jesus was a Jew who was born in Palestine during the days of the Roman Empire, probably about 4BC, and was between the ages of 30 and 35 when he died. The public phase of his life was no more than about 3 – 4 years, but in that short space of time it had a major impact that is still with us today. The New Testament also contains writings of his followers addressed to each other during the period roughly between 50 – 100 AD.
For those of you who have never seen the book of sacred writings called the Bible that is used by Christians, I have one here. The New Testament (which is about the same size as the Koran) occupies the last quarter of the book. The first three-quarters of the book comprises the scriptures used by the Jews. Christians call the Jewish scriptures the Old Testament. The two parts of the book taken together constitute the Christian Bible. While the Christian faith emphasises the New Testament - because it contains most of what we know about Jesus - the Old Testament is also regarded as being very important and very much part of the Christian Bible.
So what is different about Christianity? One thing I think that is quite distinctive is that in Christianity Jesus is not just regarded as a great teacher, or as a great prophet - but as God in the flesh. A fairly large claim you may think, but one that was clearly made by Jesus himself on more than one occasion. As you can imagine, such a view has major consequences for the Christian faith.
If Jesus were a great, but fundamentally ordinary man, as a teacher he could teach his followers a better way of life. As a prophet, he could deliver messages from God. But, he would have no power to enable his followers actually live a better way of life or act on those messages, especially once he had died. His followers would somehow have to find the resources themselves to make his teachings a continuing reality. However, Christians believe that Jesus is alive today as part of the trinity and has the power and the desire to help them to live out his teachings in their daily life.
But there is another aspect to this. I think it is simply a matter of practical experience that from time to time we all do things that are wrong. We don’t always mean to do it beforehand but, somehow or other, maybe under the influence of circumstances or temptation, or maybe just our own choice, we do things that are harmful to others or ourselves, or that in some other way is in direct contradiction to the will of God. Anything of this kind is called sin, for which the consequence is death – which most Christians understand as eternal separation from the presence of God.
A fairly chilling statement. Furthermore, Christianity takes the view that it is impossible once sin has occurred for human beings to atone for what they have done. If I murder my next-door neighbour, but for the next 50 years live a virtuous life full of good deeds, and then die, I will be just as guilty of the sin of murder in the sight of God as I had been 50 years previously. My subsequent good deeds won’t save me from the consequences of my sin.
To make things even worse, Christianity regards sin for human beings as simply inevitable. The New Testament flatly states that that everyone sins, and therefore there is simply no possibility of a human being living what God would regard as a perfectly virtuous life. There’s nobody in this room, I hope, who has murdered his next-door neighbour, but I suspect we’ve all done something wrong!
What is the Christian solution to this problem? I think it’s fairly well known that Jesus died by being crucified by the Romans. Crucifixion must be one of the most gruesome forms of execution ever invented and was reserved by the Romans for the worse kinds of criminals. After an initial flogging which was itself a severe form of torture, the body of the victim was nailed to a cross or Tee-shaped stake and left there to die. Death was normally a relatively slow process and could take several hours or even days.
In Christian theology Jesus, being God in the flesh, was without sin, so in spite of the fact that he died the death of a criminal he was not, and could not, be put to death for his own sins. His death had another purpose which was to pay the price for the sins of the human race, both individually and collectively. I think it’s important to understand that in Christian belief Christ died voluntarily, or intentionally, by his own free choice. Although it was his enemies who actually carried out the killing, as God in the flesh Jesus was in control of the whole process and could had prevented it had he chose to do so. I think that quite a few religions have the concept of voluntary sacrifice as a means of atoning for sin and seeking the favour of God. For Christians, Jesus himself is the atoning sacrifice which reconciles us to God.
In a sense what I have just described to you is just one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the resurrection of Jesus. The New Testament describes how Jesus was resurrected after three days and appeared to his followers. Again, a rather large claim you may think, but it is in harmony with Christian belief that Jesus was God in the flesh. The New Testament also describes how Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after he was resurrected. Christians believe that, as I mentioned earlier, he is presently in heaven where in the role of a “high” or supreme priest, he gives us access to the presence of God the Father himself. Of ourselves we could never achieve that ourselves, but because of Christ’s atonement for our sins, we now can.
Christianity has its standards of behaviour. For example, the Ten Commandments - which form part of the Jewish scriptures - are regarded as very important by many Christians. But Christianity also emphasises that following the teachings of Jesus involves not just our outward behaviour, but also our innermost thoughts and motives. Essentially it’s about becoming more like Jesus, rather than being a precise list of does and don’ts. As a Christian I would say that God is often more interested in why we are doing something rather than exactly what we are doing. But this does not mean that Christians can engage in behaviour that is harmful to ourselves or others, or go contrary to clear instructions in the Christian scriptures to do certain things and avoid other things. Essentially it’s about having an attitude of love towards God and love towards our fellow human being – whatever faith he may follow himself.
I think I ought to close with a few words about Christianity today. As I’m sure you know, Christianity is divided into a number of groups, the main ones of which are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. These divisions have largely come about historically because of differences over certain specific matters of belief I wouldn’t want to discuss here. The recent death of Pope John-Paul II and the election of the new Pope has highlighted the fact that that there is more interest among Christian groups than there used to be in the past in focussing on the things they agree about, rather than the things they disagree about. But it has to be said that quite a few differences still remain. Today I’ve tried to give you a brief overview of the Christian faith that describes the core beliefs that any Christian would agree with. Essentially as the name implies, what Christianity is all about is one person - Jesus Christ himself.