6th Sunday of Easter (C) - May 22, 2022 - What is Christianity?
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the result of the Council of Jerusalem regarding the question of whether Gentile converts to Christianity first had to fulfill the Mosaic law. Many Gentiles were converting to the faith because of the missionary preaching of Paul and Barnabas One can understand the dissension in these new Christian communities when some Pharisees, those strict observers of the Jewish law, converted to Christianity and were promoting this as a requirement: “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Was being Jewish a prerequisite to becoming a Christian? From a Jewish perspective, as the Church began to grow, it was not an odd question when the Jewish converts observed many Gentiles coming into the community of faith. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. All of the Apostles - those who Jesus himself chose to be the foundation of his Church - were all Jewish. What this first council in the church was grappling with was the question, “What makes us followers of Jesus?” “What makes us Christian?” Another way to ask that question is, “What is Christianity?” I’m surprised how relevant that question is today. How do you define Christianity? What makes you a Christian? How do you answer those questions? I was listening to a podcast the other day of a discussion between a Christian philosopher and an evolutionary biologist who is very respectful of religion. The biologist was looking at religion as an evolutionary adaptation in which those who adhere to the religious practice and belief are more “successful” and more able to thrive as a community. The biologist, himself not a believer, was looking at the sacred texts and teachings and rituals and the moral laws almost like a “program” that humanity came up with over thousands of years of accumulated wisdom. In his thinking, Roman Catholicism is an outgrowth of Judaism, and Protestantism is an outgrowth or adaptation of Catholicism. The Christian philosopher pushed back. Yes, practicing a religion is good and helpful in all the ways pointed out by the biologist, but religion, and specifically Christianity, cannot be reduced to a text or a set of rituals or moral laws. It is a life that may be described by all those things, but it is so much more than any one of those things or even all of those things combined.
What the biologist is proposing, which is essentially the enlightenment project, is to take all the good things that religion has given us and get rid of all the antiquated stuff that either no longer serves a purpose or is actually harmful to our thriving now in the 21st century or cannot address the issues we are dealing with today. Can Christianity be reduced to a “program”? Is the success of Christianity the result of behavioral modification made possible through the enforcement of moral laws bolstered by the promise of heavenly reward or the threat of eternal damnation or punishment? Is it possible to live “Christian” virtues without Christ? Is it possible to have Christianity without Christ? A Christian life and culture cannot be sustained by simply clinging to and trying to preserve the fruits of the Christian event. If we distance ourselves from the source of that life, the life itself eventually withers, fades, and crumbles. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing.” A big heresy among many Christians is to think that Jesus simply left us an example. “What would Jesus do?” is a modern expression of this heresy. If that is all Christianity is, I just need to learn what Jesus would do in this situation and then do it. I just need to acquire the right wisdom, learn the right teaching, follow the right rule, and I’m “good”. Do we think of our faith in this way - that faith or the teaching of the church is an instruction manual? I’ve heard some Christians refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” “If I do these things, I’ll go to heaven.” But Jesus did not just leave us an example; our faith and what makes Christianity possible is that Jesus didn’t just give us an example but he gave us his life. This is not something that happened only once 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the Cross. The saving event of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not an event that is merely a historical event, something lost in the past. But that event is made present through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the celebration of the sacraments. Christianity is not a set of rules and laws and rituals but a relationship of love with God. A relationship of love with God is what makes everything else in the Christian life possible. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” Christianity is possible because God makes his dwelling with us. He shares his life with us. We are made Christians when God makes his dwelling in us. (This is what happens at baptism). Jesus tells the disciples at the Last Supper, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” We recall that in the biblical understanding, “to remind” or “to remember” is not simply calling something to mind, but “making it present”. The teaching becomes real when it takes flesh in our life - when it is something that we live here and now through the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.
So how do the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem resolve the debate over what is necessary for someone to be considered a Christian? Peter examines his own experience with Jesus and the other disciples the Lord chose and what happened when Peter preached the word of God to the Gentiles. Peter says, “God, who knows the heart, bore witness by granting [the Gentiles] the Holy Spirit just as he did us. He made no distinction between us and them, for by faith he purified their hearts.” Peter basically says to the Jewish disciples among them, “We and our ancestors have not been able to fulfill the law, yet Jesus still chose us.” “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as [the Gentiles].” It is not by the law and our good works that we are saved.
The Christian life seems impossible if we think we have to do it alone or live it out by our own strength - it seems like a daunting and terrifying task - just a lot of trouble. Jesus says to us as he said to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” The disciples thought with Christ’s impending Passion and death that they would have to face life alone. But Jesus says, “I am going away and I will come back to you.” He promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not until the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they believe that what Jesus says is possible. When the life of Jesus is made present in them, they believe it and can live it. That they live it often despite themselves - with all of their flaws and weaknesses - that this encounter with the Holy Spirit - the life and love of God - has changed them in ways that they could not change themselves - is the “proof” that God dwells among us. Christianity is not a human invention but the gift of God’s life to man. We know from our own experience that simply knowing the right thing to do is not enough. The right answer does not impart life or give us the strength to live it out or put it into action. Threat of punishment or promise of reward will only sustain us or motivate us so far. But a relationship of love is what moves us. God wants that relationship with us. May we not reduce our faith so something less than a relationship with Jesus - a person who loves us and continues to dwell among us.