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THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY

Human beings have three basic needs - for unconditional love, a sense of
belonging, and a purpose for their lives.

When I was asked to speak about the essence of Christianity tonight, I
thought of these these three needs - they partly explain why I am a follower
of Jesus.

1. ACCEPTANCE / UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

When a child is born - and, indeed, from conception - it receives messages,
non-verbal and verbal, from the significant people in its life about its
worth. A person's mental and emotional health right through life is built on
that foundation.

An article in the March 2002 issue of Scientific American,  'The
Neurobiology of Child Abuse' (Dr Martin Teicher, Harvard Medical School)
claims that child abuse actually affects the structure of the brain. Later
in life this causes depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic
stress disorders, etc. Dr. Teicher: 'Early maltreatment damages the
hippocampus by over-exposing it to stress hormones.' Research into all this
has produced the discipline of 'biopsychiatry'. So all the little, caring
inputs to a child's life are incredibly important. When you cradle your
child gently and sing 'Rock-a-Bye Baby' there are long-term effects of that
gift of gentle love...

Is this negative process curable? To a considerable extent, yes (which is
one reason why the motto of our little counseling practice is 'It's never
too late to have a happy childhood'!) And that's one reason I believe in
Jesus. He set us an example of relating to others in terms of their being
made in the image of God. His habit, when meeting  'damaged' people, was to
offer them unconditional love - love-before-worth, not love responding to
worth. The Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jesus' day didn't
understand that. (They still don't). Some of them taught, for example, that
Gentiles were created to be fuel for the fires of hell. They defined people
in terms of their sinfulness or their otherness. To the woman caught in the
act of adultery Jesus first said 'I do not condemn you' before  'Go and sin
no more'. Even the early church fathers couldn't understand that, which is
why the story went missing from many manuscripts between  140 and 400 AD!

At a prayer breakfast in Melbourne a year or two ago I offered a little
prayer which included the line: 'Lord, thank you for loving us before we
change, as we change, after we change, and whether we change or not.' The
emails I received were astonishing. Many experienced Christians had never
thought of God like that!

2. BELONGING. A child - indeed anyone of any age - needs a sense of
belonging to be a whole person. 'This is my family, my people, my place.'
The institution Jesus founded to fulfil this need is the church. Which
raises some interesting and disturbing questions. Why are there more people
who claim to pray, and who believe in God, NOT in church these days than at
any time in the church's history?

That's a complex question, and there are many articles on the John Mark
Ministries website about it all. Briefly: our commercial culture has
rejected the 'one size fits all' notion, and people's expectations have
become highly specialized in terms of 'what they want' from church. Also, I
believe, there's more 'projection/transference' going on as the tender
fabric of our community life unravels. We want the church to be a substitute
for the 'family values' we did not experience, and are usually disappointed.

'The church is full of hypocrites'. Of course it is. That's what the church
is for. The people in it are not yet fully redeemed. They're in process of
becoming whole, and that includes those who get into leadership in the
church.

But I believe that a follower of Jesus has to ask another question: What
does he think of the church? He loves it. It's his bride. He delights in the
church. We humans have been infected with this 'you get the love/esteem you
deserve' mentality. Jesus doesn't think like that. He offers the church -
even the church! - unconditional love. We live in families to experience
love-in-the-midst-of-imperfection. Ditto the church. As we mature in the
faith of Jesus we too will love the church, in spite of its imperfections.

If sociology has taught us anything, it has affirmed (in the words of Robert
Merton) that 'all institutions are inherently degenerative.' The evil in
institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of the individuals within
them. Institutions tend to organize the behaviour and beliefs of the humans
within them (and sometimes outside them!). So the church-as-institution, for
example, offers us creeds to regulate our beliefs and constitutions to
regulate our behaviour. Part of it is explained in the notion of  'the
routinization of charisma': where prophets bring us life, the commissars
step in after a generation or two to regulate everything!

Jesus comes into this fallen world of institutions and invites us to be
realistic and penitent. Realistic about the effects of our sinning when we
relate to institutions, and penitent about our lovelessness in not handling
the imperfections of people as individuals and in groups as well as Jesus
did. But there's hope! If we allow the spirit of Jesus to rule our hearts
and motivations, we can change and grow and become whole.

3. COMMITMENT.

Humans need a cause to live - and die - for. The best cause I know is to be
committed to doing in our world what Jesus did in his. A summary can be
found in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 - pursuing justice, loving God,
practising compassion, and encouraging faith. Justice is relating to others
as being made in the image of God (rather than primarily as sinners, in the
image of the devil). It is the urgent task of followers of Jesus to resist
evil and the abuse of power (as when, for example, Jesus 'cleansed the
temple' of those who 'ripped off' pilgrims). Justice deals with the causes
of pain; compassion with the symptoms of pain. Compassion asks 'What kind of
resource can I be for you in your need?' Faith helps us believe that the
world and our lives have meaning. And love for God is the spiritual
dynamic/energy which fuels the process of becoming more like Jesus.

The 'essence of Christianity' hasn't got much to do with creeds and
constitutions and liturgies and religious formulas for this-and-that. It's
all about turning from whatever in our lives impedes our becoming whole (the
traditional words are 'sin' and 'repentance') committing our lives to Jesus,
following him in a sad and disintegrating world, belonging to a
community-of-faith which can strengthen those commitments, and, perhaps
above all, 'accepting our acceptance'.

DISCUSS

1. You (believe you) are the sum-total of the messages - positive and
negative - which you have received from 'significant others' - particularly
early in life. Why is that? Can we 'rewrite the script'? How?

2. 'It's never too late to have a happy childhood'. True?

3. When you think of a high profile person who "sinned" (like, say,
Presidents Nixon or Clinton) why is it difficult not to be pharisaical and
associate him with the sin, rather than _first_ think of his other major
accomplishments? Can we be cured of this?

4. 'Lord I thank you that you love me.... whether I change or not.' Do you
believe that? (Does God love the Devil?)

5. Pastors and their spouses - and sometimes their children - feel they do
not 'belong' in their church-families. Why is that? What can be done about
that?

6. Why are more 'religious' people not in church these days?

7. Can the church be a substitute 'family' for those whose family lives were
chaotic/abusive/dysfunctional?

8. Why is it difficult to love the church like Jesus does?

9. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together says it is not our calling
to criticize or condemn the church - not even to God! How about that?

10. Talk about 'the prophets versus the commissars'!

11. Biblical justice, says Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, is
'figuring out what belongs to whom and giving it back to them.' The obvious
example is land, stolen from the pre-industrial tribes of the earth. But how
do we give dignity back to people from whom it was 'stolen'?

12. In your district, who needs a gift of compassion? What 'social needs'
exist which are not being met by various government agencies?

13. How do we set appropriate personal boundaries/limits in our lives to
avoid burnout or compassion fatigue?

14. How is faith nurtured?

Rowland Croucher, March 2002

 
rowland @ johnmarkministries . org
Email Jan and Rowland