Jesus: The Focus of Faith

"Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16).

In its essential objective character, Christianity is not a set of doctrines; it is first and foremost a person. The doctrinal statements we have evolved across the centuries are not photographs of Jesus and the reality he knows; they are, at best, attempts to point to him and contain occasional hints and shadows of reality. Neither is Christianity an ethical system or lifestyle; good behavior should result from faith but is not its meaning.

Christian faith is certainly not a particular ecclesiastical organization; denominations are more nearly characters in the old story of the blind men who tried to describe an elephant from their separate and partial experiences of one. One described an elephant as a type of snake, for he felt its trunk. A second one thought elephants must be trees, for he knew only one of its legs. Still another opined that elephant was the name for a type of rope, for he touched its tail. And so on with the others who interpreted the whole from the tiny part they knew. Each denomination owes its origin to some insight that was being neglected by what had preceded it. In practically every case, however, that partial discovery became the life-force of the whole and so diminished Christ.

Subjectively, Christianity is the discipleship response that fallible human beings make to Jesus. He is the center and circumference of our faith. Nothing we are and nothing we could ever do can raise Christianity to the level of its source. When we forget this central truth, we quickly become apostate to the religion of the New Testament, veer off into the idolatry of self-reliance and self-worship, and prejudice onlookers against true Christianity.

In the earliest confessions of faith written by the original Christians, the claims were always about Jesus and never about themselves.

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6-11).
To the degree that we recapture, experience, and offer others authentic Christian faith, we will focus on Christ over dogma, deed, and denomination in order to challenge people to experience him personally. This is certainly one way to look at the thesis of the four sermons I am in process of preaching. My claim is that the best apologetic for everything about the Christian faith is the person and work of Jesus. In this, the second of four, I invite you to think about the historical person Jesus as proof of everything required for the underpinnings of faith.

Faith Involves Risk

Everything a human being undertakes involves risk. Driving a car, being a passenger on a jet airplane, investing money in a business, getting married - everything we do comes with some degree of danger attached. The spiritual adventure of walking by faith - learning to see reality through someone else's eyes and taking the path on which that person leads you - is certainly not without risks either. And the most fundamental risk of all involves choosing your guide.

I can illustrate this point from my own recent experience. Millie Hupp told me what a thrill it is to skydive. Without what started with her, I'm not sure I would ever have chosen to jump out of a perfectly good airplane in flight! But Millie told me about her experience with skydiving and got me interested in trying it for myself. Thus introduced to the possibility through someone already involved in it, I eventually came to my own craving for it.

But I guarantee you I didn't go on blind faith! Millie and I had a long talk. This 85-year-old lady has been a skydiver for fifteen years - with a Dacron aorta in her chest and a feeding tube through her abdominal wall because of strokes that have made it practically impossible for her to swallow. If Millie can do it, I can do it! The sense of pure joy that came through when she showed me her pictures and described the experiences she had had made me want to know more. I kept investigating. I learned that some skydiving centers are more safety conscious than others. But I decided I wanted to test the possibility even further. So I went to a place with a solid reputation, looked it over, and talked with Vlade. He was the man who would be my jumpmaster and to whom I would be tethered for my novice leap.

Everything I found out convinced me to make a jump. Were there any butterflies? Did anybody remind me about the danger? Did anybody tell me I was a fool for thinking about doing it? Was there ever a moment of doubt in my mind that I just might get to the door of the plane and freeze? Of course! But the day came that I suited up, climbed in an airplane with fifteen other people, went over two miles up - and jumped!

Don't carry this illustration too far, okay? But because the language of faith is so often couched in terms of a "leap" nowadays, let me insist that the leap I took from a plane that put me into freefall at 120 mph was calculated. I would never suggest that anyone become a believer or embrace Christianity without checking it out. And the best way to test the fundamental claims of the Christian faith is to look closely at Jesus himself - the one to whom I am tethered now by faith.

The joy and peace, moral integrity and personal kindness you experience from someone you know may draw you to consider Christianity at the start. Perhaps you have a positive experience with a church at some really difficult time in your life. But you need to investigate some things for yourself. So you begin reading the Bible. At some point, you will probably get with a Christian you trust enough to ask your hard questions. Your study continues to make progress and eventually focuses on Jesus of Nazareth.

Once you have had a personal encounter with him, you will be convinced that you can trust him enough to go anywhere with him. Call it a pilgrimage. Let it be a journey. Or picture it as a leap, if you will. But don't go anywhere that stands to cost so much (i.e., your total being - body, mind, and heart) and which involves such significant risk with anyone without checking his credentials first. This really is a life-defining decision that puts both your life here and your prospects beyond this one on the line.

The Miracle of Jesus

Although there were many things associated with Jesus that the Bible calls "miracles" or "signs," the greatest miracle of all is the person himself. He rises above the rest of humankind by virtue of his flawless character, boundless compassion, and unparalleled teaching. "To err is human," we say. But to teach and live the truth impeccably - no, to be the Truth personified - is divine.

When one stops to think about it, there are several amazing parallels between the lives of Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth. Both were committed to the spiritual improvement of their peers. Both drew disciples to themselves and taught them over time. Both alienated the powerful establishment. Both died unjustly at the hands of their enemies.

When Socrates died, Athens and the world were largely unchanged. His words were forgotten, except by a few students. Today he is studied briefly by college students in a world literature or humanities course. Then he fades back into obscurity for the vast majority of us. When Jesus died, though, the whole world was affected and will never be the same again. He split time in half - B.C. (i.e. Before Christ) and A.D. (i.e., Lat, anno Domini, in the year of the Lord). His words are quoted, written, and lived by in every corner of the world - including countries that have an official policy of trying to keep his influence out. More books have been written about him than any other person in history.

A few devoted students of Socrates were willing to suffer ridicule for their allegiance to him. Peter, James, Paul, and countless others have been willing to lay down their lives for Jesus. Socrates was a great man who deserves his status in the history of philosophy, but he was only a man. The claim made about and by Jesus from the beginning of his life is that he is Emmanuel, God in the flesh. In light of his extraordinary personality and influence, all the other miracles attributed to him are credible. Divorced from so compelling a persona, even the report of such things would not have survived.

H.G. Wells, the English writer who was a determined and implacable foe of the Christian religion, nevertheless wrote: "When I was asked which single individual has left the most permanent impression on the world, the manner of the questioner almost carried the implication that it was Jesus of Nazareth. I agreed. . . . Jesus stands first."[1]

In an article published in the Reader's Digest at the approach of the third millennium, Paul Johnson wrote the following:

What matters in history is not always the things that happen but also the things that obstinately refuse to happen.

It was in 1882 that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made his celebrated and dire pronouncement: "God is dead." He was speaking for many intellectuals, who believed the progress of science would cause a decline in religious faith - with Christianity the principal loser.

As the year 1900 approached, many leading secular thinkers, including George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, argued that the dawning 20th century would mark the close of history's religious phase. As late as 1957, Julian Huxley, the first director-general of UNESCO, wrote in anticipatory triumph, "Operationally, God is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat."

But here we are, at the threshold of a new millennium, and Christianity is alive and well in the minds and hearts of countless believers. And all the evidence suggests that Christianity will still be flourishing another thousand years from now, for it continues to strike new roots and regain lost territories.[2]
Why won't the Christian religion die? It isn't just that the save-yourself philosophy of Modernism has given way to the more tolerant Post-Modern paradigm. It is the fact, instead, that the essence of the Christian faith is Jesus - neither the obvious and glaring failures of his followers nor the disconcerting sectarian divisions of the ecclesiastical bodies spawned in his wake. And Jesus continues to draw people to himself by the vision of the kingdom of God he gave humankind two thousand years ago.

Conclusion

It is Jesus himself who is the heartbeat of Christian faith. The defense of everything I believe about God, the meaning of human life, and the hope of life after death brings me back to him. So there are two final observations I offer you today.

First, the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history. The late Will Durant, an unbeliever with reference to the deity of Jesus, considered the question of the historicity of Jesus and wrote: "The denial of that existence seems never to have occurred even to the bitterest gentile or Jewish opponents of nascent Christianity."[3] This single fact weighs powerfully against any semi-literate person who might want to dismiss Jesus as merely a mythical creation. Of such an interpretation, Durant commented: "That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels."[4]

Second, the distinctive thing about the Jesus of faith and history is the view of God as personal, caring, and involved that he brought to us - and modeled so perfectly in his death. Aristotle had an impersonal Unmoved Mover as the god at the end of his philosophical argument. The Stoics talked about God as serene, undisturbed, and untouchable. Jesus came and showed us a God who cares desperately. The God of the Old Testament got involved with enslaved Israelites to set them free. Eventually, in fulfillment of Isaiah's vision of the one who suffers with us, Jesus came as God enfleshed, God sharing our sufferings, and God experiencing our mortality.

The detached serenity of an emotionless deity is no part of the biblical God - who has showed himself in concrete terms as Jesus of Nazareth. That he would give himself so fully to our situation grounds our faith solidly in history. That God would raise him from the dead validates all his claims, and we will examine that claim separately next week.
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[1] "The Three Greatest Men in History," Reader's Digest (May 1935).
[2] "The Real Message of the Millennium," Reader's Digest (December 1999).
[3] Will Durant, Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947), p.555.
[4] Durant, Caesar and Christ, p.557.



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