It’s about Jesus, who was born around 4 B.C. just outside Jerusalem and was executed around A.D. 29, also near Jerusalem. He was a charismatic Jewish rabbi who taught an ethic of love, promised justice in an emerging “Kingdom of God,” and demonstrated power over the forces of sin, death, and evil. After being executed on a Roman cross, he was raised from the dead (three days later) and appeared physically to his followers—in a form not immediately recognized. After 40 days, he rose up into heaven and left his spirit with his followers. Jesus was known as “the Christ,” a term which signified leader, deliverer, and hero. Christians draw their identity from Jesus’ teachings and actions and spirit. Followers of Jesus profess that he is their Lord (the one we obey) and Savior (the one who helps us.)
The followers of Jesus (Christians) cluster into voluntary associations called churches or congregations. People in a church gather for worship, fellowship, learning, and service to others. A church could have as few as 5 or 6 people, or as many as 20,000 or more. The head of a congregation is usually called a pastor. And the pastor is usually assisted by lay leaders. (“Lay” means non-pastor.) Most churches have a building where they gather. There are varieties of churches—and churches of similar philosophy and goals often group together in large organizations called denominations. Some familiar denominations are: Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran. Each denomination or congregation has its own rules, particular beliefs, values, and character.
Christians have two sets of sacred writings: The Old Testament being the first. The Old Testament consists of anywhere from 39 to 53 writings (depending on which denomination you belong to) telling about an ancient faith community known as Israel. These sacred writings include stories, myths, poems, historical recollections, wisdom sayings, songs, speeches, essays, laws, prayers, and census data from this ancient community. Israel came into existence around 1700 B.C. and continues to exist today as a faith community—and as a political entity. Jesus belonged to the Israelite faith community—and his life and teachings occur in the context of Israel. Jesus brought a respectful and unique perspective into the interpretation of the Old Testament.
The other set of sacred writings: The New Testament, consists of stories about Jesus, stories about his earliest followers, and essays about his importance in our lives and world. The New Testament consists of 27 writings, all originally in Greek. About half the writings are letters and essays written by Paul, one of Jesus’ most articulate and loyal followers, even though he only encountered Jesus years after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The stories about Jesus are located in the first four writings of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These stories often overlap and present different perspectives on his life.
The primary idea Jesus taught concerned the Kingdom of God. People at that time were aware of various powers in their lives: the power of the Roman Empire, the power of the family or tribe, the power of disease and death, etc. People also employed imaginative names for powers which affected their lives—but were beyond human institutions and ordinary disease: demons, Satan, angels, etc. Into a world full of “powers,” Jesus brought the concept of a Kingdom of God. He taught that God was already working in people’s hearts and relationships and institutions to bring about liberation and justice. In God’s Kingdom, all contrary powers would eventually lose their control. Nations would find peace, the oppressed would be freed, darkness would be dispelled. The Kingdom of God gave birth to hope—and that hope continues to be born in those who hear the Kingdom proclaimed.
The primary thing Jesus’ followers remembered about him was the nature of his love. He taught about love, he practiced it, and he gave individuals a new spirit of love that changed personalities and lives. When asked to name the most important rule for people to follow, Jesus said there were two: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self. He taught that all other rules and endeavors must promote love—or they would fall into the service of causes which were inhumane. His followers should not only love their friends and family—but must learn to love even their enemies.
Christians talk and sing about the salvation which Jesus brings to their lives. Christians talk of four primary types of salvation: salvation from death—in that his followers will be rewarded with the joys of heaven after they die; salvation from sin—in that our selfish and rebellious hearts are cleansed and our personalities are transformed into good; salvation from being lost—in that our lives go off course and get stuck or go in circles and we are rescued, restored, and reborn; and salvation from being broken–either by our own foolishness, by the abuse of others, or by the normal difficulties of life itself. When we are saved from brokenness, we are healed, encouraged, inspired, given the gift of amazing power for living.
Christians believe in the Trinity. This means that there is only one God—but we have three primary ways of speaking about this God: Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost.) This is a paradox in Christian thinking which may appear arcane and confusing—even to Christians. But it is a valuable concept in helping Christians interpret their sacred writings—and it helps them experience God in rich, mysterious ways. It also emphasizes that God is inherently relational.
Christians engage in worship. Christian worship could be something as simple as a silent prayer or meditation. Or it could be an elaborate ceremony involving pageantry, music, instruments, large and ornate buildings, costumes, and poetry. Or it could be a more spontaneous eruption of ecstasy and dance and adventure. Worship could be just one person communing with God alone—or it could involve thousands—or any number in between. Worship is the relationship ritual people perform in order to express a right relationship with God: we exalt God lower ourselves in God’s presence in humility, gratitude, and obedience.
Christians endeavor to live the Christian life. The goal of every Christian is to become more and more like Jesus—especially in his love, power, and grace. The Christian life involves taking part in a faith community, treating others as Christ would treat them, and exchanging the more selfish parts of our personalities with the attitudes that Jesus demonstrated toward life and others.