Christianity – a very brief introduction
Christianity is based on one person: Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that God is love (1 John 4: 8-9) and that God revealed his love to us by sending his only Son Jesus into the world to save us from the consequences of our sinful and imperfect lives because we could not save ourselves. A much loved verse from the Bible sums this up:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (John 3: 16).
The very presence of Jesus in the world is a witness to the depth of God’s love for us, and every aspect of Jesus’ existence on earth (his birth, his life itself; his death and resurrection) is brimming over with meaning for our lives. Jesus called himself the ‘light of the world’, and his coming into the world is regarded as ‘good news’ (which is what the word gospel means).
The background story
The Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image; made to know God’s love and reflect it in the way that we live and look after our world. Being ‘created by God’ might not fit easily with our scientific understandings of the world, but the key thing is that the Bible places our very existence within a framework which is not defined entirely by a series of biochemical and physiological processes (breath-taking in their complexity as they are), but rather by love and a purposeful decision to give us life.
The biblical story tells of how humankind (represented by Adam and Eve) turned away from God and his ways of love, kindness and justice to make their own choices (setting themselves up as ‘God’ in effect). The disastrous results of this were sinful and broken lives for their descendants, and the relationship of trust that God wanted with the people he loved was broken.
God did not abandon humankind though. He continued to care, continued to be involved. He called Abraham to leave his home, promised him as many descendants as there are stars and made a covenant (or alliance) with him and his descendants. They became the Israelites, a holy people whom God called to live close to him and to know and live out his ways of justice and integrity. The Israelites became slaves in Egypt, but God rescued them, gave them Moses as their leader and a system of law through which their communities would be shaped by God’s justice and mercy. Prophets were sent over the years to remind the people of God’s judgement when they fell away from that way of life and to recall them to it. Some of these prophets foretold the coming of a saviour (a Messiah) who would save the whole world. Then eventually God sent Jesus Christ.
So who is Jesus Christ and what did he do?
Jesus was born in Bethlehem while his parents were far from home. Shepherds and wise men came to visit him having had extraordinary experiences which set the scene for Jesus’ extraordinary life. We learn little of Jesus’ childhood, but when he was about 30 he was baptised by John the Baptist (his cousin), gathered some followers and began to teach and heal with an authority which amazed everyone who came into contact with him. He showed God’s power by healing people and carrying out miracles. He stilled the storm, multiplied the loaves and fishes and walked on the water. He told unforgettable stories about love, forgiveness and compassion, and he reflected what he taught in the way that he himself lived. He had time for everyone and he responded to people’s needs as he found them. He also had time for prayer, and he often went alone into the hills to pray to his Heavenly Father. He said that the ancient prophecies which foretold the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled in him and that when people looked at him they saw God. ‘I and the Father are one’ he said. He had many followers and a close band of disciples who lived and travelled with him. He perplexed, terrified and challenged them by turns, and brought them to their knees with wonder at the things he did. Crowds of people followed him everywhere. His family struggled to accept what he was doing though and even thought he was mad. He made himself unpopular with the religious authorities of the day as well by not sticking to all the approved religious rules and regulations. He warned his disciples of what was to happen to him, that he would die and rise again, and he promised them the ‘Comforter’ or ‘Counsellor’ (the Holy Spirit) to help them when he was not there; but they did not understand. Eventually Jesus was arrested. His followers deserted him and went into hiding. Jesus was ridiculed by the crowds and put to death on a cross; an agonising death. After his death a rich man took his body and laid it in a tomb. Amazingly though three days later the body was gone and Jesus began to appear to his followers. Jesus had risen! He appeared not once or twice, but many times in the days that followed, as the disciples tried to slide quietly back into their old ways of life. Finally Jesus ascended into heaven and the disciples who witnessed this worshipped him (so we read) with great joy. But there is more. Jesus had promised his followers the Holy Spirit and on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit did in fact come. There was a sound like the blowing of a violent wind and what seemed to be tongues of flame which rested on each person. The impact of this on Jesus’ disciples was so great that they burst out of hiding, no longer afraid to be known as Jesus’ followers, but full of confidence and joy, and began to preach Jesus as the ‘living Lord’. They proclaimed that death could not hold Jesus and that he had risen. They exhorted the crowds to repent and be baptised when they would receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were convinced that Jesus had risen, but it was the Holy Spirit who propelled them outwards from their own awe and wonder to tell the world.
The life of Jesus Christ has been regarded as so significant that it has punctuated history in two with his birth dividing the events of the world into things that happened before he was born, and things that happened after.
That significance doesn’t simply rest on Jesus’ abilities as an outstanding teacher or healer though. Jesus is the Son of God, both God and man. He shows us what a perfect human life should be like, but he also reflects the glory of God. His disciples were witnesses to this glory, and his disciple John actually said, ‘We have seen his glory’. There is real excitement in this eye witness account. Although we call Jesus the Son of God, we don’t mean that he is the actual biological son of God, but rather that he was totally connected with the life of God; part of that life and in complete harmony with it. Jesus was without sin and everything that he said or did flowed from God’s working in his life. We talk about Jesus being ‘Emmanuel’ (especially at Christmas) and this means ‘God is with us’. Christians believe that in Jesus Christ God has come among us.
There is more though and it is wrapped in deep mystery. The Christian understanding of God is that He exists as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (the ‘Holy Trinity’). This doesn’t mean that we worship three separate gods, but rather that God exists in three quite separate, but yet related ways. God the Father, the source of all things, God the Son who shared our human life and came to save us, and God the Holy Spirit who works in our lives to help us and draw us back to God.
The significance of Jesus’ birth.
Picture the baby Jesus lying in a manger and how helpless he is, just like any other new-born baby. There, amazingly and outrageously is where God is, coming to us not in power and might, but rather in the tiny and vulnerable form of a new-born baby. The significance of Jesus’ birth for us is that, in and through him, we know that God has come close and has lived a normal human life with its joys and sorrows, its achievements and disappointments. What this means is that we worship a God who is not remote from our situation or detached from our everyday lives. The God we worship is very much part of the things of this earth. And that in turn means that our faith is not to be something super-spiritual, but rather something to be lived out in the ordinary, grounded in the routines of the everyday as we strive to reflect God’s love in the situations in which we find ourselves. God stepped into the world in the person of Jesus (we call this the ‘incarnation’) and because of that we know that we worship a God to whom we can never say, ‘You don’t understand’ because he too has lived it.
What did Jesus teach?
The heart of Jesus’ teaching was about the kingdom of God. This is not a geographical kingdom ruled by a king and defended by an army, but a way of life of obedience to doing God’s will, or, to put it another way, a way of life where we try to do what God wants. Jesus said that the kingdom was coming but he also said that in him it had come. Unlike sinful humanity Jesus was perfectly obedient to doing what God wanted, and he taught in such a way as to lead people to be more obedient too; so that the kingdom would fully come here on earth as it in heaven (as it says in the Lord’s prayer). Jesus taught that we should do to others as we would have them do to us (the ‘golden rule’). He taught about the need to forgive, the value of humility and the importance of helping people who need our help (and putting ourselves out to do so). He talked about the first being last and the last being first, and said that the poor in spirit would be blessed. Don’t think too much of yourself and your own importance in other words. When there is less of you there is more room for God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus stressed the immense value of prayer and demonstrated it in his own life. He was asked which were the greatest commandments and he replied by saying: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourselves’. Turn your life outwards from yourself to love God and others. Jesus knew the depths to which human sin could take people and he never minimised its seriousness (or God’s judgment on sin), but he talked about the scandalous generosity of God’s grace. This means God’s overflowing, abundant love freely given to us. In what he said and did Jesus showed us a God who wants nothing more than to welcome us back into a relationship with him because he loves us. This and much more, Jesus taught to those who gathered to listen to him using stories taken from real life situations which people could relate to. He told stories about bridegrooms and travellers and scenes in marketplaces. He talked about everyday objects to illustrate what he said: wineskins, cloth which needed patching and seed sown in a field. On one particular occasion in front of a huge crowd Jesus taught what we now call the Sermon on the Mount which sums up his teaching.
Towards the end of his life Jesus had a meal with his disciples, the Last Supper. He took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples telling them it was his body. He then took the cup of wine and gave it to his disciples to drink from telling them that it was his blood, the ‘blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’. He was pointing them to his forthcoming death through which God was doing something new to put things right between humankind and himself; to finally repair that fractured relationship. Jesus was also giving all future Christians the means of remembering his sacrifice using quite ordinary and easily available things: bread and wine. Remembering Jesus’ sacrifice is at the heart of church worship in services that are called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. A priest recalls what happened at the Last Supper and Christians are given a sip of wine and a tiny piece of bread or a wafer. As we receive the bread and wine we remember with thanksgiving both the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and also that we don’t stand alone as Christians, but are rather part of something far bigger than just our individual selves, and that is the Church. At the very end of his time on earth Jesus promised his followers that he would ‘be with them always’ (Matthew 28: 20). Christians have had different opinions down through the ages about whether Christ is really present in some sense in the consecrated bread and wine, but receiving communion is one of the means by which that promise is brought to life, brings us close to Jesus and gives us strength for our daily lives.
Communion is a sacrament, a special sign of God’s grace and involvement with us. The other sacrament is baptism. Jesus specifically told his disciples to go and ‘make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Baptism marks the start of a person’s inclusion in the Church and the beginning of their journey of faith after they have made a decision to put their trust in Christ. A priest pours running water on the head of the person being baptised and says ‘John or Anne (or whatever their name is) I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. If a baptism is done when the person is a baby or very young (also called a christening) then the parents and godparents make promises on the child’s behalf that they will bring the child up to go to church and learn to be a Christian. If the child wants to affirm these promises for himself when he grows up (or herself) then he or she will be confirmed in their faith at a special confirmation service led by a bishop. Baptisms can also be done by full immersion and an adult might prefer this. When an adult is baptised then this has to be followed as soon as possible by confirmation.
Jesus Christ as Saviour
Jesus taught and healed the crowds and trained his disciples, but a large part of each gospel is concerned with his death and resurrection because these events are of particular significance. Christians believe that Jesus was sent into the world to save us from our sins, to rescue us from the consequences of our self-centred and imperfect lives; and to give us eternal life. This is life everlasting in the presence of God, a particular quality of life which begins now in this life through putting our faith Christ, but which does not end when our earthly lives end. All this Jesus did through his horrific death on the cross. That death was not simply a dreadful end to an outstanding teacher; it actually accomplished something which has implications for us.
What Jesus’ death did was to repair the broken relationship between God and humankind. Jesus came, bringing God’s love to a world which did not know it and willingly laid his life down. By doing that he did what was needed to bridge the gap between God and humankind that was caused by our rebellion.
This is not easy to understand, but there are various ways that we can approach it and try to unravel what is happening and what it means for us. One way is to imagine a law court with humankind coming before Jesus who is the judge; punishment is declared because humanity has turned away from God and embraced evil instead of love, but Jesus steps down from the judge’s seat and takes the punishment that should have been ours. Or another way is to see Jesus offered as a sacrifice taking the weight of our sin on his shoulders to free us to turn back to God. Or yet another way is to see it as a battle between good and evil with Christ, through his death and resurrection, gaining the victory over sin, death and Satan. C.S Lewis brings this to memorable life in his book ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ where in a scene towards the end of the book the great Lion Aslan (representing Jesus) freely offers himself to the witch to be sacrificed before returning to joyful life.
Christians also talk about humankind being held captive by the effects of sin and needing to be ransomed and that Jesus ‘paid the price’ and secured our release. The Charles Wesley hymn ‘And can it be’ describes an imprisoned spirit whose ‘chains fall off’, because of what Jesus has done; and whose heart is now free so that he can leave the confines of his dungeon to embrace the freedom of following Jesus. That puts it very well.
What happened to Jesus on the cross was real. He didn’t just appear to suffer, he really did. In the Garden of Gethsemene he prayed that God would take away his burden. He prayed alone (because his disciples had fallen asleep) and in great anguish. In that dark hour he accepted what God wanted him to do and went to his dreadful death quite freely, accepting both the pain and humiliation but also the betrayal by his followers. He even felt abandoned by God and we read that he cried out as he died, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’. He embraced the worst that humankind could do and died in pain and misery.
That tortured figure hanging on the cross shows us just how far God will go to save us. Humankind’s sin deserves God anger and judgement yet Jesus’ arms flung wide speak to us instead of God’s arms open wide in love and welcome. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to redeem it and that is what we should remember when we look at the cross.
Crosses appear in prominent places in every church, Christians make the sign of the cross and wear crosses round their necks on chains; and all this because the cross is so important in the Christian faith.
What is the significance of the resurrection?
We can imagine the resurrection like a bright searchlight because it casts its rays on the cross, the question of what comes after death, and indeed life itself; and transforms our understanding of all of them. Indeed, the resurrection is so important that, as St Paul said, the whole of our faith hinges upon it.
First of all we can say that the resurrection confirms the truth of the cross. We can understand it like this. Jesus gave himself to his dreadful fate out of grace-filled love and he hung on the cross having apparently been overwhelmed by humankind’s hatred and violence. Yet the love that propelled him there did not splutter and die when he died; and it did not die because it was God’s love which continued to work in and through him, taking him through death to resurrection and new life. It was a love which was not defeated by humankind’s brutality basically. The different ways we try and understand what the cross means are attempts to clothe in words how we can understand the utterly self-giving love of Jesus as he died on the cross and what it means for humankind. As we reflect ever more deeply we see with increasing clarity that it is that very love itself which is the most important thing. God didn’t retreat in the face of humankind’s violent actions and hide his face from us; he didn’t thunder and rage and punish. He continued to stay close to humankind, and to love and care, and because he brought Jesus through death we can know that.
The resurrection also has something to say (very obviously) about death itself. Our society often talks of people losing their battle with cancer as if such people had failed somehow or were particularly unfortunate, but yet we will all die. Alone amongst animals (as far as we know) we are the only ones who anticipate our own death. We are the only ones with the mental ability to ask the key question, ‘What comes afterwards’? All cultures, all societies have asked this question since the power of reasoned thought was possible, and have come up with a variety of different answers.
The resurrection doesn’t so much provide an answer though as shout to us that death has been defeated and we needn’t fear it! Eternal life awaits us because death couldn’t hold Jesus; he rose from the dead and now waits to lead us into God’s presence and endless mercy, and indeed a fabulous future.
The resurrection also speaks to us about life (and this might not be so obvious). If we take just one view of what comes after death which is nothing (just endless emptiness and non-existence), and many believe this, then this life is necessarily all there is. It therefore follows that we might as well make the most of it. There is just one life, live it as the atheists cry. That sounds reasonable because we ought to make the most of the time that we have. But in what way should we do this? What should we do with this little ‘segment of light in between two immensities of darkness’ as one writer described our existence? The problem when we believe that this life is all there is that we are often drawn into self-centred lives where it’s all about ‘me’. If we only have our three-score years and ten (or whatever it might be) then let’s cram as much as we can into it so that we are happy for the short time we have before the darkness closes in. We define life’s meaning by having it revolve entirely around ourselves; we set the agenda. What about the effect of that sort of life on others though, what about the effect on our world? Put the resurrection into the equation though and life is re-defined within a framework of ultimate meaning set not by ourselves but by God who has stepped into our world and done something new with the coming of Jesus, and shows it most spectacularly by raising him from the dead. The impact of this is that our lives are turned outwards from ourselves to embrace a wider view of what it means to be human, a view which says it’s really not all about ‘me’ but about God and other people and indeed the very world in which we live. The resurrection in fact, and perhaps paradoxically, takes seriously the things of this word. Jesus was resurrected into a real body after all. He was not a ghost or a spirit. The risen Christ stood before Doubting Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds. So, this physical world is important; the things of this life matter; and it is in this life that our faith is to be rooted and lived out. Our relationships, our interests; how we order our world, our churches, it all matters. As Christians we don’t just kick our heels through this life until the time comes for us to go to heaven. We work to make the world a better place in whatever ways we can. We are not left alone to do it all by ourselves either. If the resurrection is true then it follows that Jesus is alive. At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus promises to be with us for ever through the Holy Spirit. Because of the resurrection those words are living and true, and filled with Jesus’ powerful presence; the one who offers each one of us a transforming friendship of love.
The Church remembers the resurrection every Sunday, but Easter Sunday is the day in the Church’s calendar when this event is particularly celebrated. The priest says, ‘Christ is risen’ and the congregation reply with joy, ‘He is risen indeed’. The altar (or communion table) is placed at the east end of a traditional church building. As the congregation sit facing it they are necessarily facing east which is the direction of the rising sun. This is not because Christians are sun worshippers (most definitely not) but it is symbolic of the fact that in Jesus Christ light really has come into the world, and in the resurrection that light is most clearly seen.
How do I become a Christian?
Being a Christian means saying ‘yes’ to Jesus. Ask yourself first though: do you want to change your life? Do you want the fullness of life which Jesus promises? Do you want to accept a larger view of the world than you have now? Jesus doesn’t try and argue us into faith, but rather issues us with an invitation. ‘Come and see,’ he says. The artist William Holman Hunt painted Jesus as the Light of the World in a famous Victorian painting. Jesus stands with his lantern knocking at the door of the human heart. There is no door knob or latch; Jesus can’t open the door. It can only be opened from the inside. Being a Christian is about accepting what Jesus has done for us on the cross, receiving God’s forgiveness for the mistakes we have made and the gift of eternal life. It is not about working to earn God’s forgiveness, but is rather about responding to what he has already done for us. We do that through imitating Christ in the way we lead our lives.
Faith might come very suddenly and you find that you have reached a point of decision through (amongst other things) conversations with Christian friends or a sense that your life is not what it should be or after a major and life-changing event. Or faith might grow in your heart very gradually over many years as you reflect on your life’s experiences. Going to church will help as you reflect and wonder (see the later section on churchgoing). Always, though, Jesus waits for your invitation.
Baptism marks the start of the Christian life and if you were not baptised (christened) as a baby you will want to consider being baptised. That might be here at St John’s or at your local church. If you were baptised as an infant then you might want to re-commit yourself to Jesus in a special service in church. Or you might want to say a short prayer of commitment such as the one that follows either in the company of Christian friends or alone:
Lord Jesus, I know that I have sinned and made mistakes in my life, and that I have hurt you. I come before you now willing to turn away from what is wrong in my life. Thank you that you died on the cross so that I might be forgiven. I invite you into my life today as my Saviour and my Lord, and I put my trust in you to lead me into the future. Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.
What difference will it make to my life being a Christian?
Being a Christian and having faith in Jesus is about making a journey through life in his presence as a disciple (a follower, someone who tries to imitate Christ) knowing that even despite our flaws and failings we are loved and forgiven, and knowing that we can trust him implicitly. Many times in the Bible we are told not to be afraid and putting our faith in Jesus is about knowing we can ask him for strength for the present, and also that we have hope for the future. Being a Christian is not simply about turning up to church and then carrying on pretty much as before, but it is rather about a change in how we are as people and what we do with the time that we have. Being thankful for what Jesus has done for us, and for each day that we have, is very much part of being a Christian. It’s also about living a life of deliberate attention to the way we interact with others and working to develop what St Paul calls the ‘fruits of the spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, and doing what we can to help others as well. The story is told that one day Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. That probably seems strange to us but it was one of the things he did to teach his followers that they should serve and look after others, and we are called to do that too. The words ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ are often said at the end of church services. This is because being a Christian is about living out our faith in the world, striving to make the world a better place in other words in some way great or small and as we do so knowing that we are serving Jesus. We don’t do any of this in our own strength though. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit within us which helps us and strengthens us to live as God would have us live and so to become more like Christ.
Being a Christian is also about giving deliberate attention to God by making time to worship, to pray and to spend time with Him just as Jesus did. Although this comes second in this section it is in fact the most important. Just as we like to spend time with the people we love so spending time with God (whom we love and who loves us) is important too.
Becoming a Christian is not about suddenly being perfect, God in fact loves us as we are. However, he just doesn’t want us to stay that way. So becoming a Christian is about accepting an invitation to change, and that change comes through God’s call to belong to Christ, to become the unique person that God calls us to be and to do the work he calls us to do.
Where does churchgoing come in?
Going to church is an important part of a Christian’s life. It’s not about going because we have to, but because we want to. People don’t go to church thinking they have all the answers and that they’re better than everyone else. Rather they go because they are seeking answers and wanting to deepen their relationship with God through Jesus, and going to church will help them to do that. Church is not just for ‘fully paid up Christians’ either but also for those who are wanting to find out more about being a Christian and considering what it might mean to have that relationship.
The heart of any church is its worship and that is about gathering together with other Christians to praise God. So, a service includes worship and singing (hymns and songs), confessing our sins (acknowledging our failings and asking for forgiveness but knowing that God looks on us with pity rather than blame), hearing readings from the Bible and a sermon to explain them, saying a statement of belief together (or creed), praying together (for the world, the Church, our local communities, our families and ourselves) and receiving Holy Communion. There is a yearly and seasonal pattern to the services in which various aspects of the life of Christ are remembered at particular times of the year. Christmas and Easter (remembering the birth and death of Jesus) are the best known ones, but there are also:
Advent – the ‘waiting time’ before the birth of Christ.
Epiphany – when we recall (amongst other things) the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus.
Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent.
Lent itself – a time of preparation for Easter.
Ascension Day – when Jesus ascended to heaven.
Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit first came.
Trinity Sunday – when the Church particularly remembers the mystery of the Trinity.
Going to church is also about making friends and finding support from people who are on the same journey of faith.
Churches in fact offer a lot of support to their members, but they also do a great deal of good in their local communities. The Church of England is the established Church in this country which means it exists to serve the people of its local community (not just those who come to church), and church members are often involved in all kinds of initiatives to help to make their communities better places in which to live.
Some churches offer a more traditional and formal style of worship, others something which is more informal and relaxed. Some Christians worship in church buildings which are many hundreds of years old, others in very modern buildings; yet others worship in community or school halls. Whatever the particular style of service coming together to worship with other Christians is important. A story is told of a young man who one day asked an old priest why he should bother coming to church. After all he believed in God. Why should he give up his Sunday mornings? They were sitting by an open fire. The old man didn’t reply but just took a live coal out of the fire with the fire tongs and put it on the hearth. The two men sat and watched it cool; then the old man put the coal back into the fire where it heated up before taking it out a second time so that it cooled down. No words were needed, but the young man got the point. Without the encouragement of other people our faith might well fade and cool and diminish to nothing.
And what about prayer?
Jesus showed us, by his own prayer life, that we should make time for prayer. When his disciples’ asked him to teach them to pray he gave them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. It begins with ‘Our Father in heaven’. Just as Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father so too can we address God as Father through faith in Jesus. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for forgiveness for the past, strength for the present and help to resist temptation in the future.
Prayer includes asking for things (for ourselves and others) but it is much more than that. The acronym ACTS is helpful in summing up the different elements of prayer:
A – adoration (praising and worshipping God because we love him and know that he loves us too).
C – confession (saying sorry to God for the times when we fail to live the lives we should).
T – thanksgiving (simply being thankful for the days we have, the beauty of the world and the opportunities that are placed before us).
S – supplication (putting our personal needs and the needs of our families, churches, communities and indeed our world before God knowing that he loves us and wants what is best for us).
We can use set prayers written by others, we can pray in our own words or we can pray using silence. A bishop once came across a working man who was sitting and praying in a country church. He asked the man what he was doing as he prayed. The man replied, ‘I look at Him and He looks at me’.
We can even pray using colour!
When we pray we lift our concerns to God knowing that in his perfect will those concerns are met. We end our prayers with ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour’ because we come to God through Jesus.
We pray with others in church and we might be part of a Bible study group or other group of Christians who pray together, but it’s good also to pray when we are on our own. Jesus said we should be persistent in praying because he recognised how difficult it can be. There are many helpful books on prayer and also some good websites which take us through a guided time of prayer. You might like to look at St John’s introductory booklet on prayer. Prayer is a very individual thing and we are to pray as we can and not as we can’t.
The Bible is the foundational and holy book for Christians and its many and varied writings are regarded as being inspired by God. Or to put it another way its different authors wrote with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Bible includes stories, poetry, parables, history, prophecy and wise sayings. Yet through it all there is woven just one story, and that story is about God; what he is like and what we need to know in order to be ‘saved’; freed from the consequences of our sins and the mistakes we have made.
Christians believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit, and in the context of prayer and worship, the Bible reveals God’s will to us. That is why reading the Bible is so important. Every church service includes readings from the Bible, and Christians read the Bible alone as part of their daily devotions and gather in all kinds of groups to study the Bible with others. The Bible in fact has been very thoroughly studied and analysed in academic fashion over the many hundreds of years since it was written. The most important thing though is that through it (Christians believe) God speaks to us.
The Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments. Both are made up of a number of books. Each book is divided into chapters and each chapter is divided into verses. This is very helpful when locating a particular passage of Scripture. So, John 1: 1-14 refers to the book of John, chapter one; verses 1 to 14.
The Old Testament (also the Jewish Scriptures), and originally written in Hebrew, is the longest part of the Bible. Its first five books (the Pentateuch) tell the story of creation, the flood, the calling of Abraham (and what happened to his family), how the Israelites found themselves working as slaves in Egypt, how they escaped and how the law was given to Moses. The rest of the Old Testament is made up of history, law, proverbs, psalms and prophecy and also includes the stories about how the Israelites came back from their exile in Babylon. The New Testament (which was originally written in Greek) tells the story of Jesus in the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Through these four accounts we can follow the many and varied incidents of Jesus’ life, and learn what he said and taught. The Acts of the Apostles which comes next includes Paul’s startling conversion experience on the road to Damascus and how Paul and others spread the faith to the very first people who decided to follow Jesus; and their various adventures as they did so. There are also letters (or ‘epistles’) which were written by Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude to the earliest churches giving them advice and guidance to help them as they worked out what it meant to live out their new-found faith. The New Testament ends with the Revelation to John, an extraordinary book (not easy to read that is true) but a glorious and sumptuous treasure chest which gives us a vision of the last days (or ‘end times’) when the whole of creation will be renewed.
We might ask why we need the Old Testament if Jesus only comes into the New Testament. We need it quite simply because what Jesus came to do is part of the Old Testament story. You will remember that God made an alliance (a covenant’) with the people of Israel to call together a holy people, and of how the prophets sought to remind them of that calling and bring them back together. Jesus came into the world to continue God’s mission to bring God’s people back together, but with the difference that he extends the boundaries to include people from every nation who believe and trust in him. Or to put it another way, God now makes another covenant, not with a specific group of people, but with everyone who believes and trusts in Jesus.
A last word….an anonymous piece of writing printed in a newspaper advert (from J. John and Mark Stibbe’s book, ‘A bucket of surprises’ Monarch Books, 2002)
‘Jesus was born in an obscure village, the son of a peasant woman. He grew up in yet another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop till he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He didn’t go to college. He never travelled more than 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. He fiends ran away. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth.
Twenty centuries have come and gone and today he is the central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one solitary life.’