Was Jesus a Christian?
This is not a trick question but arises from the pages of the New York Times.
We know Jesus was a Jew; and we know that his contemporaries who followed him as Lord were first called “Christians” in the city of Antioch, some years or even decades after his death and resurrection. And we know the first real controversy in the Christian movement was: can a Gentile (that is, a non-Jew) be a Christian—or a Jesus-follower—without first becoming a Jew?
The answer to that question was mostly, Yes, and you can read about that in the 15th chapter of the “Acts of the Apostles” in the New Testament.
But was Jesus a Christian?
Yes, he was baptized, but not into church membership as is customary today; and yes, he took communion, sort of—or at least, he served what we now call communion on one occasion. But he frequently was a table guest of all kinds of people, righteous and unrighteous; he evidently enjoyed such social occasions.
We have no record of Jesus reciting anything like the Apostle’s Creed, but we do know he prayed The Lord’s Prayer—but that prayer has little to nothing in it that is distinctly Christian: nothing about Jesus, or salvation, or church, or baptism—nothing. Does praying the Lord’s Prayer make a person a Christian?
Actually, Jesus lived and died before Christianity existed, before any of the public elements of Christian faith were even known or practiced (and here I refer to things like sacraments, doctrines, sanctuaries, and such).
But still we like to say that Jesus was the first Christian, the first Jesus-follower, even while he was, from beginning to end, a very devout practicing Jew. He read the Torah, attended services in Temple and synagogues, and affirmed many of the basic beliefs of Judaism (creation, revelation, morality, even resurrection).
So, in a very real sense, Jesus was both a Jew and a Christian.
Which might help us interpret the experience of David Brooks.
Brooks is the widely-read columnist for the New York Times. He was born into Judaism but, by his own account, has been a practicing atheist for much of his adult life. He writes about that in his latest book, the same book in which he describes his spiritual “coming of age”.
Much of this awakening he attributes to personal crisis (a divorce), to famous people (the late Oxford scholar C. S. Lewis and the Protestant minister Tim Keller), and to a friend (who is now his wife). He has been attending church in Washington DC.
The conversion of the rich and famous is always a matter of curiosity. Remember the gospel gossip about Paul Simon some years ago and the on-going search for the Christian identity of Bono?
Conversion stories make great reading: think Thomas Merton and The Seven Storey Mountain, or Chuck Colson and Born Again, or even C. S. Lewis and Surprised by Joy. Or further back, Augustine and Confessions.
The Roman Emperor Constantine did not write a book, but his gradual embrace of the Christian faith (early fourth century) was a surefire celebrity conversion; it altered the course of western civilization.
Changing religion is perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom. The right to convert—to any religion or from any religion—is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although it is widely ignored in parts of the world. In some places people who leave a religion are subject to shunning and shamming, and even worse, to torture or death.
Brooks confessed in his book, “I am a wondering Jew and a very confused Christian.” Some version of that could be said about many of us, especially if the wondering part can be taken to describe a journey, a spiritual journey.
Which is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he called to those fishermen on the banks of the Sea of Galilee so long ago: “Come. Follow me.” He did not mention baptism or communion or confession or even prayer—not at that time. He simply said, “Come on! Let’s go.”
That may be what David Brooks is doing, even if he doesn’t know much about where he is going. Which fits nicely with contemporary culture: “It’s not the destination, baby. It’s the journey. It’s the journey.”
copyright@Dwight A. Moody 2019