It was a few years ago now when my theological college sent me, and a few of my colleagues, down to Folkestone to join local churches putting on a variety of events aimed at interesting the general public in exploring the Christian faith. I was surprised to find that one of the speakers they had invited was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, The Most Reverend Dr Rowan Williams.
At the end of his seminar he invited questions from the audience and inevitably someone asked what was different about Christianity. 'Surely all faiths are equally valid’ they said. As you would expect, the Archbishop answered diplomatically, saying that there was much that was good in other faiths, but, he concluded, no other faith has Jesus Christ. For Rowan Williams, Jesus himself defined Christianity; Jesus himself was what was important about Christianity.
In his book, Knowing Christ, my former theological college principal, Alister 'Three Brains' McGrath, describes an experience shortly after he became a Christian. As an Oxford University undergraduate, early one Sunday morning he had decided to cycle out of the city to some woodland overlooking the dreaming spires. After surveying the scene, he began to read St Paul's letter to the Philippians and found himself pausing at point after point, trying to take in Paul's reflections on the unsearchable richness of Christ.
'For to me living is Christ and dying is gain' (Phil. 1:21), he read. That certainty pulled him up. For Paul, the entire purpose of life was Christ. Still musing on these words he read on, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus my Lord' (Phil 3:8).
Alister thought long and hard about Paul's words. He says it was as if Paul was speaking to him and him alone. Paul was asking him if he shared his certainty that the privilege of knowing Christ overshadowed everything else this world has to offer. ‘I knew what the answer to that question was’ he says, 'No, I did not. But one day I would.'
Clearing away the rubbish
We can often find ourselves distracted or put off Christianity by peripheral questions. We wonder about the problem of pain, or the interplay between science and faith. These questions are not unimportant, but they are not at the heart of Christianity. Or maybe we have found the church cold and uninviting, too formal, or not formal enough. But Christianity is not about the church, it is about Jesus Christ himself.
A vicar was visiting a family who had just moved into his parish. The door opened and seeing the dog-collar, the person said, 'Hello vicar. I see that you have called to persuade us to go to church,' to which the vicar replied: 'I haven't called to get you to go to church, I have called to introduce you to Jesus Christ, and when you know him then you will go to church.' I do hope that you will feel welcome at our churches, and that you will make new friends, but most of all I hope that you will discover for yourselves 'the unsearchable riches of Christ.'