My adventures in discovering what I am, and what I can become
When I was a child in the playground, a little boy once asked me “What is your religion?” The question caught me out because, not only did I not know what religion was but, I didn't know what mine was. So I went off and did what any curious child would do when presented with a puzzle, I consulted my cuddly oracle - my mum. Her answer was short and equally confusing, “You're “C of E” she said, matter-of factly, even though it wasn't a matter of fact to me. So there it was, I was “C of E.” It sounded quite sophisticated and grandiose. I had a new identity. So next time an interested party asked me what my religion was, I could boldly and proudly announce “I am C of E, of course.” The only thing was, I didn't have the foggiest notion what “C of E” was! But I bluffed for a while and it seemed to work.
A few years later and I was facing more questions at secondary school. Once again this curious subject raised it's head. This time, in a school questionnaire. I decided that it was time to ask mum what “C of E” actually meant and what it entailed. Was it a club, like the scouts?, because if it was, I didn't fancy being a member much, it seemed like too much hard work. Could it be a Youth club of some kind, or an after-school club, or maybe a football club – C of E United? Did it come with any perks like a free pen or lemonade?
To my surprise, and disappointment, my mum informed me that it meant “Church of England.” I actually belonged to the Church of England club. And no, there were no pens or free gifts, and I had to pop along occasionally to their meeting place and listen to some bloke droning on about old books and sacrifice. Not the kind of club I would have wanted to join.
Which raised the question, how did I become a member of this club? I didn't recall making any promises to anyone, or signing a contract. Once again I consulted my cuddly oracle. Mum told me that when I was just about a year old, I was “Christened.” Apparently, this meant that I was held up by some strange geezer who was dressed in a posh black evening frock, in the church, and the man poured cold water on my bonce and made me cry. How embarrassing, I thought, in front of all my relatives. Apparently, that was when I promised (or at least my mum and dad promised on my behalf), to follow this nice man Jesus, who had been mentioned in our assemblies. I had agreed to renounce the evils of this world and uphold His standards. If I did this, I was told, I would go to Heaven when I die, to be with him forever.
Well. I was not a happy bunny, believe me! Aside from the fact that I had no intention or desire to die, and I wasn't keen on going to a place I knew nothing about, I was also not happy about the head-soaking which I saw as child cruelty, the kind of thing the bullies would do to you in the playground if you withheld your gobstoppers from them, I didn't remember agreeing to any of this “following” or “renouncing” lark. Besides, how could I renounce anything when I hadn't even tried it yet?! I might like it, you never know. But, apparently, there was no going back, I was a committed “Christian” and this act was a permanent part of my record as a human being. And so I let it rest.
Further down the line, being in this C of E club actually proved to be a bit of a door opener for me. When being interviewed for my first jobs, I was often asked “What is your religion?” I would automatically, without any consideration, answer “C of E.” Well, wasn't I pleased when it seemed to do the trick. They then ticked the box on the form and I got the job. “This is handy”, I thought. Apparently The C of E club opened doors. I wondered how far I could push it though. Could I walk up to the door of an exclusive bar and announce to the bouncers on the door “I'm C of E mate” with a wink, and they'd let me in? Or, if I wanted to kiss a pretty girl who was resisting my charms, could I simply smile smoothly and whisper “I'm C of E you know, baby!?” Was it like some Masonic handshake where you were given preferential treatment? The answer was a resounding NO.
Finally, when I matured a bit (just a bit), I began to ask questions about this clubs founder, this guy named “Jesus Christ.” I must admit, even as a rebellious teenager, I became impressed by the accounts of his life. The more I learned about him, the more I began to respect him. In fact, by the time I could think for myself, he had become a bit of a hero to me. But still, I wondered, Is this C of E club really his? Am I a member, a real member?
Later in life, after observing the antics and actual teachings of the Church of England, and other so-called “Christian” religions, I began to doubt that Jesus would have approved of having his name associated with their club and it's activities.
Finally, I took it upon my self to examine the record of his life and his actual teachings, and to compare them to what I observed in the C of E club and in my own activities. I decided to read and study the gospels of the Bible for myself. The result was enlightening, and shocking. In my searchings and studies I learned the real meaning of what it is to be a “Christian” and it is not what I was taught by the churches.
Anyone can claim to be religious. I might believe in a supreme being, or angels, or even the tooth fairy. Such beliefs are personal and no-one can deny my right to believe what I want and to describe myself as “religious.“ But to call myself “Christian” is something completely different. That is a specific designation of faith, whereby I am announcing to the world that I believe in, and follow, the teachings of, the one and only Christ, Jesus. We cannot follow Jesus if we believe or teach something contrary to the things he taught.
Strangely, there are those who claim to be “Christian” who do not believe that Jesus even existed, or did and said the things the Bible says he did. There are also “Christians” who do not believe in the Bible or the events recorded in it. One thing I have learned above all else about the character of Jesus is that he is no liar! A man who gave of himself for all, friends and enemies, a man who sacrificed comforts, relationships, wealth, prestige, power and even his life, could not possibly be a liar. No-one suffers for a lie! Jesus accepted every word of the scriptures.
So who decides what it means to be a Christian? Surely, the one who’s teachings a person claims to adhere to, Christ Jesus himself. If someone claims to be a follower, a disciple, of Jesus Christ, isn’t Jesus the one who should tell them if they are acceptable to him as one of his followers? Jesus is not on the earth today but, his words, his teachings are, in the pages of the Bible. If a person looks carefully at Jesus’ instructions in the Bible, they can measure themselves against the model of Christianity he set. The Apostle Peter wrote that Jesus left “a model for you to follow closely in his footsteps“ (1 Peter 2.21). Jesus set specific standards and indicators for Christians, and only by looking at these can we determine whether we are his followers, his disciples, or not. So I had to ask myself some tough questions.
Of course, there are obvious indicators as to what Jesus’ followers would be like. For example, Jesus expects his followers to do good to others, especially those in need. Jesus gave us the golden rule to live by, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7.12). While it is true that many people today also have that positive attitude towards others, they do not need to be a Christian to have these qualities. But, conversely, a person must have those qualities to be a Christian.
One thing became obvious to me from the start, that a baby or an infant could not become a Christian. One of the requirements of becoming a follower of Jesus was that a person had to "Take in knowledge", "Repent" - that is to say, be sorry for any past sins and to make a real effort to change, and to tell to others about Jesus. These were things that children could not do, only informed, responsible adults could become Christians. So the "Christening" that I had received was meaningless.
Another indicator of real Christian behaviour would be a person’s attitude toward violence and war. Jesus warned that “Whoever takes up the sword shall perish by the sword” and that Christians should “Love your enemy and pray for those persecuting you” (Matthew 5.44). So, no Christian would take part in wars or battles, even for the country they are born in, even to stop injustice. Peter tried to fight for Jesus’ life but was stopped by Jesus himself. If a Christian can’t defend Jesus, the founder of Christianity, what cause could they possibly use violence for?
Would Jesus' followers in our time be important, famous, influential, perhaps shaping the world with politics? I took to heart what Jesus himself says on this. He warned his disciples, both ancient and modern, that they would be “Objects of hatred by all nations” and that they would be “Spoken of abusively.” In fact, Jesus went so far as to say that they would be “No part of the world” because “The whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” So I realised that I should not seek fame, or want to be adored or be influential in this world, because my devotion should be to Jesus and not to a dying world system.
But, if Christianity has a badge, a uniform or an identifying mark, what is it? In all other religions in the world there are identifying characteristics or emblems, almost like flags. When we think of Islam we picture the beards of men or the “Hijab” that Muslim women wear. The Jewish people are identified by the skull cap or the “Star of David” even though this symbol has nothing to do with King David of the Bible but was actually adopted from a pagan religion centuries after David's death. Buddhists, (or at least the devout eastern ones), are known for their shaven heads, saffron robes and the symbol we see on many statues and books. But what of Christianity, what represents Christians? What would identify me if I were to become a Christian?
Apart from the lavish robes, golden instruments and grandiose titles that the clergy award themselves, most denominations of Christendom use the cross as a sign of Christianity. Some more modern Christians use the sign of the fish. Catholics use statues of Mary and Jesus, as well as the cross. Some religious leaders claim to be Christians because they can heal and speak in tongues.
But are any of these the “sign” of Christianity, the identifying mark? Jesus told us what that sign would be. After warning about the turmoil and chaos that would engulf the earth in our time, He revealed that “All will know that you are my disciples (Christians) if you have love among yourselves” (John 13.35). Yes, love, self-sacrificing love would be the mark of a true Christian. It is not worn or hung on a wall. It cannot be mass produced and sold in churches and religious stalls, and unlike wood and metal, it never wears out or, as the Bible puts it, “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13.8).
What should be the most important thing in a Christian's life? Well, what was the most important thing in Jesus’ life? Jesus tells us at John 4.34;
“It is my food to do the will of him that sent me”
Who sent Jesus? Jesus goes on to tell us in the gospels. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him” (John 6.44).
Later Jesus publicly prayed to his Father “I have made your name known among men.” Jesus even called him “My Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Who is this “Father” who’s name Jesus made known? Is he important to Christians? He obviously is to Jesus. The name of Jesus' Father is written in the Holy Bible over 7,000 times. However, most modern Bibles have removed, it or replaced it with the title “LORD.” Yet, at Isaiah 42.8 God says - “I am Yahweh, (Jehovah), that is my name, and to no-one else will I give my glory.” To Moses, God declared - “This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered from generation to generation” (Exodus 3.16). So, now I came to know Jesus' Father and to have a relationship with him too. Jesus promises his disciples that, when we get to know both himself and his Father, “They may become one, just as you and I, Father, are one” (John 17.21). He further promised, at John 17.3 “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”
And so my journey had come full circle, from those early days of my childhood, in the playground. I have learned that I am not “C of E” but that I can be a disciple of Christ. Ironically, Jesus himself said that, to become one of his followers, I must “Become like one of these” - a child, innocent and teachable. If I do, then I can see the fulfillment of Jesus' greatest promise, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.” I now know the man, and I love him very much. If I can choose a man from history to lead this confused, hostile world to peace, it is Jesus, the “Prince of Peace.”