The heart of Christianity is not Christ, anymore than the essence of giving birth is water breaking, or the centerpiece of an Oreo cookie is the wafer that sandwiches the cream filling.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s no more sacrilegious than saying my church is not a Bible-coddling congregation, or that I order pepperoni pizza just so I can eat the pepperoni off the cheese. To many, pepperoni pizza is merely a canvas for the pepperoni. I only order the whole thing because it would be culturally uncouth to ask for a sack of meat.
What am I getting at? Semantics, associations, culturally-instituted norms. When we say “Christianity,” naturally we think of Jesus Christ and his tenure on earth, his crucifixion, his resurrection, etc. But there is a deeper message that so often eludes us, simpler than all of the storytelling we put together: Love.
So why didn’t God simply cut out all the other business and send us one straightforward message: Love the neighbor?
Oh wait, he did.
But it didn’t take. So he tried something else. And another thing. Then another. And still another, until we started to get it. Then lost it. Then we almost had it again. Nope, not quite. You get my point.
Let’s jump back a bit in the history of Christianity. That is, before Christ. Most savvy Christians would agree that the history of the Old Testament is part of their faith. Now, they might not say it’s the centerpiece of their faith—then what would all the noise about Christ be worth? But they do say it illustrated a God at work. Christianity, as much as Judaism, embraces the 10 Commandments, of which one is: Love the neighbor.
That instruction was sent down on clay tablets.
Fast-forward to Pauline Christianity and we have letters which spell out not only the letter of the law, but explanations of what it all means. In case newborn Christians forgot what Christ was all about, Paul is quick to remind them: Husbands care for your wives, wives be attentive to your husbands; children, obey your parents; help the sick; attend to the needy; use your gifts for the community of which you are a part; etc. It all fills out the lines of that nebulous thing called Love. Because, as Paul points out, without specifics we tend to spiral into bickering, power plays, and manipulation. Somehow, it’s not enough for us to hear “Love” as a commandment and act appropriately.
Nonetheless, the Pauline exhortation is writ firm in ink: Love one another.
None of this is obsessed with Christ’s daily life, or rote recitation of his Passion, or the details of his resurrection. And why not? Because, quite frankly, two things are absolute givens, from which we should proceed without fuss: God forgives us. We are loved and redeemed.
In that way, if we can possibly see it, Christ never wanted Christianity to be about him. As a matter of fact, Christ didn’t even want there to be a Christianity. That was our creation. And to some extent, it has helped us. But what clouds our hearts and minds is the forever infatuation with rules, codes, instructions, dos and don’ts, musts and mustn’ts, and every law-reeking thing in between.
You see, whether writ on clay tablets at the beginning of our religious history, or reiterated in admonishing letters millennia later, the Truth is the same as it has always been: Love the neighbor. And, as we dare to suggest in these most recent theological days, the neighbor is Christ for the world. In loving the neighbor, then, we also love God. Radical!
Do not think, then, that this is about the person of Jesus Christ. That’s not the idea at all. Jesus himself would defer to Love if God thought we could handle it. But we get it messed up, and mess ourselves up trying to turn it into ritual and rule. No, no! Jesus says. Let me show you how it’s done.
And, in the person of God, he gives us the most perfect love we can imagine.
Now, he says, gone from sight and sound, you try.