What does it mean, to be a Christian?

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Who is and who is not a Christian? That seems to be a question of some interest these days, and it generates many, sometimes conflicting, answers.

Bear in mind that the name “Christian” is not trade-marked. Anyone can use it without having to explain what they think it means.

It might be helpful to observe that among Christian traditions that are rooted in the ancient faith of the earliest followers of Jesus, and emerging in the West through the Reformation movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, there are certain beliefs that tend to tie them together in spite of many differences, some of them significant. They can be roughly summarized as follows, keeping in mind that any two theologians would have at least three opinions about how I should have presented them:

Christians believe that there is a God, one God and no other God, who is the creator and sustainer of all that is, whether it can be seen or not. We believe that this God has a personal interest in the well-being of humanity, and that the record of God’s engagement with humankind is found in the Bible.

Christians believe that, when the time was right, God entered into human history through Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter by trade and a wandering teacher of God’s ways by vocation. We believe that Jesus was born of Mary, a virgin, who became pregnant by the power of God, and so in a very practical sense, we declare that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine — the literal Son of God.

This Jesus, and no other person in all of history, is the full revelation of God’s love for humanity, insofar as we are able to understand the awesome mystery that is God.

As the historical record attests, Jesus was arrested and tried before Pontiu Pilate, the Roman governor of the area we now call Israel, or Palestine. He was crucified on a cross and laid to rest in a sealed tomb. On the third day, his tomb was found to be empty, and his followers met the resurrected Jesus in a variety of places and settings where it was clear to them that this was no ghost, but the physical presence of Jesus himself.

He made it understood that by his death and resurrection, death itself had been defeated, and that the gift of life everlasting was available to all who desire to receive it from his hands. Not long after his resurrection, he returned to the place (heaven) of God his father, to resume the place of oneness with God that he had before his earthly and human ministry.

To prepare us for life in God’s eternal kingdom, God sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in those who follow Jesus, giving them remarkable gifts of his presence through which the love of God for all of creation, and especially of human beings, shines with extraordinary power.

Among these gifts is the sure and certain knowledge that every person is invited to share in the resurrection of Jesus. Christians know that they are already living an eternal life, and that death in this world is the gateway to a more perfect life.

The Rev. Steven Woolley is retired rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He serves at Grace Church in Dayton as well as chaplain of the Walla Walla Fire Department. Contact him at sewoolley@mac.com. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at catherinehicks@wwub.com.

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