The Rev. Karl Shelly

The Rev. Karl Shelly

What is a real Christian? What is a real American? What is a real Cubs fan?

These questions can elicit impassioned responses. Yet as a pastor of more than 20 years, I care most about what it means to be Christian. My perspective is shaped by the writings in the Bible, by long-held traditions, and by how the spirit of wisdom continues to reveal truth to us today.

But here’s the problem: neither history, wisdom, nor the Bible provide one simple, consistent answer to this question. Rather, they point in more than one direction.

Yes, even the Bible offers differing perspectives on the nature and purposes of God. That’s not surprising for a book with parts written more than 2,500 years ago, by dozens of different writers, and which includes four separate versions of the life of Jesus.

But fear not. These differences are not a problem to be ignored or denied. They simply reflect the rich diversity present in human experience. Serious Christians are called to discern which themes and messages of the Bible are most important and timeless.

When I was young, I learned how others understood Christianity. Friends of mine emphasized how sin separates us from God, and warned that unless I took the required steps, I’d be banished to a fiery hell when I died. It was a theology of threat and terror. However, there was an escape clause. Confess your sins, and state your belief in Jesus Christ as God’s holy Son and Savior, who died on the cross to atone for your sins. If you did this, I was told, a much happier afterlife awaited you.

This way of believing is common in the United States, and it’s been offered as “real Christianity” by some on this page. It focuses on life after death, it draws clear distinctions between who is in (the “saved”) and who is lost, and its primary mission is to urge others to this way of believing. There are biblical verses and a tradition that support this perspective.

However, for other Christians, myself included, this way of believing does not square with a broader reading of the Bible; it isn’t consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus; and it fails to hold up to life’s complex questions. Thankfully, there is a different biblical and time-honored way to understand the meaning of Christianity.

It starts by considering the Bible’s overarching message. I resonate with this three-point synopsis: 1) God creates the world; 2) the world gets lost; 3) God seeks to restore (or “save”) the world to the glory for which God created it. The church-word for this restoration project is “salvation.” It’s a word which means “becoming whole” and “being healed.” The Bible stresses that salvation is something that can happen here and now, and not just in a heavenly afterlife. And this healing is for individuals, societies and all of creation.

Christians are people who believe that Jesus shows us the way to join God’s restoration project. Jesus did this by speaking about “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God reflects the way things would be if we followed God’s dream for the world.

And what is God’s dream? Jesus taught that it’s about caring for the vulnerable; those whom the Hebrew Scriptures refer to as “widows, orphans, and foreigners” (Deuteronomy 24). He said it’s about meeting the needs of the hungry, the sick, and those locked in prison (Matthew 25); it’s about redistributing wealth to the poor (Luke 19); and instead of honoring the rich and privileged, this kingdom lauds the meek, the persecuted, and the peacemakers as blessed. Perhaps most shocking, in God’s kingdom enemies are not met with walls or retaliation, but with love (Matthew 5).

The kingdom of God is radically different from how kingdoms and nations of the world operate. God’s values tend to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This reversal of the way things are is why the powerful people of Jesus’ time plotted and carried out his assassination. And still today, Jesus’ vision challenges our business as usual.

Yet you would hardly know it listening to many Christians. Ironically, many who call themselves Christian actually oppose Jesus’ vision for healing the world. The fact that white evangelical Christians are the segment of Americans least supportive of welcoming refugees is one dispiriting indicator of this.

In fact, every time Christians in voting booths and elsewhere prioritize their gain above the needs of others, support policies and politicians which serve the wealthy or give more allegiance to the interests of their nation than the needs of suffering people around the world, they disregard the teachings of Jesus.

However, the good news of the Bible is that God’s project of restoration cannot be stopped. Not by hard-hearted Christians or death-dealing empires.

So, if you want to be part of God’s kingdom, don’t worry so much about whose beliefs or church doctrines are right. Don’t fret if someone calls themselves Muslim, Buddhist or none of the above. Don’t overreact if someone is gay, transgender or undocumented. This kingdom isn’t about judging and condemning others. It’s about living a life of love, compassion, and concern for the least among us. When we do that, the kingdom of God is at hand.

Karl Shelly is a pastor at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen.

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