Today, many Christians believe they can have a satisfactory faith without religion. That is, they in no way give up on their basic Christian belief; they insist that they are Christian; but they deliberately reject so much of the religion in which they grew up. They believe in God but want to be free of all kinds of institutional demands and restrictions. Often they are disgusted with the human failures of organized religion: authority that is rigid, leaders who are hypocritical, priests who are pedophiles, liturgies that are boring, sexual morality that is not credible, subordination of women, non-acceptance of divorced or gay people. They deliberately reject such an imperfect religion.
Others are not so deliberately negative of the religion they cherished as children. Rather as adults, they see no reason to join or be committed to any religion. They point to many people who are leading citizens, honest individuals, notable philanthropists, socially committed persons or just good people — but not formal members of any particular religious group. And, if pressed, they would add that many religious people seem not as effective as some leading secular people. They believe they too can live their life quite well without joining any religion.
My focus in this article is not to find fault with such assertions. I will not attempt to reject or destroy any of those claims. Rather I only hope to make this one point: those who claim to be authentic Christians cannot live without committing themselves to Christ. That is, people might be morally good persons, they might affirm their faith in God, but if they want to be authentic Christians, they need a constant connection with Christ that involves religion.
The Person of Jesus Christ
Faith in Christ has a different kind of foundation than that of other faiths or other humanistic commitments. It is true that other faiths are based on the teachings of their founders and the ethical norms those founders taught. But their works, their teachings and their ethics are separable in principle from their persons. The same cannot be said about the Christian faith. The distinguishing feature of Christianity does not consist merely of teachings or ethical precepts taught by Christ but on the very person of Christ. “The following of Christ is what distinguishes Christians from other disciples and supporters of great men, in the sense that Christians are ultimately dependent on this person, not only in His teaching, but also on His life, death and new life.” l
In the New Testament as a whole, Christ’s teaching cannot be separated from His person; Jesus himself is the living embodiment of His cause. Not only His teaching but also His works, His real life and death, His human example, His ideals and His promises are all essential to His cause, His way. Among all great religious leaders, only Jesus ever proclaimed, “I am the way.... No one comes to the Father, except through me” (Jn 14:6). Jesus’ most common invitation, repeated dozens of times in Matthew, Mark and Luke is, “Follow me” (see, especially: Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23). And He addresses this call to everyone wishing to be His disciple: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
Edward Schillebeeckx explains what this call meant in Jesus’ day: “Long before the time of Jesus, for both Jews and Greeks (see already Plato, Republic II, 361) the expression ‘take up one’s cross’ meant to have the courage to die a violent death for a particular cause.... So what Matthew is saying in this story is that Christianity can result in a violent death.” 2
When Luke mentions this invitation of Jesus, he adds one word: “take up his cross daily” (Lk 9:23). So Luke emphasizes not death for Jesus and His cause but rather living for Him. He means that every one of us should offer our life for the sake of His cause. To follow Jesus, then, means to be ready to die for His cause or to live our lives for Him by offering our life for His service.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is more explicit; He urges us to imitate Him. When He washes the feet of His disciples on Holy Thursday, He explains that this action is meant as a general model for all His disciples: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15). He means that He is one who serves, and that each of them needs to follow His example as one who serves.
Later in the same chapter, He urges His disciples to follow His example of love: I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34). This commandment is new because it has a new model: Jesus himself. Later, He implies that “as I love you” includes the ultimate intensity of laying “down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:12-13).
Now, if this is what Jesus means by “follow me,” how can we ever fulfill His challenge alone and without constant connection with other followers of Christ? And if such is the model of service and love that Jesus urges us to imitate, how can we keep that image vivid without constant reference to the real, human record of that model found in Scripture?
Friendship with Christ
In this same 15th chapter, Jesus calls the disciples His friends: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.... I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” (Jn 16:14-15). His friendship consists in the very things that are the essence of human friendship: His love and His sharing of himself.
In our day we know that no human friendship can survive without regular external contact between friends. When we reflect on all the personal friendships we have had in our lifetime, we realize that many of those friendships have faded away over time because we stopped seeing one another. Some of them could be maintained at some level by letters, phone calls, e-mails or other means of contact. But without any regular contact, friendship tends to fade away or die.
Our friendship with Jesus follows this universal rule of human friendship. Without regular, external contact with Christ, our friendship cannot survive and remain strong. And in the Gospels, our friendship with Jesus is centered on word and sacrament. Without the words of Christ and the sacraments, there can be no Christian faith. All that we believe as Christians comes from God’s revealed word found only in the living community of His Church. The constant challenge of Jesus in Scripture is for us “to hear the word of God and keep it.” By such a response we are considered more close to Him than members of His natural family (Lk 8:21). In the synoptic Gospels, to hear the word of God and keep it is the primary source of our intimacy with Jesus.
Sacraments, too, are essential to our following of Christ. We Catholics, especially, are a sacramental people, more than those of any other religion. Whether different sacraments are presented in Scripture as coming from Jesus himself or only from the Church, they make the reality of Christ present to us as individuals.
The Way and the Truth and the Life
The Eucharist especially is the greatest means of our regular, external contact of friendship with Jesus: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in you” (Jn 6:53). In a word, Scripture makes clear that we cannot have friendship with Jesus without God’s Word and sacraments. If we believe that Jesus wants us to be His friends, then we can only do so by following the norms of all human friendship including regular, external contact with Him by word and sacrament.
John’s Gospel expresses a profound summary of the meaning of Jesus for the life of every Christian: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). That is, Jesus in His teaching, way of acting, life and person is “the way.” He is the guiding principle and living model for our relations with others and with God. He is the new motivation and new approach to life. And that way includes “the truth,” because He is the total revelation of the Father, giving new meaning and orientation to our life. That way includes “the life,” for Jesus is the channel of grace by which God’s life comes to us, and without that life of grace we cannot come to the Father. In a word, the concrete human person of Jesus acts as an invitation, an appeal and a challenge for us Christians to fulfill ourselves in our free, individual lives.
If we believe that Jesus is “the truth,” then we must constantly reflect on Him as the concrete revelation of the Father that gives ultimate meaning to all human life. If we believe that Jesus is “the life,” then we must seek that life of grace and strive to maintain it throughout our life. If we believe that Jesus is “the way,” then we must personally study his human model in Scripture and reject any other current approach to human living.
The focus of this article is not to find fault with those who gave up the faith in which they grew up, nor to criticize those who try to live their lives without formally joining some religious group. We are concerned only with those who want to be authentic Christians.
Being a disciple of Jesus is different from following any other religious leader. The reason is that following Jesus means much more than following His teachings. According to the Gospels, it means that the person of Jesus, His life, His works, His suffering and death, His resurrection, His approach to life, His model for living, His promises, His friendship are all part of “the way” to the Father.
And, according to the rest of the New Testament, following Jesus is never an individualistic, separated way of life, but a life within a community of committed followers of Jesus. That original community may have been uneducated, undistinguished and common; at times it failed, was divisive, intolerant and ineffectual. But Scripture does not relate any other community that came to be called “Christians” or any other way of following Christ.
Those who follow Christ today are no different. Often, the leaders are imperfect, the practices are ineffective, and the followers are inadequate. The Christian community will always be imperfect, but it is our only human connection to Jesus, who alone is “the way and the truth and the life.” TP
1 Hans Küng, On Being a Christian (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1966), p. 545 (emphasis added).
2 Edward Schillebeeckx, God Among Us; The Gospel Proclaimed (New York: Crossroad), pp. 202-203.
FATHER KINN is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago.