Christianity is focussed on the life and teachings of Jesus from Nazareth in Israel, whose birth in Bethlehem just outside the capital city of Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago was used in 525 by a Christian historian as the year after and before which to order historical events, a Western calendar which is still used but has had to be revised a number of times since.
Jesus was born into a Jewish family when Jews had been expecting a Messiah (Greek “Christ”) to deliver them from being occupied as part of the Roman Empire. His life and teaching are recounted in four writings called “gospels”, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Little is known of his early years. His birth is described as miraculous; at twelve he asks amazing questions of teachers of Jewish Law, an age at which Jews have their Bar Mitzvah as the entry to adulthood. His story really begins at the age of 30 when he gives up his job as a carpenter and for the next 3 years, until his death, he teaches about God to large crowds, healing many and gathering close disciples around him.
His main theme is that the way the strict Jewish law and the way Jewish religious leaders interpret it, give people a distorted view of God. People therefore find it difficult to love God. His arguments and demonstrations about keeping Sabbath laws, and insisting religious practices are only effective if they bring people closer to understanding the love and will of God, eventually led to his arrest for blasphemy by the Jewish leaders when he is in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities are persuaded he is a threat to peace and on a Friday, he is executed as a criminal by death on a cross with two other thieves.
The Thursday evening before, he celebrates the Jewish Passover with his disciples, telling them he is to be sacrificed in the same way the lamb of the Passover meal was sacrificed in Egypt at the time of the Exodus marking the Jews’ escape from slavery. Bread and wine would be reminders for his followers of his death which would be the punishment for all to gain forgiveness of their sins to enable a loving relationship with God to be restored, extending beyond death.
This dream seemed to have been destroyed by his death, but on the Sunday morning following his death, some of his female followers attended his tomb to pay their respects but found the cave empty. They and many others claim they met Jesus, risen from the dead, and in the days before he left this earthly life to return to God, they talked with him, ate with him, and touched him.
His disciples are left with a commission to baptise others with the water of repentance and to spread the offer of God’s love and forgiveness to all because of Jesus’ death. However this was stalled through fear of the disciples themselves being arrested, until at the Jewish feast of Pentecost which celebrates the first giving of the Jewish Law to Moses, they report receiving the gift of God’s Spirit as a wind and tongues of fire. This emboldens them to travel and spread their new found faith, even to non-Jews, and in the process they are transformed from Jewish reformers to rivals known as Christians.
Christians believe there is always and ultimately only one God, but able to reveal himself in three different persons, called the Trinity:
God as Father, immortal, eternal, the creator and sustainer of the universe
God as Son born and living as a human, sharing our experiences and showing God to us, now risen from death, and the human face of God
God as Holy Spirit, the love and energy of God set loose in the world, to inspire and strengthen his followers to transform and renew the world.
For three hundred years Christianity is a banned religion, its followers meeting in secret with a new holy day, Sunday, baptising new converts, and a characteristic ritual of breaking bread and drinking wine together. This changes when the Roman Emperor Constantine wins a battle in the year 313 using the cross as his symbol. Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire, spreading through its subject countries.
At the end of its first thousand years, Christian countries then divide on geographical lines, the Western churches remaining loyal to the Pope in Rome as leader of the Roman Catholic church, while the Eastern Orthodox churches recognise the Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey) as their leader.
After 500 hundred years more, the West saw a major movement begin in Europe to reform the practices and authority of the Roman Catholics. This led to a split between the Roman Catholics and those now called Protestant churches. In England Henry the Eighth, as monarch, became Supreme Ruler of the Anglican Church; the Bible was translated from Latin to English and distributed widely so people did not need priests to interpret it for them; the bread and wine at Christian services no longer needed priests to change it into Jesus’ body and blood, as his sacrifice had been made once and for all; faith in God’s promise of forgiveness became more important for salvation than religious actions or financial legacies.
Over the centuries there have been wars and attempts at reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants. Pressures for reforms have continued within the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian Protestant denominations have been started to carry on more reforms of Christian understanding of worship, organisation, theology, practice, authority, social obligations, ethics, views of the Bible, views of science, with these groups often described as “non-conformist”.
Today there is a World Council of Churches including most Orthodox churches, Anglican churches and Protestant denominations, with the Catholic Church not a member but an observer. There is an annual Sunday of Christian Unity, and a movement called Ecumenism with mutual understanding between Christians as its aim and foundation.
(David Griffith August 2020)