By David F. Watson
A long time ago I taught in a community college. One of the courses I taught was Major World Religions. One day I was giving a final exam -- back in days when we used blue books -- and as we were beginning one of the students asked me, "You're professor...."
"Watson," I said.
"And this class is...."
Now, in my career as a student, there were tests that I was more prepared for and tests that I was less prepared for. But I was never so unprepared that I didn't know the name of the class in which I was taking a test.
Not surprisingly, the student didn't do very well. Major World Religions isn't a class that you can bluff your way through because the different religious have such specific teachings and come at life's problems in such different ways.
Have you ever heard someone say something like, "All religions teach basically the same thing?"
Were that the case, my student might have been able to pass the test. But they don't. They teach very different things. They look at the world differently. They approach life's problems differently. They worship different gods from one another, or perhaps they believe there is no god at all.
Oh, sure, you can eventually boil things down to something like "love one another," but what does love entail? Is what Hindus mean by love the same as what Muslims mean by love? And are these the same as what Christians mean by love?
1 John 4:10 teaches us, "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."
Love is, first and foremost, expressed in the action of God to send Christ to die for our sins. There is no other faith that teaches this.
"For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments" (1 John 5:3-4). What commandments are we talking about? These are the commandments handed on to us through Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles.
Religions are peculiar and particular things. They make sense of the world for us. They shape the way in which we understand ourselves and others. They teach us right and wrong. And one of the most basic questions that some faiths try to answer is, "Is there a God," and, "If there is a God, what is that God like?"
The ancient world in which Christianity emerged might be called a "world full of gods" (hat tip to the late classicist Keith Hopkins). There were gods everywhere. There were places for household gods. There were places where you could make sacrifice on the street. There were statues of gods in the garden and in the bedroom, gods in the market, and one might even find a painting of a god in the public toilet.
The world that the New Testament comes out of was incredibly religious. There was no such thing as secularism, as we think of it today. There was no separation of religion from political life. They were one and the same. You worshiped the Greco-Roman gods because they were thought to uphold the wellbeing of the Roman Empire. Pretty much everyone worshiped them, then, but you didn't have to limit yourself to them. There were also Egyptian gods, Babylonian gods, and gods associated with secret cults. Many people considered Roman emperors to be divine, and even the empire itself was deified as the goddess Roma. There was the God of the Jews, and there was a strange subset of the Jews that worshiped a crucified man.
In the midst of this world, you couldn't just say you worshiped "God," because there were so many gods. "Which god are you talking about?" The Christian God wasn't Zeus or Isis or Mithras. The Christian God was the God of the Jews, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But they understood this God in a different way than the Jews did. They understood their God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- a holy Trinity. And the worship of any other god was not going to do.
If the Christians had worshiped their God alongside the other gods of the Roman Empire, everything probably would have been okay. The Romans didn't actually care which gods you worshiped, as long as you were seen as loyal to the empire, and worshiping the Greco-Roman gods was a sign of loyalty. But once you stopped worshiping them, that's when you got in trouble. In fact, the early Christians were sometimes called "atheists," not because they didn't believe in any gods, but because they didn't worship the right gods.
And why not? Why not worship the other gods? Why insist so strongly on the worship of this one God? Well, for one thing, this God has commanded it. God forbids the worship of idols. God demands exclusive allegiance. But apart from that, only one God had saved them out of sin. The Father sent the Son to teach us how to live and to save us from sin. The Son had died on the cross and taken our sin upon himself. But after three days God raised him from the dead, breaking the power of sin and death. The Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, comfort us, and teach us about how to live as saved people. Only one God has done this. So only one God was worthy of worship. But early Christians garnered a lot of suspicion.
Why do they worship a man who was crucified?
Why don't they worship the gods who keep us safe?
Why won't they make sacrifice to the emperor?
What in the world are they doing when they get together?
Why do they say that they eat a man's body and drink his blood?
Being a Christian wasn't easy. It came with a price.
The question, for Christians, was not simply, "Whom will you worship," but more importantly, as the old rock and roll song goes, "Who do you love?" Jesus told his followers in John 14:15, "If you love me, keep my commandments." In other words, if you love Jesus then you will obey what he has taught. You won't live like everyone else. As Flannery O'Connor put it, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd."
One of the perks of working at a United Methodist seminary is that I've been able to fellowship and worship with Christians in different parts of the world -- including places like Vietnam, Cuba, and Egypt. To follow Jesus in those contexts -- to worship the Christian God, and that God alone -- is a choice they make, and not always an easy one. They may face government oppression, threats from radicalized Muslims, or simply pressure from their families not to do something strange like becoming a Christian.
Christians in Nigeria are facing terrible persecution. In China we're seeing a strong reaction against the spread of Christianity. Churches are being closed. Congregations are being spied on. House churches are being raided. And yet it's projected that China will soon have more Christians than any country in the world, as many as 245 million by the year 2030. Compare that to 173 million in the U.S. today.
If you're going to hold to the faith even when it's most difficult, even when it's dangerous, even when it may cost you everything, you have to know who you love.
The Greco-Roman world was a world full of gods. But is it so different today? Even in the United States things are changing. More people today identify as "nones" than as Mainline Protestant, and there are almost as many nones as there are Evangelical Christians. Among the 18-29 age group, "nones" outnumber Protestants. Their numbers in Western Europe are far more concerning.
But these "nones" aren't necessarily atheists. They just don't have a particular religious affiliation. They may practice new age religion or dabble in eastern religions. They may meditate using a hodgepodge of religious practices they've picked up here and there. Some have called this the "re-paganization" of Western culture, but I would simply say that today, as in the first century world, we increasingly live in a world full of gods.
But for Christians, there is only one who is worthy of our highest love: God the Father, who sent God the Son to save us from sin, and abides with us until Christ returns in God the Holy Spirit. Three persons. One God.
David F. Watson is the academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered on Trinity Sunday (June 16) at Sugar Land First United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Texas. Dr. Watson wishes to thank the Rev. Martin Nicholas for the invitation.