Are you a Christian? If so, why? Have you ever thought about that? Or more succinctly, if someone asks you why you are a Christian can you give a good, concise answer? What experiences have you had that confirm your faith? In short, amidst all the world's religions, why Christianity? Few people are ever genuinely asked, and fewer still have an answer prepared. In this episode, Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb provides an answer; he discusses what the Christian faith says about God and you.
Table of Contents
- Why Christianity
- What Is Unique About Jesus
- Why Christianity Is Unique
- Why Christianity Is an Experience of God’s Coming to Us
- Seeking the Divine in This World
- The Power of a Well Preached Passage
So you had some social gathering, it's casual, you're meeting people. In the course of conversation you mention something about your church. When one person looks at you, and very innocently asks, "Why are you a Christian?" It's not a confrontational question, maybe they're just dealing with issues of faith themselves. But there you are, having to put your faith into a succinct answer and maybe you've never thought about it.
I mean, you can give theology, but they can get that anywhere. The question is, why are you a Christian? Because you've always been a Christian? Because, well your parents were Christians and they brought you to church? Have you ever given it much thought? What would your answer be? Why, among all other religions, Christianity? Our guest today will help you think through your answer.
Introducing Our Guest, Reverend Dr. Charley Reeb
Our guest today received a Master of Divinity Seminary degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Theological Seminary. Currently, he's the senior pastor of Johns Creek United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, Georgia just outside Atlanta. He has over 20 years of experience as a pastor, much of that time teaching on the craft of preaching and he gives back by teaching the practice of preaching for the Course of Study at his alma mater, Candler.
He has authored four books, "Seven Wonders of the Faith," "One Heaven of a Party," "Mission Possible," and my favorite, "That'll Preach! 5 Simple Steps to Your Best Sermon Ever." He's also a frequent preacher on the national radio program, Day 1. Today we are discussing his sermon entitled, "Why Christianity"? And so we welcome one of the best preachers in America, the Reverend Dr. Charley Reeb.
A Spur of the Moment
Bob: Let's jump into the sermon, Charley. You start out with a great question, and it's a question that you got when you took a visit to your undergrad school, Florida Southern. And it was kind of an innocent question, but listen, it's a fundamental question. It seems easy to answer, but it can throw some of us, even Christians. So, tell our listeners a bit about that encounter.
Charley: Well it happened many years ago. Like I said, I was fresh in the ministry and I think quite honestly, even though the professor didn't tell me but he had originally asked probably a more prominent preacher at the time to do it and he bailed. So he said, "Okay, I'll call the associate at this church and see if he can come and save me and come in to talk to my class.” So I said, "Sure."
It was the spur of the moment if I remember right. And got to the class and I was feeling good about answering questions and they had great questions. Some were Christians but some were of other faiths and some were freshmen. Some were seniors, so it's a variety of people and students.
Bob: Charley, was it like the religion class?
Charley: It was a sociology class. They wanted a pastor to come and talk about how the church affects the community, and the community, the church and the role of a pastor in the community. It wasn't overtly "religious". They just wanted to see how the role of a pastor affects people in the community, although I did answer some questions about my role.
Why Are You a Christian?
Charley: I quickly turned into theology and faith when that person towards the end asked the question, why are you a Christian? I remember when she asked the question, I thought to myself, "Now there is the question. That's the question." If a Christian can't answer that question, then why in the heck should anybody listen to them?
I remember thinking about it and honestly it didn't make it into an idea for a sermon until many years later. Because I often reflected on that event and then maybe five, 10 years later I recall using it in a sermon and then it slowly developed into the sermon that I preached that you had recorded or you played.
Bob: I think many of us really, maybe deep down inside we haven't asked that question. I mean, these are innocent folks who come to church every Sunday. If you would ask them, many of them might respond, "Well, I'm a Christian. I come to church because I'm a Christian." "Why are you a Christian?" "I don't know, I've always been a Christian."
And even in your sermon you ask, "Is it because your mom and dad brought you to church every Sunday, therefore you've kind of adopted it? But have you ever really thought deeply about why this faith"? And I think in your sermon you challenge us to ask ourselves why Christianity. And what I love about is, you begin to answer the question by going to the prologue to John's Gospel.
What Is Unique About Jesus
Bob: You sort of lead us down that road that there's something unique about this Jesus. Tell our listeners a little bit more about that. How John's Gospel for you, particularly this prologue, "In the beginning was the word," that to you is informative on your own faith, and part of your own answer.
Charley: I talk a little bit about it in the sermon when I talked about my struggle with the question as a teenager and into my young adult years. And because I did, that question haunted me for a long time. Why am I a Christian? What's unique about Jesus? There are so many religions in the world, why Christianity should be so special? What stands out about it?
I recall during that search, me digging into the Gospel of John and in particular reading a commentary on John. I can't remember the author. On the prologue of John, I will never forget as long as I live. Part of the key to the answer to that question for me in the renewal of my faith was something the commentator wrote when he began to unpack logos word in Greek.
The word became flesh is the word logos, and as he began to unpack what logos meant. The bottom line and I don't want to bother you with a lot of Greek and scholarship here. But the bottom line was, logos really means the mind or personality of God. That really clicked for me that Jesus was the personality of God walking on the earth.
So the first big part of the revelation for me was from John, "And the word became flesh.”
God in the Flesh Made the First Move
Charley: And the idea within that text that it was God in the flesh who made the first move. Who came and search for us. The whole idea of the incarnation of God making the first move to us. That was kind of the raw material as I begin to search and question, "Okay, I'm getting some answers through. I'm beginning to realize why our faith is so special."
Bob: I think that's a really interesting point and something that you pick up on and utilize in a way that I haven't heard other preachers do. That Jesus was the personality of God. This is really an interesting point because for so many people the whole concept of the Trinity kind of throws folks. They think of God as this big, gray-bearded guy up in heaven.
Jesus is kind of the friendly person we have here and the Holy Spirit every once in a while you feel him. But we don't talk about him very much. When it comes down to who Jesus is, for him to be the expression of God, the personality of God. That's really a unique way to look at it and I think it sort of helps us understand that.
Charley: I picked that word intentionally. Although I don't think I remember the commentator using the word personality, what it said to me in a lot of fancy words was, personality. So I was looking for a word that would help the average listener connect with all that Greek sophistication and meaning.
And it really came down to, what they're trying to say is, "This is God's personality walking the earth."
What Do People Look for in a Messiah
Charley: That clicks for people when they hear that word personality, more so than maybe more advanced or highfalutin theological language.
Bob: Exactly, right, the personhood of Jesus. You say that that logos, it intersected at a certain time in history. And you follow that up, really describing a reason why, as it mentions in John's prologue, "Some did not receive him." The idea that he came in such an unexpected way. Can you follow up with our listeners on that?
Charley: When people think of God, especially before Jesus intersected the earth, they didn't think of God in those terms. God coming as a baby, God coming as vulnerable and loving, and God coming as self-sacrifice and love. As opposed to God coming to the earth and showing his wrath and setting things straight which is clearly what many people wanted the Messiah to be.
Not to give a history lesson, but that's what many people were looking for in a Messiah. Political and military leader that was going to have a day of reckoning, and gonna set things straight. So all of a sudden, here is God as a baby, what is more vulnerable and approachable than a baby? I mean, nothing else.
Anyone can relate to a baby. Mind blown, and so people they couldn't connect that, why. There is no way, and so I think that's why many people struggle with it.
Bob: That then leads us to one of the things that's so unique about Christianity that you talk about. That is, we are not talking about some God that is far off and aloof as in pretty much all of the religions.
Why Christianity Is Unique
Bob: Christianity is the only religion in which as you put it, "God reaches for us." Whereas in other religions it's about us reaching toward God. So, there is this kind of exclusivity of Christianity. It's interesting because you bring this out in your sermon. We have a growing percentage of the nation that are "seekers." I'm all for seekers, I want seekers in my church.
I think seekers should seek but really what I hear you saying is, it's great to be a seeker. But God seeking for you and really just being open to him seeking for you and searching for you is one of the firsts steps to really understanding the answer to why Christianity. Do you agree with that?
Charley: Absolutely, and I think that one of the first steps of opening yourself to this Christ is surrender. Which goes against all human instinct and everything we learn in life is that we gain strength by letting go.
I'm reminded of that old Mr. Grider talked about going to see a trapeze artist and he was amazed at what he did but when he talked to him later, the trapeze artist says, "Well everybody thinks that I'm the great star of the show. But really the star of the show is Joe, my catcher. If I try to catch Joe, I'll fall. It's not my job to catch Joe, it's Joe's job to catch me."
This idea of surrendering, this idea of letting go, this idea of coming to yourself and letting go. I think that's what's unique about Christianity.
The Hound of Heaven
Charley: Also what's brought out a lot in a United Methodist tradition is this idea of God's prevenient grace that's constantly on the lookout, trying to seek us, quickening us, beating on the door of our hearts.
The hound of heaven so to speak, to use an old phrase. God is constantly after us with his love, seeking us, especially those who are seekers. So yes, I think that that's a key thought in all this.
Bob: Reminded of the prodigal son and the uniqueness of the father when he sees his son coming back from far off, hikes up his bridges if you will.
Bob: And goes running toward him, you know? What a great image. Unlike the images we get of Gods in other religions, again speaks to the uniqueness of Christianity. What I love about your sermon is you give a rationale, a reason, a real answer to why Christianity. I think for some also they need that and they also need an experience. So, I got a tough answer for you pastor Charley.
Bob: What if somebody says: Okay, I get the uniqueness and I get what that means to you and I get that it's not about us reaching to God. Why Christianity is about God seeking us and reaching for us. But I don't feel God, I need an experience, I don't sense it, I don't feel what everybody else is talking about. What, did I not get that gene, that DNA, how do I not feel this way?" How do you begin to answer that.
God Comes to Us in Christ
Charley: It's a great question. People can understand that idea intellectually and cognitively in terms of, "Okay, I get it. God comes to us in Christ and I don't have to keep searching and wondering. And looking at all the different philosophies and religions and I can stop. Because God is here to show me the way. More importantly, He is here to come to me, to embrace me and to bring me home.”
People can get that but that's a great question. Because we don't always feel God, even those of us who follow Christ. There are times when we don't necessarily feel it. I think it's important to remember first of all when someone says that, especially someone outside the faith, even Christians struggle with that. Even though you can walk close with Christ doesn't necessarily mean that you're always going to feel that.
That's just part of being human, even Christ felt distant. But I mean, that's another sermon. But I think I tried to answer that towards the end of the sermon, I don't mean to jump ahead when I talk about my encounter with Walter. Many times, not always, because I think God can provide us an experience in a variety of ways.
People have shared that over the years in Christian testimony. Whether it's during your prayer time and you sense God, or being put into a situation, or there's a sign, I think God is not limited. But I think one of the key ways, especially with this incarnational theology that God comes to us is through God's agents, us, through other people.
The Brief Encounter With Walter
Charley: So the way I try to make that come full circle in the sermon was, Christ was in me, working through me to Walter. So for Walter, I became the hands of Christ, the arms of Christ for him.
Bob: Would you mind giving us the brief encounter with Walter, if you don't mind for our listeners?
Charley: I was in seminary and I just knew very little. I was very naïve. Part of the process of being at Emory at the time and I think still today is that your first year in seminary, you're part of what is called supervised ministry. Part of that is typically you're a chaplain in a hospital. So you're thrown right in, trying to be a minister to people who are sick and dying. I was assigned to the cardiopulmonary ward of Emory Hospital.
Long story short, I was walking around one day with my little name tag that said clergy and I was just clueless. I was just fumbling around, trying to learn all this stuff. A nurse asked me to go visit a guy named Walter, who I never have seen before. He was in the hospital, his door was open. She said, "Nobody comes to see him. He is dying and there were no relatives, no friends, nobody. Would you mind going to see him?"
So I did and Walter was very bitter, very angry. When I told him I was the chaplain, he was not too pleased to have me there. He basically tried to kick me out. Before I left the room, maybe he sensed that I was just wanting to be friendly and kind. He began to open up to me.
Why Christianity Is an Experience of God’s Coming to Us
Charley: Long story short, he let me pray with him. I said something in my prayer to the effect of, "Lord, cover Walter with your warmth and love like a warm blanket."
When I opened my eyes, he had his arms up, ready to give me a hug. It took me a while to understand what he was trying to do and then it registered. He wants me to hug him. Then he begin to rock me and said, "Yes, Lord, cover me like a blanket." So that wall was penetrated by the incarnational love of Christ through me. Walter had that experience of God coming to him through me.
I think that's a big piece of this experience you're talking about. It may not answer the entire question. But I think for a lot of people if we truly are Christians and we believe in incarnational theology and that we are the body of Christ and Christ is living in us and through us, then we can provide that experience by being vessels of Christ in this world with other people by coming to them.
Bob: I think you make a great statement in your sermon that at that moment, in many ways your prayer became flesh. So you're used by God to if you will, in flesh the word. To be the word for Walter at that moment, to be representative, to be God's hands in ministry at that moment. That's a very powerful thing. For me to answer the question, why Christianity, I have to go back to some of those moments also.
The Impact of Christianity in This World
Bob: Although I do answer like you do in your sermon when you talk about for example the impact of Christianity on this world. You make a very good case for the fact that my goodness, what would this world be like without Christianity? And you have a recitation in your sermon about all the different ways that Christianity has changed this world.
What's really interesting about that is your point that, look, if Jesus has done that for this world, then just think of the power that he has to change our lives as well. To me pastor Charley, that's so inspirational. As you mentioned, the same spirit that raise Jesus from the dead is also in us and I don't know that we get that. If we do get that, tell us what can that do for our lives.
Charley: You're barking up the right tree, because just think about that idea. That scripture tells us that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. The implication of that is huge. It's so overwhelming that maybe that's why people seemed to forget it because they can't wrap their minds around it. But it's the truth, and it's also as an aside why Jesus said, "You will do greater works than me."
Well, how can we do greater works than Jesus? Because the spirit lives in us and for the last 2,000 years we've done incredible things for Christ. A lot of the challenge of following Christ is oftentimes we just get in the way of that spirit moving. Sometimes the Christian life is about trying to just get out of the way.
Why Christianity Is the Way and the Truth
Charley: Often our struggles with faith and growing in the faith are not matters of us not knowing how, or knowing what to do, or not matters of other struggles. It's really a matter of learning to let go and surrender, and allowing ourselves to be used and available.
Our problem is we try to get too involved and work too hard and try to control too much. If that spirit is truly alive in us, we need to get to a place where we're allowing that spirit to move in and through us. It's not as hard as we think it is.
Bob: If I'm convinced that Christianity is the way, is the truth, the complete truth, not that there aren't other truths in other religions. But for me that Christ is the way and I get that. I get that through intellectual ascend, I get that through my experiences but I encounter folks, and we've all been there.
I've had this happened, even from a family member who said, "You know, if you're saying Jesus is the only way, I just don't see how you can condemn all those other people who aren't Christians." I'll tell you what my response is but I'm wondering, what is your response to that question?
Charley: My response may be different than yours. First of all I'm very quick to say to people, to Christians who rather arrogantly say that they know the eternal destiny of those who aren't Christians. I tell them, "Listen, last time I checked, you're not God. There's only one God and you are not him." And we can trust that God's going to make the right decision.
Seeking the Divine in This World
Charley: But that's not our job to be judge and jury, we don't know. I have a hard time with people saying that. The other thing is, and I mentioned it in the sermon I believe, I think there's a lot of beautiful truth in other religions. This is thousands of years of people seeking the divine in this world. There are a lot of key insights and things to learn and some truths in those things that are beautiful.
Now I'll say, there are some of those things that are contradictory to the faith. I'm not one who believes that all religions lead to the same place, or that's baloney. All you have to do is study those religions and see that that's just not true. But that's a whole another podcast I guess. But let me put it this way, I remember a story a preacher friend of mine told me one time about preaching to an obscure village.
I can't remember where in the country where Jesus had really never been preached about. This is many years ago and he had a translator, and again, I can't remember where. He preached a gospel message about Christ and after the message, a woman came up to him. They used the translator and the woman said, "You know what, I always knew that person existed. I just never knew his name."
So I think as we read the Old Testament and as we read and understand God's spirit, like let's understand. Before Jesus came, the spirit of Christ was, as John says, "In the beginning was the word, the word was Christ."
The Charley Reeb Story
Charley: That spirit of Christ is always moving, and showing, and directing, and knocking on the door of people's hearts. Even if they don't have the language or the theology or all the accruements we have of the faith.
Bob: It sounds a little like Saint Augustine who said, "We all have a God-shaped hole in our hearts." I really appreciate your response that, "Hey, I'm not condemning anyone. This is what I choose to believe, but it's not my role. We're not God. God is just, we leave that all to God." I think that's an important powerful response to remember.
Pastor Charley, I wanna ask you about you. So, what is the Charley Reeb story? You from a young age decided you were going to be a pastor and just took that role, or you fell into it? How did you become Pastor Charley Reeb?
Charley: I remember as a teenager sitting in church and this was in Florida. I grew up in the faith. One of my earliest memories is being in a church nursery. I'm one that I don't remember a time of not knowing Jesus. Now clearly my understanding and love and relationship with Jesus have grown as I have matured. I think you understand what I mean.
As a teenager, I was into sports, I was into girls. I was into being the class clown and joking around. But we went to church every Sunday. I recall being about 15 or 16 in a church in Tampa. We're passing the Manson church and talking about where we want to go to lunch afterward and we had just moved to Tampa.
Why Preaching Is Paramount
Charley: When this preacher got up, his name was Brad Dinsmore, I had never heard anybody preach like that before. From his first word to his last word I was riveted and my heart was truly warmed and profoundly affected. Every Sunday I would show up, and I would try to be on the front row. As a 16-year-old kid, or maybe 15 I couldn't believe it.
My parents were like, "What has gotten into you?" I was so enthralled by his messages and they began to move me and change me. They begin to call me to ministry. So I'll say, that's why preaching is so paramount to me.
It was through the preached word that I was called to preach. It was through the preached word that I could see what God was wanting to do with my life. It's preaching that changed my life, the power of the preached word.
Long story short, I think this preacher Brad recognized something in me and my longing. One day I was leaving the church, shaking his hand, he looked at me and said, "I want to know what you want to do with the rest of your life”. This preacher began to take me under his wing and began to help me discern. Through the sermons, through a conviction of my heart, through God putting me in certain circumstances, at 16, 17 years old I knew what God was calling me to do.
Bob: Wow, and you experienced the power of the preached word? The power of that God-given skill and ability.
The Power of a Well Preached Passage
Bob: You know, to this day when I ask people what they get most out of the church, and what they're looking for, the majority, not everyone, but the majority will say, "I need to hear a message. I need to hear something that's gonna get me through the week."
There are always those folks who say, "Look, I need to connect through the music. If the music's not good, and I can't connect, or I needed a social environment. I need the fellowship, or I come for communion." I get that completely. But boy, there is something about a well-preached passage that has power, that really has power.
Charley: This is a shameless plug, but my newest book is called, "Say Something!: "Simple Ways to Make Your Sermons Matter." It's also published by Abingdon Press, but I begin the book with that very point. If you look at Pew Research and Barna Research, this is something that they did two or three years ago. So it's fairly recent. They basically polled and asked two questions over several churches and churchgoers, scores of them.
What draws you to a church and then what keeps you in a church? By far and away, the most important thing was the preaching, the sermon. More important than children's ministry, as important as that is. More important than the coffee that's served, as important as that is, recreation programs, it was the preaching. This is research, this is solid fact. I think there is no substitute for Christian preaching, and there never will be.
The Most Fundamental Questions
In my denomination, in my Methodist Church, and this is me getting on my soapbox I guess. One of the reasons why the denomination is dying, and many mainline denominations are dying, is that there's a lack of emphasis on the importance of the preached word. But anyway, I dug this.
Bob: Final question, when you approach scripture, what is the most fundamental? If you had to choose one, what is the most fundamental question that you ask when you're organizing and developing a sermon?
Charley: Well, can I give you two questions that I ask?
Bob: Yes, sir.
Charley: They are somewhat connected. The first question is, what is it about this text that convicts me? The secret sauce of great preaching is conviction. A convicted preacher is a compelling preacher. A lot of my preaching students who worry a lot about the mechanics of preaching, the delivery, and all that which is important, I teach that.
But I often tell them, those who are really obsessed about it, “Listen, if you're convicted about what you're preaching about, the rest will take care of itself.”’ You don't have to worry about how you're coming across, it will be clear and transparent. The emphasis will just happen, because you're that convicted about it. The other thing is, if you're not convicted about it, your people aren’t going to get convicted about it.
So again, a convicted preacher is a compelling preacher and that's when people find their true voice. It's another thing when people ask me, "How do I find my voice as a preacher?" Well, feel how you are and what you say and how you say it when you're really convicted about something. That's your voice.
The Philosophy of Preaching
Bob: It comes through.
Charley: Absolutely, and so I ask that question. What convicts me about the text? But then I ask the question, which I think is key and gets into my philosophy of preaching. That is if I'm convicted about this particular thing in the text, how can I communicate it in a way to listeners that makes it clear, understandable, relevant, it makes it become flesh for them.
So often preachers are guilty of trying to preach to their professors or trying to impress their listeners with their education. That's the biggest mistake they ever make and seminaries do a terrible job, many of them do. They prepare lecturers, they don't prepare preachers. How can I make this message as palatable, as clear, and as much in flesh as possible? A lot of preachers don't take that extra step.
Again the example, God's personality. I've taken five minutes and explain the Greek, but I try to make it plain. Not dumbed down, but make it plain for people.
Bob: It's understandable and when Thursday and Friday come around that week, I can remember that. But I may not remember you parsing the Greek verb.
Charley: Those are the two main questions that I think are just critical.
Bob: That's fantastic. I think that will not only help our listeners but those listeners who are pastors as well. Well, Pastor Charley Reeb, thank you so much for your time today. On behalf of all our listeners, may God continue to richly bless you in your ministry.