Religious or Christian?

By Julian Henderson ,Bishop of Blackburn

jesus-fishI find myself in a totally unexpected place. For these past 18 months I have been the Bishop of Blackburn, serving the Church of England in most of Lancashire and with oversight of over 200 Christian communities, ranging from the rural to the urban, from the wealthy to the very poor, from Christian communities to those predominantly made up of other faiths. But having sung the dangerous refrain in I, The Lord of sea and sky, ‘I will go Lord, if you lead me’, this seemed to be a call of God through his church, and it was a matter of obedience. Jonah got into serious trouble when he refused to obey the call of God. It is better to say yes first time. But where did all this start and why am I a Christian in the first place? I was brought up in a caring and supportive home, baptised as a child in the village church and confirmed at 14 at school. At that stage my understanding of the Christian faith was all about church and being religious.

I was doing RE ‘A’ level and was thinking about ordination. It was only when a Christian teacher took me to one side and explained that Christianity was about knowing, rather than knowing about, the risen Jesus, that I began to understand his invitation to me to respond personally, to welcome him as my Saviour and Lord, and so to be rescued from having to bear the consequences of my own selfishness and my unwillingness to acknowledge him as my Creator, Redeemer and Judge. The Holman Hunt picture, the light of the world, was particularly helpful. Jesus is standing outside a door, which is covered in weeds and has never been opened. As the Light of the world he is carrying a lamp, as the crucified Saviour he is wearing a crown of thorns and he is knocking on a door. It illustrates the verse in the book of Revelation in the Bible, chapter 3 and verse 20, where Jesus is shut out of the church of Laodicea and he says: ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.’ What was originally addressed to a church community seemed to apply to my life.

I realised that I had never taken that personal step of opening my life to him, in spite of all my religious activity, but once I had, everything from prayer to Bible reading, to services of worship, to talking about Jesus was different and suddenly real in a way it had never been before. My conclusion from that is to realise how easy it is to be religious, do lots of Christian things, and still not know Jesus. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount teaches very disturbingly that there will be those who engage in all kinds of seemingly good activity in his name, but to whom he will say, depart from me, I never knew you. Consequently in my ministry I always want to point people to a personal response to Jesus, so that in appreciation of his death on a cross in their place, they might receive his forgiveness, receive his Spirit, and receive his gift of eternal life. That’s the Gospel of his grace. It is not about doing religious things to earn his favour, but receiving his free gift of salvation. And that’s why it is such a privilege to be called to tell others this good news and encourage them to come to know him for themselves.