The late author, English professor and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis was once invited to a seminar of theologians where the discussion began before he arrived. The assembled group of learned church leaders was debating what, if anything, is unique about Christianity among world religions.
The creation story and the account of the great flood, the incarnation of God and even the virgin birth are elements of other world religions, as are the commands to do good works for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. The promise of eternal reward and the threat of eternal punishment are also found in other religions. After much debate the theologians came up empty.
When Lewis arrived, they put the question to him, "What makes Christianity unique?"
"Simple," he answered. "Grace."
Grace is "undeserved reward" or "unmerited favor." It is receiving what you don't deserve.
In the two millennia since Jesus walked on the earth, His message of grace has been passed down by His followers -- the Church. According to the Bible, which is the foundation of the Church's teaching, God extended grace to His people throughout history. The ultimate expression of His grace came in the work and person of Jesus Christ, His son.
This week is Holy Week for the Christian Church. The season of Lent concludes this week with the passion of Jesus Christ. The Church teaches that on Good Friday Jesus suffered a criminal's death, even though he was innocent of any crime. But, because of his innocence, death could not hold him.
The Church teaches that Jesus rose physically from the grave on Easter. The celebration of His resurrection is the highest festival of the Church year. Those who had watched Him die spoke with him, touched him, ate with him -- literally -- after He rose from the dead. Even though it happened just as he had told them, they marveled at the miracle.
In that one act -- around which all of history revolves -- Christ triumphed over sin, death and Satan for all time.
But why was it necessary? According to the Bible, because all mankind inherited the sin of the first humans and deserved punishment. But God in his mercy sent His Son, who lived the sinless life humans are incapable of living, and then died as a sacrifice for the sins of all.
The Church teaches that to be saved from eternal wrath and receive eternal salvation, all one has to do is believe. The salvation found only in Christ is offered freely to all who believe, but it is hardly free. It was paid for with the blood of Christ with his sacrificial death on the cross.
And there's another cost. Around the globe today, followers of Christ suffer great persecution, as severe as the world has ever seen, for no other reason than their unwavering faith. The contrast between a religion in which adherents are willing to die for their faith and one in which they are willing to kill for it has never been more stark. Yet Christians willingly suffer torture and even death for the surpassing joy found in Christ.
Jesus commanded His followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them. It makes no more sense for them to do this than it did for the living God to send His sinless Son to die for a sinful world. Yet it is occurring this week, especially this week, throughout the world as adherents of other religions violently attack Christians in their Holy Week.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, believers extend grace to their persecutors, just as it was extended to them in Christ.
Throughout the tri counties, believers will gather this Sunday, joining with more than a billion of their brethren around the world, to celebrate that grace which C.S. Lewis correctly identified as the unique aspect of Christianity. And those churches welcome all who want to hear more.