Christ the Center (or, What I Learned in Grad School)

Allan H. Harvey

I went to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. You may know Berkeley's reputation. Boulder is pretty weird, both politically and culturally, but Berkeley makes Boulder look as tame as my semi-podunk hometown in Missouri. For years, a light in that troubled community has been provided by its First Presbyterian Church. When I was there, the senior pastor was a gifted man named Earl Palmer (he has since moved to a church in Seattle).

A major theme to Earl's preaching is "Christ the center." This idea was not original with him; it can be traced through theologians like Karl Barth and even back to the writings of Paul (Col. 1.15-20, for example). What does this phrase mean? Simply that Jesus Christ is the focal point of creation and of history, and should be the central reality by which we judge everything in our lives. Barth used the analogy of everything radiating outward from Christ like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

We get into trouble if we lose sight of this great truth. Whenever we allow something else to replace Christ on center stage, or even to share the stage as an equal, we enter into idolatry. And idolatry is a big deal, because a constant theme of Scripture is how much God hates it. While few if any of us are worshiping golden calves, our lives today do contain many temptations toward idolatry. Some of these idols are easy to name: material wealth, sexual gratification and other lusts of the flesh, power over others. And, of course, the most basic idolatry of all (and my biggest struggle): the self-centeredness of our fallen human natures.

Once, however, I heard Earl Palmer point out a more subtle category. That is the idolatry of moving from a faith centered on Christ to one centered on "Christ and something." The "something" may well be good when kept in proper perspective. But if it is made so important that the unique centrality of Christ is compromised, then it becomes an idol. In the tradition of Presbyterian teaching, I offer three examples.

The first is political action. I saw left-wing politics dominating some churches in Berkeley, and today's news is full of right-wing politics practiced in the name of Christ. Some of this is OK, since God does call us to stand for justice, but something is seriously wrong when the political views become more central than Christ. A related idolatry is patriotism. Again, it is fine up to a point, as God calls us to respect our governing authorities. But when the message becomes "God and Country" as though the two were inseparable or of equal priority, then it is idolatry.

A second example is spiritual gifts. These gifts are from God and are vital to the church. It is, however, a temptation to focus so much on the gifts that we lose sight of the Giver. Without Christ (and the love he brings - see 1st Corinthians 13) at the center, the gifts are worthless.

A final example is the Bible. Again, something undeniably good and from God. But, just like the gifts, the book has no value in isolation. It only has value because it points us not to itself but to Christ as the center. I once heard a preacher say "We are a people of the book," but more fundamentally we are a "people of the person," namely Christ. Of course the book is a vital tool God uses to bring us closer to Christ, so we need to study it faithfully. But, to avoid idolatry, we must keep in mind that the book is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the ultimate end which is Jesus Christ.

Enough negative examples. The centrality of Christ is a great positive message. The lessons of the Bible become more clear when we see how Christ's sacrifice is the pivotal event in God's interaction with humanity. Our lives become meaningful when we center them on Christ rather than on the fallible foundations of the world. When our eyes are focused on Jesus, we see things in their true perspective and are able to be more faithful to God's call on our lives. Paul may have said it best when he wrote about the results of prayer in Philippians 4:7 - "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." May we all experience more fully that peace which comes from being centered in Christ.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written for "Crossings" newsletter of Bridges ministry, First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, 1996.
Page last modified September 9, 2000