Looking at the church in the West today, one can hardly escape the impression that the church is preoccupied with itself. What new strategy for church growth will help? How can new structures be put in place? And how can the expectations of visitors be met more effectively?

But what is it all really about? What is the goal, the centre, and the reason behind it all? What is church really about? About itself? Is religion just a particular expression of cultural life? A set of rule-driven social processes and performances? An uplifting collection of various values that the society would be worse off without? 

The beginning of Christianity was a sense of awe. In the beginning there was no institution. There were no rules, and not even any fixed teaching. In the beginning there was an encounter. Such a disturbing encounter that it took the new-born church centuries of rubbing its amazed eyes to truly realize what had just happened to it. 


A Man had appeared. He was born of a woman. He came from a certain tribe, a certain town and spoke a certain language. A Man who ate, slept, sweated and could be touched. A Man finally who suffered, bled and died naked on a cross. 

A Man who at the same time shattered the limits of all that was humanly possible. A healing or two – yes, people had seen this in the prophets or even heathen temples. But sovereign authority over all diseases, over all demons – thousands of them – authority over the wind, waves, the storm and over matter like wine and water. 

Even if that all could just be explained as particularly impressive examples of God’s work through an emissary of some kind, the irreconcilable end of any attempt to interpret Him as just an emissary is found in His words: Moses said to you, but I say to you…” (Matthew 5). 

Who does He think He is? Who is this putting Himself on the same level as God? Yet before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). An eternal I? A person who thinks He’s beyond time? Who is this and who does He think He is, who claims He can forgive sins, when only God can do that? Even the men sent to arrest Him confess, No one has ever spoken like that” (John 7:46).

What an intolerable provocation! Jesus of Nazareth existed. For centuries, all attempts to somehow find plausible alternative explanations for the rise of the Christian communities of the New Testament have failed. Jesus died. All attempts to impute to the early Christians the invention of a symbol that was equally objectionable to both Jews and pagans as their trademark leads to contradictions. 

But really – where is He buried, since He demonstrably lived, suffered and died? How could the grave of an enemy of the state – a grave that was guarded – suddenly be empty? And how could the message of His resurrection be preached so successfully in the city where there were eyewitnesses to His death? All attempts to impute to the first disciples the invention of such a blasphemous lie about a very obviously false Messiah fail today, just as they did then. And keep in mind, most of them paid with their lives for their testimony. 

And so, the Christian church remains here in awe. What kind of man is this whom even the wind and sea obey?” (Mark 4:41), asked the disciples. Who is this Man who died and yet lives? And the church asked, Fully Man and fully God – how can that be? Two natures in one entity? A human will… and a divine will, in a single person?!” Wonder was the beginning of theology.

And today? Can we learn to stand in awe again? We certainly need to. Jesus shows up in our churches. He also shows up in our lives somehow. He plays a role in our lives. Admittedly He is not the director. Jesus is part of our tradition of faith. A model, to be sure. But we rarely feel a sense of awe before Him. Our attention is not captured by Him. We are so busy with ourselves. When was the last time you heard a sermon in which the fascination with and the astonishment at Jesus Christ was not just the declared intention of the preacher, but were perceptibly the core and the content? 

When did you last hear two Christians talking with each other about Him with fascination and astonishment? When were you last struck with awe – of Him? We have forgotten how to feel awe of Him. While those who met Him weren’t able to tear their inner gaze away from him – they weren’t able to stop talking about Him, stop preaching about Him, stop telling the world about Him, even if it cost their lives. 

And yet standing in awe would save us. By contemplating His glory, we are transformed and we become like Him. At least, that’s what Paul intimates in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Awe transforms, and fascinated contemplation shapes and heals the human heart. Learning that sense of awe anew, to really know Jesus and let Him fascinate me: that would in fact be our salvation and our transformation. Are we still able to feel that sense of awe today? Can we be awed by Jesus? 

Dr Johannes Hartl is a passionate storyteller who loves to communicate the heart of God. He and his wife Jutta are founders of the Augsburg House of Prayer, which attracts thousands of young people each year. Johannes’ new book Heart Fire: Adventuring into a Life of Prayer, publishes on 6 July from Muddy Pearl.