what should be at the heart of being “a Christian?”

…and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

Acts 11:26b

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…

Philippians 3:10

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:1

I really ought not to presume that I can say what is at the heart of being a Christian, what that essentially means. Of course it involves so much, at the center (or heart), entering the life and worship of the Triune God. But to boil it down, just what does it mean for us on the ground who have to live in a world either not familiar with this special grace, or even being opposed to it? At least having to live in the same kind of world in which Christ lived.

The heart of being a Christian on the ground, in this life surely amounts to simply seeking with others to follow Christ, to imitate Christ, to be like him. Of course this involves a process, and prior to that a commitment to do so. All the teachings, sacraments and ordinances are to that end.

It is not a matter of simply having assurance that one’s sins are forgiven, and that someday they will be in heaven. Understood correctly, that is part of it. But too often people see Christianity as just a means to a future salvation, without sufficiently realizing what is at the heart of that salvation for the present. Of course based on what Christ accomplished for our salvation in the past. But this salvation is very much present as well as future, and involves salvation not only from our sins, but from our old selves, into the new person in Christ, partaking of Christ’s very nature and life. And that involves a participation together in which God is conforming us to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:15).

For myself, I just realize how far short I fall. But I also realize that the Spirit is indeed at work, partly with giving me something of that realization, though some of that is my own thinking in ways that are not helpful, and certainly not given by God. We simply need to be aware that being a Christian means being a follower of Christ, along with other followers. Something I hope to be day after day. With others. In and through Jesus.

what does Christian mean?

…for an entire year [Barnabas and Saul] met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

Acts 11:26b

We can ask over time what anything comes to mean. There’s always inevitably the baggage of history, and some of that behind the name Christian is not pretty, including right up to the present day. I’ve heard that it may have been derogatory when first coined in Antioch. True Christianity for sure would upset the status quo.

Christian has basically meant those who adhere to and practice Christianity. And so much can get lost in that, as well as there being different emphases in different traditions of Christianity. In our time, in my lifetime, it seems to mean those who follow certain traditions such as Sunday gathering and whatever else might follow from that. There’s usually a profession of faith in Jesus and often an emphasis on the impact the faith has on the life to come, at least in the minds of many. Yes, teaching might bring focus into the present life, and often does, but it seems to me based on observation and on what much more knowledgeable and wiser people have said that there’s a missing piece, arguably the most important piece of all in one aspect.

Yes, it’s all dependent on God and on God’s grace. But what I’m referring to here is the simple goal of following Christ, becoming like Christ. From my nearly five decades of being a Christian, that doesn’t seem to me to have been much of an emphasis, not much in our minds at least from what we were taught or at least in what really hit home to us. What should people think of ideally when they hear the word Christian? And what do they think of? And that includes not only those who are not Christian, but those who are.

I’m afraid being a follower of Christ not unlike the Sermon on the Mount has at best been put on the back burner, if not taken off the stove entirely, as something just not for us today. This is a grievous error because what follows the gospel accounts Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles comes from and is based on what Christ taught, the Spirit directing the churches through leadership on how this worked out after Christ’s ascension and Pentecost.

All of our prayer, reading of Scripture, gathering together as God’s people should be to the end of helping us become true and better followers of Christ, growing together into maturity in Christ, yes into Christ likeness. Anything less than that is missing the mark and what it truly means to be Christian.

is Christianity about following Christ, becoming more like him?

Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.

Dallas Willard

We are flooded with so much that distracts us from our true calling as Christians. It’s not like we’re to ignore everything else. But what’s at the heart of who we really are?

For Christians it’s to be no less than Christ himself. And that doesn’t mean only to save us, and help us through life. But much more. To be in the process of becoming more and more like him, no less.

When people think of the word Christian, I wonder what comes to mind? Too often Christendom and the vestiges of that, I’m afraid. Not that all and everything in that is bad. But there has been much there, and still much remains that is really not Christ-like.

Notice what Dallas Willard says. This is a process, not something instantaneous. It requires effort and takes time. And prayer, and the work of God’s Spirit. It is certainly beyond us, not something we can achieve by following a few rules, not by our own self-effort.

We need to commit ourselves to wanting to know Christ. Simply asking Christ to make himself known to us is a good start. And then with the commitment to follow him in all of life, even when we have no clue what that means. I can’t imagine who Christ is myself. I need God’s revelation to help me. As God begins to give that to me over time, then I’ll learn more and more what that means. In loving others, in seeing in myself what is not Christ-like, in seeking to prayerfully adjust my life accordingly.

In and through Jesus.

who Jesus is determines who we are (in Jesus)

They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

Revelation 14

If I just tune into some of the evangelical world today, I would think for sure that Jesus is a roaring lion, out to devour his prey. But in Revelation, over and over again, he’s called the Lamb, around 30 times. Once he’s called a lion, “the lion of the tribe of Judah.”

Read the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and read Acts and the letters. You’ll find that Jesus indeed comes across as a lamb, meek and even lowly in his gentleness and humility.

An important desire for us as Christians is the longing to really know Jesus. The term Christian may have originally coined in derision, but we’re named after the one we name and follow. It’s a good prayer to pray, to ask the Lord to make himself known to us. And to remember too, that anyone who sees Jesus, sees the Father. To know Jesus is to know God.

I think we need a total rethinking of who we are as Christians. And that must begin with who Christ is. Only as we begin to understand who Jesus is can we begin to understand who we’re meant to be, to become like, indeed, even who we actually are in him. Contradictory to what we’ve picked up from our culture, and sometimes, sadly enough too often in Christianity itself.

 

continue in God’s grace

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

Acts 13:42-43

If there’s one thing I would want to press home to myself and others, it’s the importance and necessity of simply remaining in God’s grace through Jesus. There’s nothing more essentially basic than that. If we have any hope at all of actually having faith, and living in it, and by that I mean, beginning to see, understand and experience what God has for us, then it’s all because of God’s grace.

By God’s grace, I mean God’s gift in Christ, received by faith. It’s never something we could ever earn or deserve. Based on Christ’s sacrificial death for us through which we receive forgiveness of our sins and his resurrection life, beginning now.

Yes, it was especially crucial to the Jews of that time with the big change in place. But God’s grace is always radical in any context. Somehow we think it depends on us. It’s not like we’ll end up inactive, but what activity we have that’s actually Christian will be solely because of God’s grace, his gift to us in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, that’s the message I need day after day. Simply to continue on in the grace of God. In and through Jesus.

the fresh breath/air of the Protestant Reformation

Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

Psalm 96:1-3

I really don’t care to identify as Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, or whatever, but rather, as Christian. I know that even Christian carries with it some historical baggage which is not helpful, and actually distracts, not to mention, contradicts its true meaning.

But on Spotify today, while trying to scroll down to see the albums playing my favorite music artist, Johann Sebastian Bach, and being blocked from doing so by an add, I either purposefully or inadvertently hit an album which has beautiful singing (likely in German), but I lit on Bach’s chorale music, so beautiful, this album. Bach himself was a Lutheran, in a pietist Lutheran setting, one that had as an emphasis a personal relationship with Christ, or knowing Christ. I was reminded of the beautiful early Lutheran music at the time of that great Reformer and Church Father, Martin Luther.

What I identify with is the emphasis on scripture being the authority to which we appeal, while taking tradition seriously, yet subjecting everything to the test of scripture. For me that’s a breath of a fresh air. And not only lifts one’s spirits, but brings new life, so that a song of praise and thanksgiving to God is indeed appropriate. It is God’s word, scripture, the essence of which is the gospel, God’s good news in Christ, which indeed is transformative. For us and for the world, someday to fill the new earth after the final judgment and salvation, in and through Jesus.

Christians do those kinds of things

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:11-12

The idea that Christians do those kinds of things can actually be a two-edged sword. Professing-I say- Christians did evil in the Crusades and against Jews as well. Those who have named the name of Christ have not always lived up to that name. Not that we can match Christ, but we are to be a community as well as individuals who are Christ-like, strikingly different than society around us.

The difference was stark as well as more subtle, definitely pronounced when Christianity first came on the scene: a fulfillment of Judaism, and yet in a way that no Jews anticipated, so that what Christians did, Jews would never do. And in sharp contrast, indeed opposition to the rest of humanity, the other group of people than Jews being called Gentiles, in this case the Romans. Christians actively protected babies from abortion, were to be faithful to only one spouse, considered humility a virtue, and I’m sure on and on it goes. Old hat now, since the knowledge of the story, and of Christianity played out in churches for centuries throughout the world has given at least many a kind of image of what that means, oftentimes by this familiarity breeding contempt, at least losing sight of the revolutionary character of what it means to follow Christ, to be a Christian.

Sometimes we might pinch ourselves and ask why in the world we’re doing what we’re doing, and not doing other things. Christians have been criticized for doing what they do out of a religious motive in comparison to nonreligious people who do the same thing, it is said not out of a religious motive, but out of a heart of love. There is no question that church and Christianity can be an empty ritual and religion which might even cause more harm than good. Of that I sadly have no doubt.

But at the heart of what Christianity really means as to its goal is the actual fulfillment of what it means to be human. And at the heart of that is love played out in good works. Faith in Jesus is restorative to the humanity that God created in the first place through the new creation in Jesus. A Christian should epitomize what it means to be human. What that involves might be debated, but scripture gives a clear picture of what it is. There’s some overlap with society at large, because humans are made in the image of God. Therefore people everywhere believe that loving others is important. But that love, just like all else in creation can be distorted so that it’s twisted, often to a self-love which “loves” for its own use and pleasure at the expense of another. And often in marked contrast to Jesus’s teaching about loving one’s enemies.

So why do I do the things I do? And part of that frankly is putting up with myself, being patient with myself, and my own unhelpful foibles, repentant yes, but still patient. At the heart of that is the cross, and in Jesus’s death seeing God’s love for us, and forgiveness and new life extended to us in Jesus. So that we want to follow on that basis. And live and do as Jesus did. With ongoing forgiveness needed for both omissions and commissions which deviate from that. But nonetheless that trajectory being our goal and passion in life from day to day.

All of this by the grace (gift) of God in and through Jesus.

 

throwing in (casting) my lot with the evangelicals, but hopefully “simply Christian”

If you’ve known me through the years, you’ll know that I’ve flirted with the Great Tradition, at one time years back considering considering (yes, repeated) becoming a Roman Catholic. And liking much of what I witnessed and was aware of from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I still hold the Great Tradition in esteem, but to make a long story short, it seems evident on the face of it, that the true church is bigger, and that the tradition is not as infallible as it might seem to some. But I won’t dig further there.

I could come up with all sorts of reasons, I suppose, why in the end I remain something of an evangelical (maybe of an Anabaptist, liturgical mix), while not making the mistake of cutting myself off from the Great Tradition, as if they aren’t part of the true church as well. They are, at least all who are born of the Spirit, which is the case since the church is the Spirit-indwelled Body of Christ on earth, surely on both a local and global, universal level.

The evangelicals are made to be a regular punching bag nowadays, from so-called “progressive” Christians to nearly everyone else. And it’s not like we’re without our faults. What tradition doesn’t have issues? Strengths and weaknesses? Of course some will refuse to acknowledge any good in a given tradition, nothing new if we consider social interent sites like Facebook, where never is heard a discouraging or encouraging word, depending.

Let’s just say that I cast my lot in with the church and the gospel, with scripture being the backbone of all of that, the church deriving its authority from both. Of course the Lord himself, to whom all authority has been given, the one from and through whom we live and work.

Can the evangelicals change in some helpful ways before the Lord returns? Of course only God knows what that should be, but surely yes. Life goes on with much change for better or for worse, but God’s word and the truth of the gospel remains the same. Our understanding hopefully will grow within those necessary bounds. And the church by the Spirit most definitely has an important say in that.

Hopefully, “simply Christian” with an emphasis on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is where I stand, but only with others. Yes, each one of us, but also necessarily, all of us together. Before the world, in and through Jesus.

read the entire Bible (and keep reading it again and again)

Read or listen to the Bible, or both. Read it slowly, read it in large chunks. If it is God’s word written, it should begin to make an impact on our lives. And get into a church which either reads all of the Bible over time (through a lectionary), or preaches/teaches the Bible well (like the church we’ve been taking our grandkids to), preferably both.

Start children slowly, but wisely through the word, through the story and message of scripture. I think Our Daily Bread for Kids (and here) is a good place to start. Of course with the littlest ones, we’ll need materials or practices appropriate for them. Our Daily Bread for Kids Sunday School Songs (and here, scroll down) starts getting them to listen and eventually sing, which is good, even for the youngest age, I think.

The point is, we need to be in the word, day and night. And that word leads us to the Word, Jesus, the fulfillment of everything, bringing all things to their ultimate goal in God’s grace and kingdom come in him.

Why? Not for any other reason, other than the end itself. This is not a means to be a better American, a better world citizen, a better whatever, even though those things might be good in their proper place. No, it’s about being a true Christian, a follower of Christ, whatever the result of that may be.

Begin small, and keep at it. Bible Gateway is a good place to start to look for a Bible translation which might fit you. My preferred translation is the New International Version (NIV) which I think achieves an excellent balance between up to date scholarship, accuracy and readability. My second preference might be the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) , but there’s many other good Bible translations to choose from (again, see Bible Gateway).

I can’t end better than from the psalmist, but with the additional thought from scripture that this light is not just for ourselves, but for the world, in and through Jesus.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.

Psalm 119:105

not believing

I am not talking about our church, nor am I talking about real Christianity, as in the ideal given to us in scripture. Even there we see serious issues and problems within some of the churches. I am referring to my experience with other believers at times. When I have thought that we were not doing well, or doing what we should have done by each other, especially with reference to needed reconciliation and growth in grace, then I look at what Jesus taught, what the New Testament teaches, and I can only shake my head in disbelief. And say to myself, “I don’t believe in this kind of Christianity.” Of course it’s not the real thing.

Therefore my problem is not with Christianity as given to us in scripture, but to our failure to live it out. Some matters are extra hard, though no doubt we are always in need of God’s grace and his Spirit to live at all in any moment in accord with God’s will in Jesus. I am referring to our stubborn refusal to obey the plain words of scripture. Perhaps we can’t see this because of the hardness of our heart along with lack of knowledge of what scripture says, perhaps including poor biblical interpretation.

Disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch. Was it because they were like Jesus? Or more in terms of their profession of faith in being followers of this Jesus Christ, with some meaning of the Anointed One in “Christ” being carried over. I don’t know. We do bear his name. And so we are to represent him.

Therefore we need to be called to account for our failure to take this sufficiently seriously. It is never a question of not being able, since our ability is always in Jesus and never in ourselves. It is more a matter of simple obedience. In all of our weakness, we seek to obey and be obedient children. So that our profession of faith may honor the one whose name we bear.