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.

the failure of Christianity

In a certain sense, and indeed even in a primary sense, Christianity can’t be a failure because Christ is at the heart of it, by the Spirit. And yet as an institution, Christianity has failed again and again. As Christendom it failed in its unholy alliance to nation-states. Christianity continues to fail insofar as it gets away from God’s calling to it in scripture. Should the church speak out with reference to what is going on in the world? Yes, I think so. But above all we have to live out the mission Christ has called us to of making disciples of all nations.

A certain school of atheists nowadays make much of these kind of things, and indeed some of them are breathtakingly bad. Evil, yes evil is the right word. Of course not all those who name the name of Christ belong to him. And not all who are followers of the Lamb really follow him in all of life, or entirely in his way of  life. I don’t want to gloss over the failures of Christianity, which are many. Both inside and out. And yet something powerful is at work, even in spite of those failures, yes, even in spite of ourselves, not to excuse ourselves for a moment. We need to repent and change where that’s needed.

That something at work is God in Christ having reconciled the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them, as God offers to the world through the church, this message of reconciliation. Jesus declaring that God’s kingdom is present in him, God’s grace in Jesus offered to all, as we await the coming of the kingdom in its fullness and completion when heaven and earth become one in Jesus. God powerfully present in Jesus by the Spirit so that we can proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and grace in Jesus, heal the sick, cast out demons, prophesy, and even raise the dead.*

Above all, we are to be in the process of being conformed into the image of Christ as individuals and as a body, a community. There is only one answer to the world, to the plight of the world, to all the wars and fighting in the world. Only one real answer, period. It’s not western liberalism, not western liberal democracy, not a conservatism which points to the past, though there is good in all of these things. No, the answer for the world lies only in Christ, in God’s kingdom and grace come in him. The answer comes through the church, but that answer must always be well grounded in God’s revelation in Christ, and in nothing less than that. For Christ followers it must be the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection, the way of love, even to all of our enemies, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. As we look forward to the day when Jesus will come and bring in the justice in mercy which is to begin in and with us here and now.  Together in Jesus in this for the world.

*Of course God doesn’t always heal, though I agree with Jordan Seng that we should assume that God wants to heal as a default position. And demons are real, though we in the west have managed to hide them quite well. The gospel, God’s power for salvation, can drive them out, but sometimes we have to take the matter in hand with the bratty, stubborn spirits.** God does want to speak to us directly and through others in various ways. And to raise the dead. Well, that’s one I can’t at all wrap my imagination around, except to say that this has happened in cultures in which spiritual power is more prevalent in the sense of being more evident and open. Miracles are a part of scripture. The fruit of the Spirit, in a certain sense does indeed trump the gifts of the Spirit, but it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, but rather, and/both.

**I write that second hand from, I trust, a good source

the evangelical subculture

I am an evangelical Christian within the Protestant Reformed stream, probably more on the Anabaptist side of that within what is called the Radical Reformation. Often in a group we are not as aware of our strengths as we are of our weaknesses. But we can also be blind to weaknesses, which in themselves may even be good, innocent things in themselves, though not always.

Evangelicals are a subculture within the wider American and world culture. The question I want to ask here is this: What are we known for? As those who follow Jesus, and are a true counter culture? Representing a kingdom that is different than any entity of the world, but in and for the world? And for a clear witness to the King, Jesus?

Of course the world might frame us in ways only the world would. We are anti-progressive, moralistic, judgmental, etc., etc. While we should listen to what is said just to see where there may be some truth, we also need to keep in mind Jesus words that as the world hated him, it will hate those who follow him. There is no doubt that simply to be a follower of Jesus, yes a Christian (I prefer the former term), will be problematical in a world system which often has priorities and conditions that contradict or are problematical to the faith.

I think we have to consider our stance in the intellectual sphere. Not so much where we land, but how we get there. We need to do so from a studied, deliberate approach, which takes well into account the best of Christian and other thinkers from the past and present.

And above all we should be known for what we are: followers of Christ, members of his Body, witnesses of God’s presence, words and work in Christ, proclaiming the good news of Christ. Known as those who are different, who are like the one we profess to follow. Known for our love and obedience to Christ. Shown in good works especially to those in need. And love for our enemies. Not known for anything less.