what it means to be a Christian not just in name, and how

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Mark 1:16-18

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

Mark 2:13-14

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Mark 8:34-35

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

Acts 9:1-3

Christian is seen in all kinds of ways, but it has been common during my lifetime to view it as those who profess faith in Christ, go to church, and are more or perhaps less marked out from the culture as different. Much fits into this space. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that there’s often an insistence in accepting the penal substitutionary atonement theory, that Christ took the punishment for our sins on the cross. If you believe that, accept that for yourself, then you’re marked as a Christian.

Setting aside for now the problem with substitutionary atonement at the very least in the way it has been presented, I would want to say that all the truth about Christ’s death for the forgiveness of our sins and resurrection by which we receive new life however we formulate that ends up being a given, as long as the crux of the matter is right. And here is the crux of the matter.

To really be a Christian in the sense given in the New Testament, to become one in the first place is all very simple while being profound. It means following Jesus. Individually and in community. Becoming Jesus followers. 

Yes, we have to decide individually, but it’s meant to be lived out in community. This is where we start, where we continue, and where we end. Following Jesus. 

By the Spirit in the community of the church. The entire church is supposed to consist of those who are followers. That’s the ideal. Of course everyone is in a different place in their spiritual journey. But unless we press home the necessity of following Christ, then we’re falling short of what it really means to be a Christian. Following Christ’s lead and in so doing, changing over time. Becoming more and more like him.

All of this as always, in and through Jesus.

 

we’re on our way in this life, so keep going (don’t stop)

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Philippians 3:12-16

The sense of having arrived, so that one thinks they’re all set as far as their lives are concerned is not a good place to be, even a dangerous place, frankly. If Paul could say he hadn’t arrived, then all the more so true of any of us. In fact Paul calls it a mark of maturity to acknowledge that, as well as to keep pressing on.

We are on a journey. It has inevitable difficulties along the way. One can’t help but think of John Bunyan’s epic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Although my own theological understanding in many ways does not line up with his, that entire story is a great illustration of what I’m trying to get at in this post. For “Christian” there are difficulties and challenges right to the very end on his journey to the Celestial City.

There ought to be the sense of having arrived only in the practices we ordinarily always do. But there is that sense in our hearts that indeed we’re still on the way, anticipating what we can hardly imagine, what apart from the Spirit’s help we can’t imagine at all, seeing Jesus as he is, and becoming like the one we love.

Let’s not forget that it’s always not only about us individually. “…the arc of history is long and bends toward justice…” God in love is working God’s purpose out, and God will get God’s way. Within that thought, we long for Christ’s return to at long last clean up this mess, and put in the new order.

But until then, and until our end in this life comes, we want to press on, in fact we have no other choice but to keep doing so. God will see us through to the very end in and through Jesus.

light breaking through

The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple.

Psalm 119:130

Access to your words gives light,
giving simple folk understanding.

Psalm 119:130; CEB

Your instructions are a doorway through which light shines.
They give insight to the untrained.

Psalm 119:130; NET

“The better angels of our nature” is something akin to what I’m referring to here, that is, in our experience. We’re often frankly mired in what might be acceptable mindsets, attitudes and even addictions, all more or less acceptable as far as the world is concerned, acceptable to and often celebrated by most people. But we know better most of the time, at least deep down inside.

If we step out in faith, God’s words to us can help us, God giving God’s thoughts to us through Scripture and especially God’s revelation in Jesus. We have to purposefully commit ourselves to hearing a different word and adopting a different understanding to move us away from conformity to the world, to the spirit of the age which is antithetical to God, toward a formation more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

We need to pay attention, to be sensitive to where that light might be breaking through. To see all in a better, more full light. With grace toward all. A light as we seek to see everything, which can help not only us, but others through our embrace of what we get a good glimpse of and act in accordance to. A light which pours out God’s life and love to us. The light in which we’re to live more and more, even in the midst of this present darkness. In and through Jesus.

get rid of all ideals of community and self

…we, who are many, are one body in Christ…

Romans 12:5

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

What is meant here is that we must drop all the idealizations we have of church, of others, and of ourselves. That’s not easy to do, nor does it even make sense to us. Aren’t we supposed to hold to ideals for ourselves and others? Maybe on a certain basic level, yes. We have to get up in the morning, fulfill our responsibility during the day, care for our family, take care of ourselves, etc. What is spoken of here is something else. Expecting others to measure up to some ideal we have. Or turning away when people don’t.

We’re all in this together, for better and for worse, indeed one body in Christ. None of us measure up to ideals we impose on ourselves. What God has in heart and mind will prevail. But it will be worked out in this life only if we’re committed to hanging in together through thick and thin.

What we need to be about is simply committed to following Christ together. Realizing that throughout that will be the necessary confession of sin, caring for each other, even putting up with each other at times. But believing that God is going to do it, is in the process of conforming us together into the likeness of God’s Son.

In and through Jesus.

what desires in us are temptations to sin?

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.

James 1:12-16

When we read the above passage, or think of temptation in general, it seems to me that most of us, at least myself, generally think of sexual temptations. And there’s no doubt that’s a strong impulse in us as humans, ripe for deception and sin. But when you look at all of James along with the rest of the Bible, including the temptations of our Lord, we find all kinds of different harmful things we can fall into.

James 4 notes the coveting which can take place and cause disputes and dissensions. We want our own way, or we think others need to bend and conform to our wishes or expectations. And 1 John refers to “the pride in riches” along with the “desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes.” Really it is anything which violates love for God shown in love for our neighbor, even including love for our enemies. Whatever does not conform to Christ and likeness to him.

All temptations should be included in our minds when we read the above passage. So that we might see and reject all that is wrong in us, that our desires would be refined and changed. In and through Jesus.

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.

the black sheep along with the black or “every human” Christ (Messiah)

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[a] as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

I love depictions of images of Christ on stained glass windows, perhaps as the good shepherd carrying a little lamb with sheep trustingly following, or as Christ knocking on a door, along with other pictures. Usually what is depicted is a white Caucasian with mostly medieval or late medieval, a later culture imagery. That may have served in some ways well for its time, and to some extent even today. But it leaves behind so much of Scripture which Jesus is said to fulfill. Add to that, it also leaves behind many of us along with many of our struggles which simply are not taken into account within what we might call the privileged experience of so many of the rest of us.

This is not to attack those of us who love or have loved such pictures, probably having old Bible story books for children filled with such. But intended rather to give us a head’s up to more, what is beyond that, all that’s included in the great salvation Jesus brings.

We read in the above passages that Jesus went through all of the testing and temptations which befall all of us as a human family, being fully human himself. He knew what it was like to be marginalized as a Jew from Nazareth with Galilean, Gentile influence, as one of those who was not considered a fully pure descendant of Abraham. To live on the edges where he was not seen as legitimate since many did not understand his birth. Likely he lived with his needs met most of the time, but he did not live in the lap of luxury. And the way he taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” suggests a daily dependence on God, rather than having all of that more than taken care of by one’s own efforts.

Jesus and the good news he brought has more than resonated not only to all in the slavery of sin, but to all who are in any kind of bondage imposed at all. The salvation the Lord brings won’t be complete and final in human experience until he returns, but it includes now care for the human experience in it entirety. Not just thinking one cares about them if they can get them to have assurance of eternal life for after this life. But caring for them in every way just as Jesus does. Being in this together as Christ’s body so that we care for each other in practical, down to earth ways, as well as through prayer. And to everyone else in the world, including our enemies. With a particular eye out for those marginalized, looked down and often falsely frowned upon. Realizing too that really we’re all in need of God’s mercy and grace. Remembering too that what we might often take for granted is something others can’t imagine.

So we need new images of Jesus given to us by the Spirit for the real world. Yes in painting but especially in lives, lives together in this world. The Jesus who wants to live that both for us, and in and through us individually, and especially as his body. In large part why we’re here. In and through Jesus.

unrealistic expectations

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The world rightfully expects something more from those who profess the name of Christ as “Christians.” Unfortunately there is mostly disappointment, too often for more than understandable reasons. And really, if anyone knows any of us through and through, then likely there will be disappointment. But expectations can be mistaken, too. After all, what exactly would the world expect of Christians? The same thing they wanted from Christ? That he would be their Bread-King and take care of all their wants, and make life work they way they thought it should (John 6:15 contrast with John 6:41)?

The New Oxford Annotated Bible makes an interesting observation: “This understanding of ‘perfection’ is closely linked with the love commandment (19.19)” (1790).

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these;[a] what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money[b] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew 19:17b-21

It’s important that we stay grounded in expectations that are not only realistic for us in this life, but don’t miss the point. Life is about loving God and loving our neighbor, which means every human being on earth, if I understand Jesus’ teaching correctly. We need to be quick to make things right when we do wrong, which at heart is always a violation of such love. But our goal in life should be to simply so love, in the way of Jesus.

Love will take on many shapes and colors, and again won’t always be recognized or appreciated by the world. Certainly that was true of our Master, and will be all the more the case with us, his uneven, imperfect followers. But people need to see the difference in us. Yes, even you and I, with all our limitations, imperfections, and need I say, shortcomings. What must override everything else in our lives is a love for others which comes out of our love for God. Ever growing, of course always grounded in God’s grace to us. And shaped like a cross with the growing likeness of Jesus imprinted on it. By the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

on trials

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

James 1:2-4; MSG

I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this opening directive from James. Every part of it touches exactly where we live.

We hate trials, and think somehow to escape them seems to be a mark of maturity. But God wants us to know that trials are meant to mature us. I have a particularly hard time with trials in which I’ve had a hand in them developing or coming to be. Not to say I don’t struggle with other trials, but especially those. But no trial is excluded here. Trials of many kinds would include all trials. A trial is a trial, even if we were the unwitting cause of it. I was thinking of mistakes we make. But this could include sins, even serious sins, and the fallout and trial we face after committing such. Surely that would be included here, too, but with the added counsel that we confess our sin to God, to the church, when need be to others, repent, and undergo whatever is needed for full restoration. All of that would be a trial to us, needed for maturity in Christ, for sure. But again, I’m just thinking here about trials in general, whatever kind they take.

It’s really hard to see tests and challenges as a sheer gift. Instead we’re prone to see trials in an entirely negative light. The idea of tests to help us as well as challenges is simply a fact of life we need to accept. Trials are inevitable. More important than the actual trial is the good which can come out of it. If we look past the trial itself to whatever it is that God might want to do through it, that can help us.

Under pressure our true self comes out, and often it isn’t pretty. The Lord wants that to improve over time. We need to face the music, not try to escape it. To hang in there, even when it’s hard. To even consider it all joy. To let God teach us what is needed through the process, as well as reshape us more into Christ’s image.

It’s not like we have to be preoccupied with trials all the time. The more we accept this reality, as trials inevitably hit us, the more we can experience what God wants to bring out of them. For our blessing and good, and therefore for the blessing and good of others around us. Not to let go of any of this. To persist in it, our will set to live in and do God’s will. In and through Jesus.

first things always first

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

There is much in Scripture to help us with our own personal problems. For example it’s said that the command most often repeated is to not be afraid. And there’s passages to help us with our anxiety, burdens, and a multitude of other things. But when we’re focused on ourselves and our own problems, then our focus is not set according to God’s will for us in Jesus. Problems and trials in this life are inevitable, and can’t be avoided. Not to mention the spiritual warfare we’re up against.

But what should be central and foremost on our minds always is love to God and love to neighbor. God helps us so that we might respond in love. It’s not about us and our own well being. The universe doesn’t revolve around us. Yet we’re included in this love, received and returned, reciprocated from God and shared with others. We’re all in this together. And we all need grace not only along the way, but every moment of the way.

So often it seems to me that Christian teaching is aimed at helping us individually get through and perhaps enjoy another day. And framed right, that teaching has its place. But again, life is not about that. God wants us to more and more take on the likeness of Jesus, together and individually in our lives by the Spirit. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves so we can be a blessing to others, even to God. But we do so as those whose priority is set on loving God with all our being and doing, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. In and through Jesus.