Why Be a Christian?

I’ve been slow at posting the last month or so.  My apologies indeed to those who regularly read my blog.

Below is my sermon for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, on Mark 1.

And a question for you all: what sorts of posts are helpful? Would you like more on books and films?  Or more short posts on faith?

Thanks!

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            What does it really mean to be a Christian?

As we begin our 150th year worshipping as a community in this location in Southborough, that is the question I want to focus on with you.  What does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ, a disciple, someone who is—if we use the literal meaning of Christian—a little Christ?

For many it means showing up for worship on Sunday, and making some sort of financial contribution to the church.  This isn’t their fault (or your fault, if you hold this view), by the way.  The official designation of a communicant in good standing of the Episcopal church is one who shows up three Sundays a year and works, prays and gives for the spread of the kingdom.  Since that second clause is a little hard to define, I’ve heard it unofficially reduced to “known by the treasurer,” whatever that means.

Which is all well and good, I guess.  But that isn’t a very fulfilling answer to my question, is it?  Surely there is something more to being a follower of Jesus than that.

In my cover letter sent to the search committee here at St. Mark’s I wrote this:  “As a priest, I am greatly concerned with what happens on Sunday morning—the liturgy, the music, the sermon and the rest—since it may be the only chance many take to connect with God (and since worship done poorly can be downright painful).  Yet I am even more concerned with what happens after parishioners leave the church building, what takes place the rest of the week.  If Sunday morning isn’t anything more than an hour of sitting and standing and singing and whatnot—if it doesn’t do something or stir up something deep within us—then why bother?  Sunday worship and the ministries of the church should lead us to so much more.  It should invite us to be active in Jesus’ transformative work in our world.”

The problem with the Church and Christianity in general is that people either don’t feel prepared or aren’t really encouraged to do any type of transformative work.  If I’m blatantly honest, it’s because we clergy don’t think you can handle that sort of message, or that you aren’t interested, or we suppose that it requires too much from you.  And if I think the best way for you to continue paying my salary is for me to tell you something you want to hear, then I better make the way forward easy and comforting and not challenging to the status quo.  We set the bar very low for membership —you’re in good standing if you attend Christmas and Easter and one other service and drop a check into the plate once throughout the year–so expectations are nil.  And when we do this we become, as I’ve mentioned to you before, the bland leading the bland.

Some years ago, theologian Ronald Sider wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, subtitled, “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?”  His book, largely influenced by polling from Barna, Gallup and others, reports that many Christians—from more conservative folks to those of us in the mainline—are not different from those who choose not to follow the Christian faith.

For example, he reports that Christians are just as likely as non-Christians to object to an African-American family moving into their neighborhood.  Physical abuse in marriages takes place as regularly in both Christian or non-Christian homes.  50% of Christian men who regularly attend church said they had viewed Internet pornography over the previous 12 months.  Divorce rates are nearly identical for followers of Jesus and those who don’t claim to be Christians.  If all the Christians in the US tithed, there would be almost twice the amount of money needed to provide basic health care and education for all the world’s poor, even after taking care of their own church budgets.[1]

Prof. Sider contends that instead of living in a counter-cultural way, many Christians live just as the culture does.  Sexual promiscuity, racism, materialism, divorce, neglect of the needy—all things Jesus himself preached against—are common among Christians.

So, I’ll ask it again, what does it really mean to be a Christian?

On this first Sunday after the Epiphany we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  John has been baptizing all those who came to him, calling people to repentance and saying that one more powerful would be coming.  Jesus soon comes in Mark’s retelling and comes down to John to be baptized, and as soon as he does, the heavens break open, a dove alights on Jesus’ head and the voice of God is heard declaring that Jesus was his beloved Son.

At his baptism, Jesus was told who he was.

And at our baptisms, we’re told who we are too.  But we have a tendency to forget.  And when we lose that sense of identity—when we forget that we follow Jesus Christ—we live like everyone else in our culture.  In short, it doesn’t matter that we are Christians.  We’re just people who go to church on Sunday.

And that, apparently, isn’t enough.

What if this year we started a pattern going forward that we became people who lived our faith in real ways in the day in and day out of our lives?  There are people hurting in our own neighborhoods who need a listening ear and a kind word, we as followers of Jesus should be doing that.  We have people in this and the surrounding communities who go without food; we can change that.  Some in our community are too sick to gather with us on a regular basis, we can visit them.  Our young people have questions about life and relationships and identity and meaning and purpose and faith and they think that most adults don’t care about them.  They could use a mentor.  Our neighbors may be unable to care for their yards or shovel their driveways, we can help them.  On any given night in Worcester County, there are over 4000 people who are on the street, in shelters or doubling up in apartments with friends or relatives because they are unable to afford or find a place of their own.  We can make a difference.

There are many in our world who have not known of the gift of forgiveness and salvation offered through Christ because they are turned off by the Church, have seen too many Christians living hypocritically or because no one has ever taken the time to share this good news with them.  We are called to be a blessing to the world.

Jesus lived incarnationally.  He was completely in the present, interacting with all those who came in contact with him.  He loved them and respected the dignity of everyone he met, loved without consideration, listened and wept and laughed and ate and drank and connected with people.  And we are called to do the same in his name.

As we begin this 150th year and as we reaffirm our baptismal promises today, may we intentionally choose to live more like Christ.  St. Mark’s can become a place where community is deepened.  We as the body of Christ can make a difference in our neighborhoods, taking time to be Christ’s hands and feet to those who live near us in Southborough and Framingham and Marlborough and Hopkinton and wherever else you may live.  We are called to remember that we are followers of Christ and that he came not to bring more and more people into churches, but to change people’s lives.  May he change our lives.  And may we carry his light into the world proclaiming his good news in both word and deed and living as a blessing to all people.  That’s just the beginning of what it really means to be a Christian.  Amen.


[1] Taken from Ronald J. Sider’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.