Sunday, May 13, 2007

You Can Always Tell A Christian

You can always tell a Londoner, but not a lot – because they think they know it all already. And, of course, you can allus tell a Yorkshireman. But can you always tell a Christian?

Today, of course, most people would not be able to tell a Christian, would they? They don't know who Jesus is. They don't know what Easter or Christmas are meant to celebrate. They don't know that Jesus died on a cross. So how would they be able to tell what a Christian looks like or acts like?

If they had to guess how you would tell a Christian apart from everyone else, many people would probably say that we're boring, narrow minded and lacking a sense of humour. Someone wrote a song about Christians. The chorus goes like this, 'You can always tell a Christian, but you cannot tell him much! His mind is closed, impervious, completely out of touch.' That's probably a fair estimate of what a lot of people think.

Atheists would go further, of course. They would say that Christians are people who haven't learnt to stand on their own two feet. They accuse us of being too afraid, or too immature, to too inadequate perhaps, to admit that we're all alone in the world without a God to look after us. Some would go further and say that we're actually ill – infected with religion in much the same way as we might get infected with a virus.

A few years ago some Christian advertising executives tried to redress the balance. They paid for huge billboards that proclaimed the message, “Christians make better lovers!”

Someone wrote on one of the billboards, 'If Christians do make better lovers, you won't know for sure till you've tried all he others!' But although it obviously annoyed that person, I think it was a pretty good slogan because it works on a number of different levels.

At the most basic level, it's saying that our sexuality is so deeply rooted in what it means to be human that it must also be part of what it means to be made in the image of God. The closer we get to God, the closer we get to living out our sexuality in the most complete and sensitive way.

But the slogan also works equally well at other levels. So someone has adapted it to read, 'Younger churches make better lovers', by which they mean that a new church – recently planted in a neighbourhood and without a long tradition and lots of well entrenched members – can be more welcoming to newcomers, more open to the community from which it has sprung, more flexible, more casual, less churchy, more understanding of people with hurts or with lots of noisy children, and less concerned about the building where the the church actually gathers to worship. You may think this overstates the case for younger churches and that it's a bit unfair to some older churches, which do make a real effort to be all of those things. But I'm sure you can see the point that's being made.

The song I quoted from earlier has a verse which goes like this:

A lot of Christians' efforts make the world a better place
They feed the hungry, help the poor, and live their lives in grace
The true road to salvation is in love and through good works.
These folks have grasped the concept but the rest of them are...

Well, let's not go there! Let's just remind ourselves that this is pretty much the way St John thinks about Christians, too.[1]

The times when St John was writing his Gospel, which was probably about sixty years after the first Easter, were confusing times for Christians. Lots of people were claiming to be followers of Jesus, but these so-called Christians believed and did a bewildering variety of things. How were the members of St John's churches to tell the difference between a false Christian, someone who says 'Lord, Lord!' but who doesn't really mean it, and a true Christian?

It's a question to which St John returns again and again. But his basic answer is always the same. You can tell a true Christian by the way they live, not by what they say. Those who love Jesus will keep his word, and the Father will love them, too. Whoever does not love Jesus does not keep his word. So, if someone isn't doing what Jesus said, Jesus and the Father do not dwell within them, and you can tell they're not a true believer.

Of course, there's a problem with this. How can it be reconciled with the teaching of St Paul? Because he had a different starting point. He said that the way to tell a true Christian was to ask someone whether they had put their trust in the saving power of Jesus, revealed and unloosed into the world for all time through his self-giving death upon the Cross. From that perspective, only those who believe that Jesus died for them, and put their trust in his saving power, are the true Christians. In fact, St Paul said – and Martin Luther later repeated and emphasised this – that the good things we would like to do, in conscious imitation of Jesus, are often far too difficult for us to accomplish, because our selfish human nature gets in the way of our best intentions. By that reckoning, even the most saintly person is unlikely to be able to keep the words of Jesus all of the time, even if they do love him.

But St John is aware of this problem. He, too, has a way of talking about God's grace, which he sees as reinforcing our good intentions and helping us to grow in the love of God. If we love Jesus and keep his word, St John assures us that Jesus and the Father will come to us and make their home with us, giving us the power we need to overcome our own self-centredness. What's more, he talks about the Holy Spirit teaching us and reminding us of the right thing to do, so that we can find genuine peace of mind.

On the face of it, St John and St Paul are miles apart, and their different understandings of how you can tell a true Christian cannot be reconciled. But actually the difference between them is not as great as it might at first seem. St Paul was horrified by those Christians who claimed it was all right to go on sinning because they would always be forgiven by the grace of God. A Christian may be someone who has been put right with God by faith in Jesus' death for them, but even St Paul admits that Christians also have to live out that faith in their words and actions. So, in the end, he says much the same thing as St John.

And St John expresses his ideas in much he same terms as those advertising executives who talked about Christians being better lovers. You can always tell a true Christian, says St John, because true Christians are better at loving Jesus. Those who love Jesus will keep his word, and whoever does not love Jesus does not keep his word. And what is the word of Jesus? Of course, the word of Jesus is his commandment to love one another as he first loved us. Christians, then, make better lovers.

In our second Scripture passage, St Paul and his companions have arrived in a strange new city, Philippi in modern day Greece.[2] For the first time St Paul has set foot in Europe but he doesn't spend long getting acclimatised. He only stays for a few days and, as soon as it gets to the Sabbath, he and his friends seek out the place where they think Jewish people, and those who sympathise with them, will have gone to pray.

Whether or not they find the right place, St Paul and his companions soon get talking to a group of women and one of them is Lydia. St Paul has only come to Macedonia because of a vision in which a local man begged for his help, yet strangely the first Christian convert in Macedonia is herself an outsider like St Paul. And like him, she has come to Philippi from Asia Minor, or modern Turkey.

In short order, however, Lydia and all her household are baptised and St Paul establishes the headquarters of the Church in Philippi at her home. Is it just a matter of convenience, that she becomes the leader of the church here? Does she just happen to have the biggest living room? Or is she simply the very first convert, so that there is, in fact, no where else to go?

It seems not, for Lydia challenges St Paul to decide whether she is a true Christian. 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord,' she says – in other words, 'If you can tell that I love Jesus and keep his word' – 'come and stay at my home.' And it seems that St Paul can tell her heart is open to the Lord, because she prevails upon him.

If you can always tell a Christian, doesn't that mean the people we meet should always be able to tell there is something special about us? They may be ignorant about Jesus, and Easter and Christmas, but shouldn't our faithfulness to Jesus' commands give us away, even when we remain silent, and even when they are completely ignorant about him? Shouldn't our family and friends, our neighbours and our colleagues, be able to see something different about us – a quality that marks us out?

And are we growing in grace, and is our church filled with grace, as the Spirit of Jesus dwells with us and moves amongst us? In other words, is it getting progressively easier for people to tell that we are living in the love of Jesus?

These are the challenges which St John throws down to us, his readers; the same challenges which Jesus gave to his first disciples. They are big and demanding challenges, and yet – if we choose to accept them – they can also become a source of peace and inner strength. For if, like Lydia, we open our hearts to the Lord, he will come and dwell with us. So we need not be troubled or afraid, for – with God's grace to encourage and empower us – these are challenges which we cannot fail.

[1] John 14.23-29
[2] Acts 16.9-15

2 comments:

Pete McCabe said...

Very interesting, although it took quite a time to read.

Just one thought: Is it a blog or a sermon?

Methodist Bishop said...

It's a sermon blog. I guess I ought to say so really, but the word 'sermon' sounds so off-putting and some of the entries read less like conventional sermons and more like blogging.