Sunday, January 6, 2013
I am asking for trouble with the title this morning, a question, what is a Christian? There are a lot of ready answers. I do not know which one is yours, but I am pretty sure yours is different than the person behind you. And his is going to be slightly, or maybe extremely different than the person next you. What is a Christian? My answer will leave some people asking, “But why didn’t he say …?”
I know before starting that I’ll miss the mark. Therefore, I begin with that admission. There is more to being a Christian than what I could possibly say in one Sunday morning sermon. In a sense, we spend every single week playing with this challenge – the task of living the life of one who follows and worships Jesus Christ. You see the question. “What is a Christian?” I happily invite you to answer. I ask you to accept up front that I know my answer is not going to be complete nor will it be identical to yours.
That said, I think what we find in the opening verses of Romans 5 provide crucial, foundational material for what it is to be Christian. “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). Peace with God; a love relationship with God; this is Christianity – what we have and what we share.
Before getting to the essentials of our Christians foundations, I want to briefly review from last week. We are in the midst of a series of conversations, both in the Sunday morning sermons and more importantly in your small groups. Our topic is evangelism – sharing the Christian faith which contains the good news that all people are offered salvation by God, given through Jesus Christ.
As I discussed evangelism last week, I raised the idea of “listening evangelism.” This does not mean we never speak. Those who are not Christ-followers will not likely become disciples unless they are invited to consider who Jesus is and what He has done. That invitation needs to be based in the teaching of the New Testament. We need to speak the gospel. But I don’t think effective evangelism in 21st century, a marketplace of ideas, will begin with assertive proclamation. As I said last week, nonbelievers mostly expect evangelistic Christians to say that anyone outside the church is a hell-bound sinner. We have to come up with a better way. It begins with listening.
This is our posture in evangelism. And by evangelism, I don’t mean an isolated activity that is done once and is unrelated to the rest of the encounters we have in daily life. Just the opposite! I am proposing that we live evangelistically in all encounters with people – with our own kids and with strangers. We listen to communicate to the other, our conversation partner, that we are welcoming, gentle, and nonjudgmental. We will be good caretakers of whatever they choose to share with us. If we come across as compassionate listeners, people will be inclined to share with us. They might also be inclined to listen to what we have to say on topics of great importance.
However, there is a risk in this. This listening approach to evangelism is an alternative to more arrogant, aggressive approaches that come across as confrontational. Evangelistic Christians are not the only ones in the world trying to convince others of an ideology or a faith or of truth. If we come as open listeners, ready to take in what others dish out, someone will come to us as aggressively as those Christians who want to know if you were to die tonight, where would you go. Those sharing other ideas, ideas completely contrary to Biblical Christianity, might see a good listener as someone who can be filled with whatever philosophy they are peddling.
We want to be good listeners, but not from a position of ignorance or weakness. We need a rock-solid foundation. We need to listen as people who know who we are and where we come from. I am asserting listening as our evangelistic posture. And I assert the gospel as our evangelistic foundation.
There are numerous passages we might turn to when trying to sum up the gospel and we don’t have time this morning to do a thorough New Testament synopsis of what is mean by “good news” or “gospel,” so I have chosen to devote our time to one passage, Romans 5:1-11.
We remember Romans 3:23 – “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And also, 4:25 where we are reminded that Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” From these verses (and many others) we know a basic Christian teaching is all people are sinners and sin cuts us off from God. No matter what another person says as we attentively listen to them, we hold in our mind that all humans sin. You. Me. The people in our lives. And when we are nearing the moment where we might share the Gospel with another, that person too is a sinner.
We dare not think less of someone once we have seen them in that light. In fact, the basic assumption that all of us our sinners should make it easier for us to love, respect, and esteem other people. It does not matter if someone is a Christian, is indifferent to religion, or is a hard-core Satanist. It does not matter if someone is a tenured professor, a world-famous scientist, a high powered attorney, or a waitress or a mechanic or a homeless person. The mark of a Christian is that we recognize that all people are sinners and are to be loved and listened to and welcomed.
With that in mind, we wade into Romans 5:1-11 and we see immediately that we are “justified by faith” and because of Jesus, we have access to God. This is not to be taken lightly. Our sin rendered us cut off. But because of Jesus’ death on the cross, all who put their trust in God through faith in Jesus are made right. The sins are no longer a factor. Not only are we seen as right in God’s eyes, but we are allowed to and even invited to come before God in prayer. Because of Jesus, we have access to God.
This passage from Romans speaks of God’s love. Verse 5 says “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” And verse 8: “God proves his loves for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Sin leads to death, but Jesus took the death on himself. Even though we have sinned, we don’t have to deal with sin’s consequences. Jesus has taken care of that.
We are all sinners. We are justified, made right, by Jesus. We have access to God because of Jesus. God loves us. A final note on the basics of Christianity is that we have reconciliation because of Jesus. Verse 10 notes this truth is due both to his death and the salvation we have that relies on the life Jesus lived. Because of Jesus we are reconciled to God, moved from cut-off to reconnected in a relationship that stands on God’s love.
What is a Christian? A Christian is a sinner who has been made right by Jesus and who now has a relationship with God, a relationship of love and communication that happens through worship and prayer. This is who you and I are when we go to the task of loving those outside the Christian family. We listen and listen attentively and with great compassion to nonbelievers. But all the while, we hold a tension in our minds, the tension of their thoughts with the truth of God.
Without this Christian foundation, we are not ready to listen evangelistically. I have summarized the gospel quite briefly. Much more could be said. That’s clear. And that is why, at this point I stress how much effort every Christ follower must put in. We have to work to know what we believe. Refining our knowledge of faith and practice of faith is a constant task and a lifelong task. It involves worship, participation in Church life, mission work, and Bible-reading and much prayer. I wrote this week’s newsletter article about reading the Bible in a way that equips the reader to be knowledgeable and conversant in the faith. I won’t go into the details here. But I will say that this is not just for pastors or people who like to read a lot or people who want to specialize in evangelism. What I wrote in that article and what I am saying here is true for all Christ followers of all ages. It is a constant effort that involves growing in faith and knowing what we believe.
If you’re passionate about football, you don’t need special training in how to talk about football. You eat, sleep, and drink football and can talk about it day or night. If you’re passionate about TV shows like American Idol, you don’t need a lecture to learn how to talk about why you like American Idol. It comes easily to you. We Christ-followers need to give more of our attention to knowing our faith than to other passions and interests. When we do, we find two things. First, we are prepared to talk about what it means to be a Christian. Second, we grow in the delight and joy we receive from life in Christ.
I have offered listening as an evangelistic posture. I have asserted that when we listen in conversations with anyone – believers or nonbelievers – we must know where we stand. This means we must have a basic sense of the Gospel and we must devote our lives to growing in our knowledge of faith.
There’s a real rub here and it is important to acknowledge. The world outside the church expects us to stand firm in what we believe, but does not expect us to extend respect to non-Christians. In 2007, Gabe Lyons and Greg Kinnaman came out with the book UnChristian. Through hundreds of interviews, they concluded that in six ways, evangelistically-minded Christians were turning nonbelievers away from the church. These conclusions are based on research done over a 3-year period.
Here are the six ways Christians, especially those who would identify as evangelicals, turn away nonbelievers.
(1) Hypocritical: we are perceived to not practice what we preach; and, we are thought to do the very sins we condemn.
(2) “Get saved!”: we are thought to worry about eternal salvation but to be completely indifferent to problems in the present.
(3) Antihomosexual: we are thought to have identified one behavior as sinful, disproportionately, hatefully condemn that one sin, and ignore many other sins.
(4) Sheltered: the perception is those inside the Christian bubble don’t have any sense about the real world.
(5) Too political: translated this means the unchurched world sees extremely conservative politics and extremely conservative Christianity as being the same thing. We present as being more concerned about abortion, gun-owning rights, and patriotism than we are concerned about the things Jesus actually said.
(6) Judgmental: we think we’re right about everything and anyone who disagrees with us is going to Hell.
These accusations probably contain a grain of truth underneath the veneer of exaggeration. However, no matter how inaccurate these thoughts are, research has shown that a lot of people think this is true of evangelistic churches. We lose the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus before the conversation even starts because of these assumptions affixed to us.
What do we do?
We listen. To the ardent feminist who insists that even late term abortions are a woman’s right, we listen. To the one who practices Wicca, we listen. To the Universalist who thinks all philosophies are OK, and all paths lead to God, we listen. To the isolated man who hates all foreigners and has an arsenal in basement, we listen. To the stressed out, chain-smoking neighbor whose language is laced with 4-letter words, we listen.
I did not say we agree. I do not say we affirm everything we hear. We maintain in our hearts and minds a firm conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We remember all the while that our conversation partner has this in common with us. Both they and we are sinners who need Jesus desperately. Because of that, we create space for the other to speak their piece. They will know they are being heard by someone who is compassionate, and that compassionate one is a follower of Jesus Christ. The only way we can change the negative perceptions of Christianity is by showing God’s love.
That’s at the heart of the teaching in Romans 5. Sinners are friends of God because of God’s love, expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We listen knowing all the while, we are Christians. We know what a Christian is because our lives are dedicated to growing in the knowledge of Jesus and growing in the knowledge of what it means to be his disciples. Work? Yes, this is work that requires much from each of us. But it brings immeasurable joy.
It also makes us ready. When we know what a Christian is and our knowledge is fueled by passion for Jesus, then we can talk about our faith any time, any day, to anyone.
If we commit to compassionate listening, that day and time will come. We will find ourselves in conversations and people will discover we are Christians. We’ll hear “Oh wow. I didn’t know there were Christians like you. I thought Christians were angry, judgmental haters who went around damning people all the time. But you’re nice and I can talk to you. Why are you different?”
In that moment, you and I will be ready to say to that other person, “I love you because God loves me. I, like you, and like all people, am a sinner. By my deeds, I am condemned. But God loved me enough to send Jesus and in dying, Jesus took my death on himself. Because of Him, I have eternal life and a relationship with God. And that’s why I love you.”
When we know what a Christian is we are ready to talk about it. This is one way we are equipped to do evangelism. Next week, we look into this some more.