Why Be A Christian?

Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Maria, sister of Lazarus, meets Jesus who is going to their house (1864). By Nikolai Ge. Image Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

My favorite part of our church’s mission statement is the part at the end where we declare that we are “open to all and reaching out to the world in love.”  I like to remind you of those words at the beginning of worship every Sunday because they speak volumes about who we are and what we do in this community.  The world at large desperately needs to hear this message about a community that is truly “open to all”.  So many other groups and organizations, even churches, divide themselves from one another along ideological lines.  Here in this church, it is my privilege to be a pastor to so many people from so many different political and religious backgrounds.  I can testify from experience that the Spirit who binds us together is deeper and broader than any one set of ideas or opinions.  This is a church that has been built from the heart up, not from the mind down.

Almost everywhere else you can go in the world, the exact opposite is true.  Most people want to know if you agree with them before they enter into a relationship with you.  But we are different.  We’ll move over and make room for you in the pew no matter who you are, where you’ve been, or what you think.  We’ll just keep on telling you that we love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Yup, we’re “open to all and reaching out to the world in love”.  I want you to know this morning how rare and unique that is, especially for a church.  I personally believe that this part of our identity is the key to our future as a church.  This commitment to openness is what makes us different from so many other Christians, who make people pass some kind of dogma test before they’ll accept them.

Recently, I was engaged in an intense discussion with one of these “other Christians”.  This person said to me, “You think it’s okay, in God’s eyes, for people to practice other religions.  So then, why would anyone want to be Christian if it’s not the one and only true religion?”  I thought that was a great question.  Why would anyone choose to be Christian if they could also choose to be Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim?

I was reminded of this conversation when I read this week’s gospel passage from the lectionary.  It’s the story of a woman named Mary of Bethany, who knelt at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair.  This was an incredible act of affection and devotion toward Jesus.  Mary obviously loved and cared about him very much.

That got me thinking: if I was in Mary’s place, what is it about Jesus that would make me fall down on my knees in love and devotion?  What is it about Jesus that makes me want to commit my life to him?  Why am I a Christian?

I think this is a question that each and every one of us should ask.  Whether you’ve just started coming to church or you’ve been here your whole life, you’ve decided to be here for a reason.  We owe it to ourselves and the world to know what that reason is.  I can’t answer that question for you.  But what I can do is tell you why I’ve decided to be a Christian.  I hope that my answer to this question might help you answer it for yourself.

So here’s what Christian faith means to me.  This is what has driven me, like Mary of Bethany, to kneel down before the feet of Jesus and offer him all that I have and all that I am:

For me, being a Christian is all about love.  Love is what I have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.  When religious scholars quizzed Jesus about the most important part of the Bible, he told them it all comes down to love: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

Jesus embodied love in the way he lived his life.  He broke bread with tax collectors, Jews who sold their own people out to the Romans in order to make a quick, dishonest buck.  He pardoned the sin of a woman caught in adultery when the rest of her village was ready to stone her to death.  He nurtured relationships with Samaritans, the ethnic and religious rivals of the Jews, and saw the best in them.  He praised the faith of a pagan Roman soldier.  He reached out and touched a leper, who had been shunned and exiled from society because of his disease.  Finally, he spoke words of forgiveness to his executioners as they waited for him to die.  This is love.

Love, he said, is the first duty of any religious person.

When he wasn’t around, Jesus called upon his followers to love each other in his place.  Any good deed rendered unto the most despised and forgotten members of society, Jesus said in Matthew 25, he would count as service rendered unto him.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,you did it to me.”

The love that shone through Jesus came to have a profound impact on his followers.  The apostle Paul declared that, if it wasn’t for love, all his words, knowledge, and faith would be meaningless.  John the Beloved went so far as to let Jesus’ example of love redefine his idea of God: “God is love,” he said, “and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

What I learned through Jesus is that God is not some angry judge, sitting high up on a cloud, hurling down lightning bolts at people he doesn’t like.  No, God is that dynamic energy of love that flows out from within us.  God works through persuasion, not coercion.  This divine love takes on an infinite variety of forms, depending on the person and the situation.  As we open ourselves up to this love more and more, we are continually filled with God’s Spirit, and we begin to resemble Jesus.  Love, then, is the measure of our faith, not religious dogma.

Through Jesus, I learn how to love and I learn that I am loved.  Jesus didn’t just teach people about love, he didn’t just point to love.  No, Jesus embodied love in his very being and person.  Love shone through his every word and deed.  That’s what I mean when I praise Jesus as the Son of God and the Incarnation of God: Jesus is the embodiment of divine love who invites me to do and be the same, in whatever imperfect and limited way that I am able.

This is what takes my breath away when it comes to Jesus.  This is why I want to fall down at his feet and offer everything I have and all that I am, so that I might be part of that love too.  This is the kind of God that I can believe in.

For me it is no contradiction to believe that the dynamic God of love I discovered in Jesus can be active in the lives of people from every time, place, culture, and religion.  I hear the voice of this God whispering to me in the pages of the Bible and singing to me in the clouds at sunset.  Jesus has opened my eyes, ears, mind, and heart to experience the presence of God in all things.  For this, I am amazed and give thanks.  What else can I do but collapse to my knees before Jesus and worship?

That is why I am a Christian.  It has nothing to do with creeds, dogmas, or being the one and only true religion.  It has everything to do with love.  I hope and pray that the people around me will experience through me, in some degree, the love I have received through Jesus (whether they recognize it by that name or not).

How about you?  Why are you here in church today?  If you call yourself a Christian, why do you choose that label for yourself?  I want to encourage each and every one of you to answer that question for yourself today.  Something has brought you here.  You are not sitting in this church by accident.  It is therefore incumbent upon you to ask yourself: Why?

In your imagination, put yourself in Mary of Bethany’s place: kneeling at the feet of Jesus, offering the very best of what you have and who you are.  What has brought you here?  Even as you acknowledge and respect the faith of others who are different, something about this faith and this person, Jesus, has captured your attention.  What is it?

Answer that question for yourself and don’t be afraid or ashamed to share your answer with the world.  There are people out there who need to hear what you have to say.  Go out there today and tell them.

“Preach the gospel always… use words when necessary.”

May your words and your deeds say to the people of this world: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

You Always Have the Poor With You

Since I have been on vacation this week, I was not present at our Thursday night Bible study as usual.  Because of this, my musings on this week’s gospel text are my own, and not enriched by the insights of our community at St. James Mission.

Our text this week is taken from John 12:1-8.

First of all, you should know that I love my job as Community Chaplain.  Even though the position does not (yet) come with a paycheck, it has its own dividends that cannot be quantified.  However, even in the best of jobs, there comes a time when one could use a vacation.

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that my capacity for Rogerian “unconditional positive regard” has been stretched to its limit.  At times, I have abandoned my usual non-directive stance in favor of speaking my mind.  One case that stands out concerns a friend who expressed a desire to enter rehab and then refused to go after I made the referral and followed up with him every day for a week.  Instead of letting it go, I gave him the cursory lecture on how alcoholism at his stage is fatal if left untreated.  Maybe it was tough love, maybe it was me giving voice to my own frustration.  Either way, I think I heard Carl Rogers spinning in his grave just then.

“You always have the poor with you”.  These words of Christ have stuck in my mind all week.  I hate how often they are used by Christians who want to excuse themselves from working for social justice.  Nevertheless, I felt the power of these words in a new way as I slammed up against the walls and limitations of my own finite love.

My friends Adria and Bob like to remind me that ministry in the margins cannot be based on the never-ending chasm of need that opens up before me.  If my success depends on someone else’s ability to change, I’m going to be a very unhappy person.  One day at a time, I am learning how to measure my success by my faithfulness to the one who has called me to love and serve the “least of these” in his name.  Contrary to the opinion of some Christians, this awareness does not excuse me from engaging with the poor.  Instead, it puts the fight against poverty and injustice into perspective.  We are not called to care for the poor in order to make a perfect society.  Neither are we called to admire them for their nobility.  We are called to love the poor because they are Christ.

As I head back into my regular routine this week, I pray for the eyes of my heart to be opened, that I might see my Savior in these dirty streets.  I pray that, like Mary of Bethany, my offering would reach beyond the social problems that surround me and touch the sacred heart of Christ.  To be clear, I fully intend to stay engaged with those who dwell in the margins of our society.  Indeed, I can do no other, since the one who said, “You always have the poor with you,” has also said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  But what I want is for my engagement in the margins to be a means through which I see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, day by day.