Aug 7th, What Do I Have to Believe To Be A Christian?, with Rev. Kally Elliott
A Part of the Series:
Aug 7th: What Do I Have to Believe To Be A Christian?, with Rev. Kally Elliott.
We’re in a sermon series where you come up with a topic and we try to preach about it. The question I received to wrestle with is, what do I have to believe to be a Christian? Now, I feel like this can be a very loaded question, especially these days. I mean, I call myself a Christian. One of the vows I took at ordination was to seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love my neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world.
That sounds pretty Christiany, right? And yet there are many people who could argue that based on their own criteria about what makes a real Christian, that I do not qualify. So when I taught fifth grade at a private Christian school, we had to send a little booklet home with our students. This booklet defined and illustrated the four spiritual laws for being a Christian. According to this booklet, one must adhere to the four spiritual laws to qualify for the title of Christian.
Now, I grew up going to church pretty much every single Sunday. I went to Sunday school, I participated in youth group, I sang in the choir. I even went to church in college when I could have been sleeping in. I can recite several of the creeds of the church by memory, and yet it wasn’t until I was an adult and teaching fifth grade that I first heard of the four spiritual laws. I’m not going to expound on the four laws because personally, I don’t think they are helpful.
However, our students were supposed to read through the booklet explaining the spiritual laws to their parents. They were then to have their parents sign the booklet confirming the attempt at evangelism had occurred. It grossed me out, but I needed and mostly enjoyed this teaching gig. So I sent the booklet home and looked the other way when not all of them were returned. Some churches and individuals teach that to be a Christian one must experience a conversion, a moment in time when they make a conscious decision to give their life to Jesus.
After conversion, they participate in a believer’s baptism in which they profess their belief in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Still others say that being a Christian isn’t about belief at all, it’s about how one lives her life. One must follow the basic tenets of kindness, generosity, and love. In the Presbyterian Church, USA, we have a book of confessions. This is a collection of statements of Christian faith, and it includes confessions written as long ago as the earliest church period and confessions added as recently as 2016.
The confessions help by trying to define what we as a community believe and describing our shared story and our common values. I grew up reciting the Apostles Creed every Sunday, and though for most of my childhood I didn’t know what it all meant, especially that part about believing in the Holy Catholic Church. I was Presbyterian. What did that mean? Or the Holy Ghost?
But I liked feeling like I belonged to a larger group of people, the church surrounding me, as we all said the words together. And I also think that this creed helped to build a foundation and a structure within which my earth could grow. The Presbyterian Church affirms the Spirit of God is always calling us forward, calling us to adapt and evolve in our theology and our beliefs and the way we live out the Christian earth. This is why if you were to read through many of the confessions in the Book of Confessions, you’d find that they evolved throughout the years. It’s really quite beautiful the way we, at least in theory, are open to being transformed by the Spirit in our beliefs, practices and faith.
But even so, even with all these ways to be Christian, if we go back to Scripture, returning to the story of Jesus, we find that he never mentioned the word Christian. Never once did he call someone a Christian or tell his followers they should become Christians. There was no checklist of beliefs. I think actually he’d be horrified that there is an entire religion based on him. Jesus came to remind us that we belong to each other, showing us the expansive and radically inclusive love of God, breaking down barriers that we put up.
And yet the name Christian has come to signify a closed group of folks, sometimes with a decent enough reputation, but more often known for who they are against rather than who they are for. For many, the title of Christian is given only to those who belong to this exclusive club, this group to which you can belong only if you believe everything on the made up checklist and behave appropriately, whatever that means. But I wonder if people knew that when the title Christian was first used, it was meant as a huge insult, as a slur. I wonder if people knew this, if they would be so quick to claim the title as exclusively theirs.
In the chapter from Acts, we hear that after the stoning of Stephen, the persecution of followers of Jesus became so intense that many disciples fled to other cities to save their lives. One of the cities that experienced an influx of Jewish disciples of Jesus was Antioch. Now, Antioch was a great metropolis. It was referred to as all the world in one city, where you could see all the world’s richness and diversity in one place. However, Antioch was designed like most cities of that day, and like many cities of our own day, there was a right side of town and a wrong side of town, dividing different people groups from one another.
Some of the Jewish disciples began spending time with and sharing about Jesus with those on the wrong side of town, the Gentiles, those who were not Jewish. This was scandalous, as it was largely believed that only those of Jewish heritage and faith could properly follow Jesus. Now word quickly reached Jerusalem of the scandal and Barnabas was sent to keep these unruly disciples in check. But when he got to Antioch and met with the disciples, the text says he saw the peace of God and rejoiced exhorting the disciples to keep it up. He saw the grace of God.
I was struck by this phrase. It stopped me, made me go searching for commentary to see the grace of God. What does that even look like? Every single commentary I found on this phrase said something like barnabas saw the people of Antioch turning to Jesus, giving their lives to Christ. In other words, the Jewish followers of Jesus were converting the Gentiles of Antioch.
Is that really what the peace of God looks like? Now, I realize I’m not a biblical scholar, but I wonder if those commentaries have it backwards. I wonder if the grace of God that was so evident to Barnabas was not the people of Antioch converting to what would become known as Christianity, but was instead the transformation that had happened and was happening within the Jewish disciples, these Jewish disciples of Jesus who had possibly spent their entire lives isolated from people of other heritage and other faiths. After being brutally persecuted to the point of having to flee for their very lives, we’re now intentionally inviting and spending time with those who, before persecution, they would have deemed unclean, Gentile, outsider, even sinner. So pretty soon their fellowship group, Jews and Gentiles alike, were redefining community in a radical and unprecedented way.
So much so that a new word was needed to categorize what in the world was happening. And people began referring to this new group of people as Christians. But not because they liked what they saw. No, it made them very uncomfortable. These Christians were breaking rules, crossing lines, defiling themselves by including the unclean.
A new name was needed to define those people, the people they did not want to be.
Now the Christians, those who came to be known as Christians, didn’t have creeds or confessions or a booklet with the four spiritual laws spelled out for them. There was not even a Bible at this time. There was nothing official for them to believe. And yet they were called Christian or Christ follower by the people of Antioch. So what made them live in this new way?
Why would they live in a way that would annoy others to the point of rolling their eyes and calling them a slur? To be clear, I don’t know why they lived in the way they did. It might have been as simple as the Gentiles expressing interest in this Jesus. They kept talking about the Jewish disciples thinking, well, what the heck, maybe they’re not so bad, let’s invite them to dinner and then finding out that they had more in common than not. But I also wonder if having lived under the fear of persecution and death.
They heard the invitation from Jesus to take up their cross and to follow him in a new way. We have equated the symbol of the cross to equal being Christian. We wear crosses around our necks, erect them in our churches, all to demonstrate our devotion to our Christian beliefs. But the cross was an instrument of torture in the time of Jesus and these first Christians. It was Rome’s version of capital punishment as well as fear and intimidation.
So much so, that instead of creating a nice tree lined boulevard leading in and out of Jerusalem, rome lined the road with crosses, bodies hanging from each one. So when Jesus says to his first disciples, the apostles, if any wish to come after me, 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 will find it. I imagine those first disciples that they are horrified, for they had walked that road in and out of Jerusalem. They had seen and smelled and heard the bodies of those hanging from the crosses.
And if it could happen to those others, it could easily happen to them. Take up your cross and follow me. He doesn’t say, Believe in me. He says, Take up your cross and follow me. It’s really not something you can wrap your mind around.
It’s not something I understand. But I do know this that Jesus didn’t walk that Jerusalem road unaffected by those crosses lining the road. Richard Rohr writes those who do not transform their pain will transmit their pain. And so I wonder if when Jesus extends this invitation to his first disciples, he is saying the same thing your cross is whatever it is that you fear, whatever pain that you bear. Don’t just cross by on the other side, but turn and face it, feel it, let it teach you what it needs to, and then let grace move you to a new way of living.
In an interview with Christa Tippet, Nadia Boltz Weber said the Christian life is a life of continual death and resurrection. My experience is that of disruption over and over again, of going along and tripping upon something I think I know or that I think I’m certain about, and realizing I’m wrong, or maybe fighting to think I’m right about something over and over again until I experience what I call a sort of divine heart transplant. I wonder if maybe this is the very grace that Barnabas witnessed when he visited the first Christians at Antioch. Transformation, death and resurrection from a closed community focused on purity and laws. Who’s in and who is out to a community of Jews and Gentiles together.
Those with a long line of credentials and those with none. All of them together participating in life part of something greater. They didn’t have a belief checklist. They didn’t have the Bible or a creed to recite. And yet grace met them anyway, holding them, moving them, transforming them.
Of course, I don’t really know. I do know they didn’t do this perfectly, this transformation. If you read through enough church history or even the New Testament, you find out the early church bickered and ostracized and oppressed and persecuted, trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, just like we still do today. But the good news is, the Christian life is continually dying to the old and rising to the new. So there’s hope for us yet.
It’s not really about belief. It’s about allowing a love that is stronger than anything, even death, to overwhelm you and shape you and move you. It’s about allowing grace to meet you where you are and move you to a new way of living. It’s life abundant found in the paradox of losing yourself in Christ and over again. At least I think so.