What do you say when people ask you what it means to be a Christian? Most dictionaries suggest that Christians are people who believe in Jesus Christ. Some definitions mention following Christ, while others suggest that Christians belong to a religion that practices Jesus’s teachings. Such understandings are limited, even confusing, but it’s hard to blame the lexicographers; Christians differ so significantly in their self-understandings that I sometimes wonder if we are all acquainted with the same Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, I think that most Christians would agree that the teachings and actions of Jesus are the foundation for Christian belief. Still, I am often dismayed when I witness what people describe as and do in the name of “Christian values.”
It seems that the apostle Paul had the same trouble. As most of you may know, approximately two-thirds of the New Testament is composed of letters written either by or in the name of the person we call St. Paul. The primary purpose of his correspondence was to establish guidelines for living in Christian community, and his instructions remain a primary source of wisdom for Christians today. For me, the beauty of Paul’s missives is that they remind us that the early Christians were just as human as we are, displaying the same concerns, questions, and problems getting along with one another as we do today. Sadly, they are also often taken out of context and misinterpreted as supporting the very things that Jesus railed against.
Today’s lyrical letter to the Ephesians, which describes what it means to be a Christian, is a good example. This passage is something of a spiritual pep talk – one which was probably desperately needed. Remember that unlike us, most of whom have grown up in a culture in which Christians are a powerful and influential majority, the early Christians were members of a minority who were ridiculed and discriminated against for their faith. They were virtual (and sometimes actual) slaves of Roman political and military force. Paul understood their feelings of powerlessness and in his letter uses a military metaphor to help them understand the differences between them and their oppressors. Far from suggesting that the community embrace the militarism of the pagans, Paul’s message exhorts the Ephesians to engage in spiritual struggle against it by promoting the values embodied in Jesus the Christ. It is these ideals - truth, righteousness, peace, salvation through Christ, and the word of God, demonstrated in the movement of the Holy Spirit- that can be identified as Christian values.
Violence is not one of them. “Our struggle,” Paul says, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh...but against the spiritual forces of evil.” In other words, Jesus followers are obligated to stand against any and all opposing values, including lying, indecency, division, and, perhaps most insidious, fear. “Theologically,” says Haruko Ward, “if [Paul’s message had been] understood, we Christians would be exemplary peacemakers. But the history of the Christian church reveals a bewildering array of Christian violence, in which [Paul’s] rhetoric of spiritual warfare against the dark forces of evil became literal warfare. No early Christians took up weapons against their persecutors, and many died as martyrs. Yet by 325, when Christianity became legalized, Christians [had started persecuting] ‘other’ Christians” and those we deemed enemies of God.
Such persecution is born of fear. Science tells us that human beings are “herd animals.” We tend to be frightened of things and people that are alien to us. This fear of the “other” makes us long for what we think of as “home.” We want to be where we feel familiar and secure, sheltered from “outsiders” and the different. Many of us think of church this way - as a place where we can interact contentedly among others who believe as we do while resting from the challenges and cares of the world. This belief does not come from scripture.
Scripture says that the true believer’s home is with God – that God is always present to us – that “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God,” much less any human house that we might build. God’s house transcends race, culture, gender, and nationality. In God’s house we are all, always, at home. What an amazing blessing! It seems astonishing that anyone who has the opportunity would not embrace this gift with both hands. And yet many of us, like the disciples that first heard Jesus’s word, turn back from it, finding Jesus’s teachings “too difficult.” Our gospel tells us that although Jesus reminds the disciples that his words give life – that they “’are spirit and life’…many… will not believe, many… refuse the safety [and] the security of [true] home. The very thing they have yearned for is being offered them, and still they turn away from the gift.”
It is because they are confused about what “home” is. Amy Howe suggests “that we prefer religion to God. We, like the disciples, are offended by Jesus’ offer of spirit and life. [We are happy to help ‘the needy,’ but cannot forgive our friends for disagreeing with us]. We make religion about the rules because we can control the rules. We can amend books of order, we can use Scripture to oppress, and we can punish the rule breakers – [because that is] much easier than compassion and forgiveness.” Contrary to this, scripture tells us that true “home” in God requires struggle and risk. It insists that we put others first, even when it is painful. Finding true home necessitates putting on the whole armor of God and standing firm in it.
This does not, however, mean refusing to bend. “There is a difference between being stubborn and standing firm. Paul is not asking us to be… wedded to an opinion, rooted in prejudice, or close-minded…He is asking us to stand in something [eternal]…transcendent and renewing. This means being willing to be humble, and to risk being unpopular… Stubbornness is not self-or-other discerning…It is enshrined in a closed circle of certainty and becomes fearful…Standing firm is different. [It] means that one is willing to debate, listen and consider alternatives in order to reach a beneficial goal, while at the same time not sacrificing basic principles.”
This requires remembering what “home” really is. Home is not the familiar or the comfortable. It is the knowledge that when “we choose to eat Jesus’s flesh and drink [his] blood – [truly uncomfortable ideas] - and we truly abide in him and he in us – we choose life” – and life is complicated. Espousing Christian values means making a choice to follow Christ wherever he leads – no matter how unfamiliar, countercultural, or scary it might be. Being a Christian means recognizing that happiness is not found in the promises of this world, but in the fulfillment of our longing and desire for God – in knowing that one day in the house of our God is better than a thousand in our own safe and familiar human rooms. Being a Christian does not mean following a religion. It means following Christ. AMEN.
Haruko Nawata Ward, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 378.
Amy C. Howe, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 382.
Archie Smith, Jr., (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 376.