What does it mean to be a Christian?
Is it about going to church? Behaving properly? Believing the right things? Is it like being a member of a service club such as Kiwanis? Or, is it a social club like a bridge group?
Trying to answer that question is becoming increasingly difficult. It’s easier to say what it’s not than say what it is. But whatever being a Christian means, the way we answer the question is changing.
For instance – there was a time in America when it was the respectable thing to belong to a church. If you wanted to get promoted at work or run for office, you had to be a member of a church, and being the member of the right church was even better. It was better to be an Episcopalian or Presbyterian than a Pentecostal – though it was better to be a Pentecostal than nothing at all.
Back then, all you had to do to grow a church was open the door. But that day has long passed. Today, as Diana Butler Bass demonstrates, we’re asking what Christianity after Religion will look like.
In asking that question, I often turn to one of my theological heroes – Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- who called on the church to embrace the idea of discipleship. Of course, many Christians turn to him. In fact, it seems as if everyone whether liberal or conservative wants to claim Bonhoeffer as their own patron saint.
Why is this? Well, his story is quite compelling. Many consider him to be a modern martyr, because he was willing to give up his life to oppose the evil that was Hitler’s regime. His willingness to stand up to evil, gives depth to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christian discipleship.
One of his most beloved books is his Discipleship. In that book he tries to counter what he considered cheap grace. Being a follower of Jesus has to be more than simply being a good obedient citizen of the German state -- or in our case, good American citizens. He strongly believed that if you were a Christian that fact should change your life.
There is a sentence in his book Discipleship that I’ve quoted on many occasions. In speaking of what it means to follow Jesus, he wrote: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” These words have stood out, because Bonhoeffer lived them out. In following Christ, he lost his life. And yet, he also knew that in losing your life, you also gained new life.
In Galatians 2 Paul faces the question of what it means to be righteous. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?
Our reading for today begins with a story. Paul tells us that on one occasion, when both of them were in Antioch, Paul had to oppose Peter because of his hypocrisy. At a time when the church was trying to figure out how both Jew and Gentile could be part of the same church, eating habits became an issue. After all, Gentiles ate certain things that Jews didn’t. Now, Peter seems to have adopted certain Gentile eating habits, at least until some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. Then Peter pulled back. Now, Paul didn’t really care what Peter ate. The reason he spoke out against his fellow Apostle was that Peter was sending mixed signals to the church. The disciples in Antioch began to ask – so what should we eat?
As you can see, conflict isn’t a new thing facing the church. Whenever we go through change, conflict seems to arise. Of course, the church at large is facing a lot of change right now, and so there’s a good deal of conflict.
Now, our issue isn’t the kind of food we can eat. So what word does Paul have for us today?
Reading through Galatians 2 this past week, my focus went to verse 20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (CEB). What does it mean to be crucified with Christ? What does it mean for Christ to live in us?
You can find one clue by reading on into Galatians 3, where Paul writes that “as many of you who have been baptized have put on Christ.” By being baptized we begin to participate in the life of Jesus, and as Romans 6 reminds us – that includes his death. That is, “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 NRSV).
In that passage from Romans, Paul gives us a beautiful picture of what happens in baptism. As we’re buried in the waters of baptism, we die to the old self. And as we emerge from the water, we join Jesus in his resurrection, becoming in that time and place a new creation. From that moment on Jesus lives within us by the Spirit, and we live in Christ. Being a Christian isn’t like joining a political party or a club. It’s about being in relationship with Christ. Because the church is the body of Christ, we can encounter Jesus in and through the church. But, it’s good to remember that God is bigger than the church!
In asking what Christianity will look like after religion, Diana Butler Bass isn’t asking a new question. Theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich also asked the question. Barth wrote that religion was grasping after God. Religion was and is about controlling God. During his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer also began to envision a “religionless” Christianity. He looked forward to the day when the Christian faith was no longer held captive by culture, so that Christianity could re-embrace Jesus.
If religion is about control, then faith involves trust. Faith involves giving up that need to control God with our rules and regulations and even our doctrines. Religion can be solid and immovable, like Luther’s Mighty Fortress. But faith is different, because it recognizes its incompleteness and insufficiency. As Douglas John Hall puts it:
By definition, faith is a deficiency, a lack, a not seeing (1 Corinthians 13:12), a longing that is made even more poignant by the fact that it is – tentatively, expectantly – in touch with the Ultimate. (What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in Negative Theology, pg. 26).
In other words, faith is a journey that’s not completely mapped out!
Remember how Abraham left the security of his homeland and took up the life of a nomad. Staying home in Haran was the safe thing to do, but he put his trust in God and let God lead him to a new land.
As we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, we die to our need to control our destinies. As we let Christ live in us and through us, he enables us to go out on a journey of discovery so that we can find signs of God’s presence in unexpected places.
And as we take up our ministries in the world, including our work for social justice, Christ touches the world through us. When we advocate for regional transit, medicaid expansion, an end to gun violence, help for those facing foreclosure, or an end of human trafficking, we do so knowing that Christ lives in us and walks with us in this effort. Or, as we go into Detroit this week to serve with Motown Mission or Gospel in Action Detroit, we do so with Christ reaching out through us. When we serve each other in this congregation, especially when we welcome the stranger, we do so in Christ. And when our Elders and officers take up their duties, they do so with Christ living in them and through them.
Oh, and this fall, when I’m on Sabbatical, we get to take a journey in faith together with Christ. We may be doing different things, but we take this journey together with Christ living within us.
What does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean living our lives in Christ, with baptism as the seal of that promise? And, are you ready to set out on a journey into the future with Christ, not knowing where the journey will lead? The good news is that we’ve been made right with God, we’ve been reconciled with God, through the faithfulness of Jesus and not our ability to obey the rules and regulations.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 16, 2013