What Does it Mean to be a Christian?
When I was in my early teens I remember having a conversation with a friend at school about the Christian faith; I had recently given my life to Christ and was very enthusiastic about sharing my faith with other people. I remember at one point in the conversation asking this friend of mine, “Are you a Christian?” He replied with some indignation, “Well, I’m not a Buddhist, am I?!” Notice the assumption in that reply – a Christian is someone who is not ‘something else’! I think most of us here would recognise that there must be more to it than that!
So I want to think with you this morning about what it actually means to be a Christian? Are you a Christian because you’ve been born in a so-called ‘Christian country’? Are you a Christian because you’ve been baptised as a baby, even if you’ve never given it a moment’s thought since then? Are you a Christian because you believe in God and live a good life? What exactly is a Christian, anyway?
Our first reading from the Bible this morning comes from a letter written by the apostle Peter towards the end of his life, probably sometime between 60 and 70 AD, to a scattered group of Christians living in what is now northern Turkey. I want to focus with you this morning on one sentence from our reading, in 1 Peter 3:15, which you can find on page 234 in the New Testament, where Peter writes:
‘Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’.
What I want you to notice in these verses is that Christians are people who have a primary loyalty, or allegiance, to Christ as Lord. In other words, Christianity is not just about some sort of vague ‘belief in God’. The vast majority of Canadians say that they ‘believe in God’, but many of them don’t have a very clear idea of what the God they say they believe in is like. And in Peter’s day, too, belief in God, or gods, was not the issue. Few - if any - in the ancient world would have identified themselves as what we would now call atheists. The issue was not, ‘Do you believe in God?’ but rather, ‘What is your god like?’ And we Christians would reply, ‘We believe that God is like Jesus’. So if you are thinking of becoming a Christian, the primary issue is, ‘What is my attitude to Jesus?’
In that respect, this word ‘Lord’, is an interesting one. When used as a title, as Peter is using it here, it would have carried two connotations to the people Peter was writing to – one political, and one religious.
To start with the political connotation, the Greek word ‘kyrios’, which our English Bibles translate as ‘Lord’, was one of the official titles of the Roman emperor. To put it bluntly, the job of ‘Lord of all’ was already taken in the Roman world, and not by some Galilean carpenter from the edge of the empire, either, but by the son of a god, the Caesar, the emperor, the ruler of the known world, the one who had absolute power of life and death and could enforce his will with all the power of the legendary Roman legions. This was what the word ‘kyrios’ meant to the people in Peter’s world, and so it would have seemed to many of them to be a very audacious and unlikely claim to say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ – which was the basic early Christian confession of faith.
So the phrase ‘Christ is Lord’ had a political meaning, and to acknowledge Christ as Lord was an act of political allegiance. Put simply, there can only be one ultimate ‘Lord of all’; if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not – and neither is the Queen, or Stephen Harper, or Barack Obama, or any of the other political leaders in the world today – not to mention the faceless kings of the multinational corporations who actually exercise such huge power over the daily lives of millions of people on earth. All of them, in the last analysis, are answerable to God’s anointed King, Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. And that, by the way, is good news, because it means that the last word is not going to go to merciless tyrants or self-serving plutocrats, but to the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
So that’s the political connotation. But to Jewish people in particular, this title ‘Lord’ or ‘kyrios’ had a religious connotation as well. Let me explain.
In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God does actually give himself a name: he says that his name is ‘I am what I am’, or ‘I will be what I will be’: the Hebrew word is ‘Yahweh’, which in days gone by was traditionally but erroneously read as ‘Jehovah’. ‘This is my name forever’, God says to Moses, ‘the name that you shall call me from generation to generation’ (Exodus 3:15).
But in fact the people didn’t call God by that name from generation to generation; by the time of Jesus it was felt that it was somehow disrespectful to the majesty of God to actually speak his name. And so the word ‘Adonai’ – the Hebrew word for ‘Lord’ – was regularly substituted for the name of God, as it is in fact in our English Old Testaments today. When you read the Old Testament, every now and again you’ll see the word ‘LORD’ written entirely in capital letters, and what that means is that the original says ‘Yahweh’, the name of God. This practice goes right back to the first translation of the Bible ever made, the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament that was made in the century before Jesus. In the Septuagint, when the translators found the Hebrew name ‘Yahweh’ they usually substituted the Greek word for ‘Lord’ – ‘Kyrios’.
So if you were a Greek-speaking Jew in the first century, familiar with the Greek Bible, and you heard Peter say ‘In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’, you would not have heard only a political meaning – ‘Christ is the supreme ruler, the real emperor’, but also a religious meaning – ‘Christ is God’. And this is a stupendous claim. Remember, these were Jewish people making this claim – people who believed without question that there are not many gods, but only one God, Yahweh, who created everything that exists. And yet these same Jewish people had encountered something so powerful, so compelling, in Jesus of Nazareth, that the only language they could use about him that felt adequate was God-language.
You’ve probably heard the story of the little girl who was drawing a picture of God in Sunday School. When she told her teacher what she was doing, the teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like?” The little girl replied, “They will when I’m done!” And the central Christian claim is that, now that Jesus of Nazareth has lived and died as one of us, we know what God is like.
Now it is possible that there might be someone here in church this morning who would say, ‘You know, I’m not really a Christian – not yet, anyway. I’m not hostile, in fact I’m quite interested, but I’m not there yet. Can you tell me what the real issues are, the things I need to think through?’ And I want to make it plain that this is the big issue: who is Jesus? True biblical Christianity can never be satisfied with just giving Jesus polite deference, or respect as a great religious leader. The claim of the New Testament is not that he is a ‘great religious leader’, but that he is ‘God with us’. We may have a great deal of difficulty swallowing that idea – fair enough – but let’s be under no illusion that the truth or falsehood of that claim really is the central issue.
Let me also say very clearly that our response to this claim can never be purely intellectual or theoretical. Whatever else it may mean, surely the word ‘Lord’ means ‘one who has authority, the right to command and to expect to be obeyed’. Jesus was quite clear about claiming that sort of authority; in Matthew 28 he says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (v.18), and in today’s Gospel reading we heard him say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So to acknowledge that Christ is Lord surely involves a commitment to obeying his teaching and putting his example into practice in our daily lives.
Why is Jesus asserting this claim over us? Is he just another one of those power-hungry tyrants who get their kicks out of forcing people to obey them on pain of death? Not at all. What kind of power-hungry tyrant washes the feet of his disciples? Or allows himself to be crucified and responds, not with revenge, but with a prayer that his enemies will be forgiven?
In his earthly life Jesus’ disciples often called him ‘Master’. What do we mean nowadays when we call someone a ‘master carpenter’, or talk about someone leading a ‘master class’? We mean that this person has mastered a particular trade or skill, and so can teach others that same skill or trade in an accurate and reliable way. And so we Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth has mastered the art of living as God intended it. He demonstrated for us a life of loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. His example and his teaching are a thoroughly accurate and reliable guide for us in the art of living as God intended.
What we are discovering this morning is that to become a Christian has both an intellectual and a practical side. Intellectually, it means that we acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is not just a first century Jewish rabbi, but is in fact the Lord of all, God come among us as one of us, to reveal God to us and show us the way back to God. And if we believe this to be true, there is a practical implication: to become a Christian is to commit yourself to a life of learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice.
What difference does this make in our daily lives? Well, Jesus has made this very clear to us in the gospels. It means making the will of God our number one priority, above wealth or success or popularity or any other false god that rises up to claim our allegiance. It means turning away from anger and hatred, and taking the way of love for God and love for others. It means forgiving those who sin against us, just as God has forgiven us. It means caring for the poor and needy. It means not piling up luxuries while the majority of the world lives in poverty, but living a simple life with few possessions so that we can focus our lives on God and others. It means keeping our marriage vows and turning away from the temptations of adultery and sexual immorality. It means being real and honest before God and others, not pretending to be something that we’re not in the effort to impress others.
Not that we can promise perfect obedience; of course not! That’s why the word ‘disciple’ is so important; a disciple is a learner. To become a Christian is to enrol in the school of Jesus, in which every day is given over to learning the way of life Jesus is teaching us – and learning it in the context of our ordinary daily lives, in our homes or at work, in our families and amongst strangers. We’re never going to get it completely right, but we go on learning day by day with the help of God’s Holy Spirit who lives in us and gives us God’s strength for daily living.
Above all, it means living in grace and practising grace. ‘Grace’ is a Bible word that means ‘love that you don’t have to earn’. It’s not about feelings but actions; it’s about choosing to live your life in such a way that you are a blessing to other people, whether you like them or not, whether they respond or not. This is how God acts toward us: he has poured out his forgiveness and love on us in Jesus, despite all our sins and failings. Now he calls us to practice that same grace in our relationships with others; ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, we’re told to pray, ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’.
Let me close with a story Marci and I read this past week in Brian Zahnd’s great book Unconditional.
During the Armenian genocide of 1915-1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottomon Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. During this time there was a Turkish army officer who led a raid on the home of an Armenian family. The parents were killed and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soldiers. The officer kept the oldest daughter for himself. Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of a lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave – exceptional care. As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead”.
The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Have we met”? “Yes”, she replied. After a long silence the officer asked, “Why don’t you kill me?” The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies’”.
This is what it means to be a Christian. Peter says, ‘In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’. The central Christian belief is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all – not just a great religious leader, but God come among us as one of us, the one to whom all authority on earth and in heaven has been given. To become a Christian is to give him our allegiance – to commit ourselves to him as our Lord – and then to ask his strength each day to put that belief into practice in our daily lives. And we do this, not out of fear, but out of love and gratitude, knowing that his love reaches out to us without thought as to whether or not we deserve it, and that we are called to follow him in extending that same unconditional love to our families, our friends, our neighbours, and even our enemies. That’s what it means to be a Christian.