What does it mean to be a Christian?
Have you ever really thought about that question? How would you answer it? Perhaps you might say, “well, being a Christian means I go to church on Sunday.” Or perhaps something along the lines of, “being a Christian means I don’t lie, cheat or steal.” It’s an open ended question that could have many different answers. But how many of us would answer the question in terms of what we can or cannot do because of our Christianity? It seems natural enough. After all, we follow a teacher that had a lot to say about how we should live.
I think defining ourselves as what we are not is a natural human tendency, as lines and borders tend to clarify which groups we belong to. However, this clarification is relative to the groups that are not us. For example, I’ve recently been reading about the history of the restoration movement, and one thing I find fascinating about the background of one prominent restoration leader, Thomas Campbell, was the denomination he was a part of before he moved away from sectarianism. He was part of a particular brand of presbyterianism known as an old-light, anti-burger, seceder Presbyterian church. You don’t need to know what all these terms mean to see that this church was defining itself in relation to who they were not: New-light, burger, anti-seceders. This is an example from 200 years ago, but honestly I don’t think a lot has changed since then.
Even in a more general sense, I think we define Christianity in general in terms of what we are supposed to do and what we are against. We might say that being a Christian means we don’t do this or that. I’m a Christian, so I can’t go out and get drunk with my co-workers tonight. I’m a Christian, so I can’t sleep around. These guidelines that we live by are certainly part of our Christian walk, but when we define ourselves by what we are not or what we are against, we tend to view Christianity as a list of rules that we need to follow, which I believe can lead us to miss the bigger picture. Further, when we are defined by what we are against, we are in danger of forgetting what we actually stand for.
I was reading a book a couple of months ago that helped me crystalize this thought, not because of the conclusions the author came to, but rather for the introspective question that came as I was reading. The book is called Love Wins by Rob Bell, and his general thesis for the book is that in the end, in one way or another, everyone will be saved and no one will end up in hell. Now, before we go further, I need to stop here and make something clear. I am not endorsing the views of this book, nor do I agree with all of the author’s conclusions. However, the idea made me ask a question of myself that I think has the power to reveal deep insights as to our hearts and intentions as we follow Jesus.
So here’s the question: If I get to heaven and find out that God has decided to save everyone, would I be upset?
Would you? Again, let me emphasize that I do not believe scripture teaches this, and I don’t think that this is going to happen. But the hypothetical question has the power to reveal our heart.
Would you be upset? And if so, the truly powerful question is, why would you be upset? Now I think there are legitimate theological reasons why you might be upset, such as it would seem to negate the concept of justice and overlook the cry of the oppressed, or it would seem that we would have been deceived by scripture. These are two reasons that I take issue with Bell’s conclusions. Again, I do not agree with his conclusion.
However, if I’m being honest, I think one of the main reasons I might be upset if I find out that everyone is saved in the end regardless of how they acted in this life would be because I would feel gypped out of the “good” life. “You mean I followed all these rules when I didn’t have to? When it didn’t matter in the end?”
This may seem to be a normal response, perhaps one that would even be expected. But if this is how I feel, notice what this says about how I am defining Christianity. Implicitly, there is some part of me that frames the way of Jesus as a list of rules to follow to get to heaven. Further, this response tells me that in some sense, I view Christianity as a restriction and burden.
So, I’ll ask again in light of this thought, what does it mean to be a Christian?
With this thought and challenge from others, I decided that I needed to define my Christianity from a positive position rather than a negative. Not defined by what I’m not, or what I’m against, or what I disagree with. But rather, as a Christian, what do I stand for? What is my identity in Christ? What has Jesus done in my life? Where is He leading me and what is He shaping me to become.
To begin to answer this question from a positive standpoint, I want to spend a few minutes with you this morning unpacking three values that I think positively define Christianity: Love, Light and Life (because every good lesson needs three points, preferably with alliteration, right?). Though we will take each in turn, these three concepts cannot be understood in isolation, but they overlap and connect with one another in our walk with Christ.
1. Love: The fundamental truth.
If we are going to begin to understand the way of Jesus, I think we have to begin with divine love. I John tells us
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
(1 John 4:7-8)
God is love. I believe love to be a fundamental truth, if not the fundamental truth, to all existence. There is a lot to say about love, and here we only have time to scratch the surface. However, I believe that love gives us deep insights and knowledge to who God is, who we are and how we are designed to live. I’ll give you a couple quick examples:
Have you ever wondered why the concept of the Christian God is a trinity? God, three-in-one? While there are depths to the trinity that we will not understand in this life, love helps us begin to understand the mysteries of God. Can you love in isolation? Without an object of love, or someone to share love with, love is meaningless. This is where the trinity comes in. Though we know that God is one (Deut. 6:5), love cannot exist in isolation. And if it is true that God is love, as John writes, then it stands to reason that God must exist in multiple persons, for love has to have community. This is why our own community is so important. We cannot love one another, if we are isolated from one another. In the same way, how could God be love, if there is no community in which love can exist?
Or how about free will? I’ve heard critics of Christianity object to God giving us free will, knowing that we would use it to do evil. Some even claim that this makes God the author of evil. Others ask, “Why couldn’t God create a world without free will, a world in which suffering wouldn’t need to exist.” I believe love gives us insight into this discussion as well. Just as love cannot exist in isolation, love cannot exist between two parties without free will. You cannot program a robot to love you. You could program a robot to do many things that might give the appearance of love, but love cannot be forced, or it no longer is love. Thus, if we are to share in the love of God, we cannot exist apart from free will. God is not the author of evil because He gives us free will. God is the author of love, even though that does necessarily open the possibility of evil through human acts of free will.
I give these two examples not to fully explain the depth of the trinity nor to explore all the implications of free will; rather, I give these two examples to show how I believe Love to be a, if not the, fundamental truth. I hope the gravity of these huge, fundamental questions that humans have asked for thousands of years is not lost by our brevity here. My point is, the divine love is the beginning of the answer of many aspects of life and God.
But we cannot get lost in the cliche, or stop at the superficial idea of love. What is love? Or, better, how does God define love? John continues on his letter with these words:
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
(1 John 4:9)
Jesus is the embodiment of love, God become flesh, and its is through his life, teaching and example that we can truly understand the divine love. The concept of love has been hijacked in Western Culture, to the point where everyone wants to claim love as their own. When this happens, love is watered down to this vague, feel good word that means much less, sometimes even the opposite, of the love that Jesus embodied. It is a parody, a corruption of the love of God, which has been mixed with various other cultural values and understandings in our culture today.
The love that Jesus embodied is a sacrificial, selfless and serving love. It is the love that drives us to sacrifice time from our busy schedules to lift up and care for our brother or sister in need. It is the love that does not look to our own interests, but the interests of others. It is the love that seeks the true well being of those that we love.
It is the love that would drive the Son of God to give up the throne of glory, to become part of his own creation, to experience what we experience, even to be rejected by his own people, and subjected to death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). This is why he tells his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Friends, this is not the love that the world espouses, though they use the same language. Paul gives some insight into what the divine love looks like in a passage that has become very cliche. But when we truly examine it, the call of the love of Jesus is deeply challenging.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
(I Corinthians 13:1-4a)
Can you place your name in the place of love above? This is the love of God. This is what I mean when I say the first defining characteristic of Christianity is love. And Jesus says that this is how all people will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another (John 13:34-35). This is the challenge of the love of God, and again why our community in Christ is so important. Returning to I John once again, the author continues:
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
(1 John 4:11-12)
As christians, our love for one another tells the world who we are and leads them into light. Love leads us to light.
2. Light: The path to a better way.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
(1 John 1:5)
A second defining characteristic of Chrsitianity I submit to you is light. We live in a world of darkness, and I think deep down, we have an inherent sense of this darkness and where it leads. The world might distract itself from this reality for a while with fleeting pleasures and superficial gains, but the gravity of evil and darkness is always lurking just around the corner.
The world might glorify alcohol, forgetting the pain an alcoholic father brings to his family, or ignoring the life that was taken by the poor decisions of a driver influenced by this alcohol. The business culture might encourage dishonesty and backbiting to get ahead, but ignore the community and relationships this attitude destroys. And what I think is perhaps one of the most overlooked and misunderstood consequences of our embrace of the darkness is the natural conclusions of our almost diefication of sex in our society today. Our culture might pontificate on sexual freedom and liberation and joy that it brings, but then must ignore the destruction that it brings on families and relationships. They must deny the link between sexual freedom and human trafficking. Between sexual liberation and rape culture. Between pornography and the objectification and devaluation of women who are made in the image of God. There is a lot more to say on this point, which I do not have time to do here, but let me make the point emphatically. Sex is a good gift of God to be enjoyed in the context of marriage, a point that perhaps we as Christians do not always adequately teach. However, when we distort this precious gift and lift it out of its proper context, it becomes dysfunctional and deceptively leads to pain, suffering and darkness.
Our culture underestimates the power of darkness. This is understandable, as we all have walked in darkness, and without light, we cannot see another way. But there is good news. Isaiah cried:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Matthew tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy as Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum (Matt. 4:14-16). He himself tells us, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). He goes on to say, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” (John 12:46)
I think it is here where the paradigm shift from defining the way of Jesus from a negative standpoint to one of defining it from a positive standpoint is so vital. Jesus did not come to bring a list of arbitrary rules to test our obedience to him and thereby give us a ticket out of this world. Jesus came to shine light into darkness, to expose the darkness for what it is and to lead us out of it. This is the good news that Isaiah proclaimed that those dwelling in darkness have seen a great light! John tells us that in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,” and that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
This is what is often misunderstood by both Christians and non-christians alike. The way of Jesus is not about restrictions keeping us from the good life. Rather, the way of Jesus is the good life. It is a better way, a way that leads to a better life, that lights the path out of darkness and destruction. This also is where a great misunderstanding of hell comes in. Jesus did not come to send people to hell (John 3:17). Jesus came to pull us out of the path that we are already on that leads to hell, lighting the path to everlasting life. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, those dwelling in darkness. And my friends, that is every one of us. I believe this helps us understand what Jesus says in Matthew 11:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
How is the yoke of Jesus, with all its “restrictions and rules” (as some would say), easy, and his burden light? Do you feel like his burden is light? If not, I submit to you that you may be looking at Chrsitianity in the wrong light. Instead of viewing the teachings of Jesus as restrictions, we should see them for what they are: light.
Think about it. Is your life easier or harder when you choose to abstain from a night of drunkenness that will lead to poor decisions you will later regret? Would your life be made easier or harder if you choose not to gossip and get caught up in the drama that is going down in the workplace? Would your life be easier or harder if you remain sexually pure instead of allowing your indulgence in pornography to cloud your vision and idea of sex, creating tension and disappointment in either your marriage or future marriage?
James tells us that “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:14-16). Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. Darkness only leads to destruction and death. The way of Jesus is true light.
And as Christians, we walk in this light and shine this light to a world in darkness, beckoning them to come out of darkness. When you live in the light of Jesus, you don’t have to worry about who you’ve told which lies to. You don’t have to bear the burden of guilt and shame of a promiscuous life. You don’t have to deal with the fallout from an affair.
I’m not a Christian because I love arbitrary rules and restrictions. I’m a christian because I have seen the light that lights the path to a better way.
Brothers and sisters, for far to long have some have framed christianity as a list of rules to get to heaven. It is time we begin to see the way of Jesus as light that lights the path into true life.
3. Life: Fulfilling our true vocation.
Finally, if we are going to understand Christianity from a positive view, I think we must understand the way of Jesus as the way of true life, both here and now and life everlasting in the age to come. This theme, as with both love and light, is a prominent theme in John’s writings. One of my favorite passages on the life that Jesus brings comes from John 4, when Jesus is talking with the woman at the well. When she is taken aback after he asks her for a drink of water, He says:
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus is the source and giver of life, as he goes on to say a couple of chapters later, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” and, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:33, 35) But again, we must ask, what is the life that Jesus gives us?
I love that these two passages about Jesus as our life are tied to food and drink. Jesus is our sustenance. Something about the life that he gives is akin to the way food and drink gives. When we walk the way of Jesus, we are filled, satisfied, made whole.
One way I view the life that Jesus brings is in terms of vocation, that is, our status and role in which we are designed to participate. The life that Jesus brings us satisfies us because we are filled with our true purpose and calling, our true identity.
This can be a difficult concept to explain, so perhaps an illustration will help us here. At the risk of losing all credibility by drawing an illustration from a current movie, recently Jessie and I saw Frozen II. Throughout the movie, Elsa, one of the main characters, struggles with her identity, fighting against who she is supposed to be. There is a scene towards the end of the movie that my wife loves when everything is resolved in which Elsa finally finds out and embraces who she is made to be. As she is riding back home, she breaths this deep sigh of relief and satisfaction. She has found her purpose and identity, and in them she has found freedom.
Have you ever had a moment like that, whether it be from you job, or in a group of friends, or in a hobby that you truly enjoy, where feel a sense of purpose and identity? Where you feel that you are truly living as you are meant to be? This is akin to what I believe the life that Jesus came to bring means. The difference is, those feelings are only shadows that soon fade. I believe this is because they are not our true vocation. Our true purpose and identity is only found in Jesus. It is from him that we will live in everlasting satisfaction and peace.
We have all been made in the image of God, designed to reflect his glory to all creation, to walk with him in his kingdom. This is the purpose of humanity given in the opening chapters of scripture, to bear his image and fill the earth. And this is the end that we are headed to, as John hears those beautiful words from the throne in the New Jerusalem at the end of his revelation, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)
But Jesus did not come only that we can have that life someday, but rather, he came to bring that life to us now. In John 10 he says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This goes hand in hand with the concept of light and again calls us to a different paradigm than we sometimes have of Christianity. The way of Jesus is life, abundant life, true life. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)
When we are not living according to the way we were made to exist, it is akin to mud and dirt getting caught up in gears, causing them to clog up. We are not properly functioning. This is when we are walking in darkness. And deep down, I believe we know that something isn’t right. We have lost our direction, our purpose, our meaning. We can feel the gears slipping. Jesus came to bring us life, to set us once again in our true vocation, so that we can function in the way we were made to be. And in the end, when we finally attain to our everlasting life in the age to come, we will forever be satisfied by embracing our true identity in Christ. “Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (I Cor. 15:45) Only in Jesus do we have this hope of life everlasting, as he says to Martha just before he raises Lazarus from the dead:
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…”
And again, we look forward to the vision of new heavens and new earth that John is shown in Revelation 21, where the one sitting on the throne in the New Jerusalem cries out:
“It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”
If you were to ask me what it means to be a Christian, I think this is how I would begin to answer that question. The way of Christ is defined by love, light and life.
So, going back to my original question. If God decided to save everyone, would you feel as though you had been gypped out of the good life?
I hope these frail words have made you reconsider if that is the case. The way of Christ is so much more than a set of rules. It’s more than a ticket into heaven. It is the good life. It is participation in the Divine love, being led by the light into true, abundant life, life everlasting. And that is a life that Jesus can give you now, not just in the life to come.
Jesus did not come to bring shackles.
Jesus came to set us free.
Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Jesus way is the better life.
If you are here this morning and are not a Christian, we implore you now to come and embrace the call to the love, light and life that Jesus offers.
On a personal note, I can truly say that I have walked in darkness. I have made poor decisions. I have hurt people. I have sinned time and again, to the point that I can truly identify with Paul crying out “O, wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Take a second to look inside, ask yourself if you know these things to be true. If you know that you have been walking in darkness, as all of us have. If you know that something doesn’t seem right, if the gears have been slipping. If you have hurt and been hurt, and know that those things don’t just go away with time.
Are you ready to step into the light?
“O, wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We have good news. The answer to that question is Jesus the Christ.
The one who is love, who became one of us to bring light into this world, and who gave his life as a sacrifice, rising again to being us life everlasting. The one who triumphed over sin and who has defeated death calls out to you now. Will you come and be immersed into his life, death and resurrection? Will you answer the call to the life you are designed to enjoy?
The love of God, and the God of love, calls out to you.