What is a Christian, anyway?

Donald trump says he is, the Pope says he isn’t, so who is right, who gets to decide, and what is a Christian anyway?

One of my friends has recently moved to the US and it’s interesting hearing his reflections on the battle for religious labels within the US presidential election. Whether a candidate counts as a Christian is a huge deal politically – something hard to imagine from the relative secularity of the Australian political scene.

  • Trump himself claims to be a strong Christian, possibly a Presbyterian, who loves the Bible – in fact he collects Bibles! He attends church on special occasions. He suspects the tax auditors targeted him recently because of his strong Christian beliefs.
  • That said, he openly admits that he has never asked God for forgiveness for anything – presumably he reckons he’s never needed to.

So what do you make of this candidate?

  • Some church leaders have came out in support of Trump. One I read said that Trump must be a Christian – his job creation policies are just so … spiritual.
  • The Pope, however, came to the opposite conclusion: “A person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Now you may well be thinking: why is it even our right to judge the sincerity of someone else’s faith. And I think that’s fair enough – Jesus makes clear in Matthew 7 that he is the one on judgment day who will decide who are truly his followers, and who will hear the chilling words “I never knew you, get away from me”. So I’m going to stick clear of this debate, and leave Trump to Jesus.

But the whole debate does raise an important question for all of us – what is a Christian, anyway? And how do you know if you are really are one?

I did some thinking about this when I preached recently on John 1:35-51, in which we hear about five of the first people who decided to follow Jesus. Here are three things I learned from their experience about what it means to be a Christian.

1. A Christian is someone who understands who Jesus is.

I’ve often puzzled over Philip. He is one of the first people to meet Jesus, and it changes his life forever:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 1:43)

And he does. Philip meets Jesus and he becomes a follower – apparently immediately (we’re not told whether this was all that was said, or if Philip had more information to go on).

What was it about Jesus that leads ordinary sensible people, sane people, people with good jobs, to just drop everything and follow him? Philip gives us a clue when he tells his mate Nathanael what’s just happened:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law,  and about whom the prophets also wrote —Jesus of Nazareth,  the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)

Philip is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures (which Christians call the Old Testament), which look forward to a day when God will intervene in human history to send his Messiah, his own king to earth.

A different disciple, Andrew, gives us a similar clue. Whenever you find out about something important and life changing you tell your friends and family (that’s how I found out about Jesus. And Netflix. Though they’re obviously different levels of important and life changing.) So naturally when Andrew meets Jesus he races to tell his brother Simon about it:

The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).  (John 1:41)

The Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Greek) means anointed one: God’s chosen king of the world, sent to save his people. Ever wondered what God is doing about this world? If he is so loving and powerful why doesn’t he step in? The Old Testament is full of people asking the same question, waiting for God to do what he promised and put the world back the right way up again.

Christians are those who understand that Jesus is God stepping in – he is the same long awaited person talked about in the Old Testament. God’s king. This is why Christians sometimes say that Jesus is Lord – meaning he has the highest authority as God’s King.

2. A Christian is someone who understands (and loves!) what Jesus came to do for them

The next clue comes from Andrew and his unnamed companion. These two are with their Rabbi, John the Baptist (who is often considered the final prophet before Jesus came).  John the Baptist saw his main job in life as to point out the greater one who would follow him:

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.  When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. (John 1:35-37)

Andrew and his friend realise that Jesus is the Lamb of God – which they probably took to mean that Jesus will offer his own body up as a kind of a sacrifice to make good for their sins. A Christian is someone who not only understands this, but loves it. Let me explain why.

Let’s assume for a moment that God is real. If you want nothing to do with God, then the worst possible thing that could happen to you is he might give you exactly what you ask for. God is the author of life, we breathe his air, and he holds space together in three dimensions. Independence from him will be short and tragic.

And yet that’s exactly the position we’ve put ourselves in by our choices. The story of humanity is one of God’s creatures continually disrespecting and rejecting their own creator. Sometimes we do that by outright disobeying his commands, but not always – actually one of the worst ways to disrespect someone is to completely ignore them, which we often do that to God. The worst thing that could possible happen to all of us would be for God to give us the separation we’ve asked for, and the punishment we deserve.

But thankfully God decided to give us much better than we deserve, at great cost to himself. This is why Christians sometimes say that Jesus is not only Lord, but Saviour.

To be a Christian is to understand what Jesus has done for us as saviour – not least that he came to earth, giving up all his rights, to save us from the consequences of our own decisions. (Actually, after my sermon on this passage a friend of mine pointed out that “understand” here is probably too intellectual a word for what we’re talking about. Perhaps I should say that it is to be blown away by his grace, grateful for who he is and all he’s done. To love him for who he is and what he’s done. Anyway, you get the picture.)

If you declare  with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”  and believe  in your heart that God raised him from the dead,  you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.  As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”    For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile —the same Lord is Lord of all  and richly blesses all who call on him,  for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord  will be saved.”  (Romans 10:9-13)

3. To understand Jesus is to follow Jesus (and to follow Jesus is to understand Jesus).

A few weeks ago I met with a group of university students to pray. We were in one of the common rooms on campus, and everything went as normal, until shortly before 9am, right before I was picking up my bag to leave.

A voice came over the intercom. It said, simply: “the pool is now closed”.

And then everyone started acting strangely. Someone switched off the lights, someone else closed the doors. I was confused. What is going on in this place – why is the pool closed so early, and why is everyone acting as if the closing of this pool is Armageddon? Are they particularly obsessive swimmers? Is it closed because the toddler swimming class has had an accident releasing apocalyptic quantities of biohazardous waste?

And hang on, does this place even have a pool?

Someone explained. I had failed to understand – the announcement had nothing to do with whether I could have a dip in the pool. There is, as I suspected, no pool, in that particular building. This announcement was actually the standard code for a lockdown (something all schools and public institutions have to have procedures for), and it meant that an armed madman was roaming the university. Now, this was a drill (at least I assume it was!) but the purpose of the drill was deadly serious: to ensure that (God forbid) if there ever is a real emergency, we will all understand that there is imminent danger. And if we understand then we act accordingly.

The final thing I think we can learn from the first followers of Jesus is that understanding and following go together.

To understand Jesus is to understand that whatever else you are doing can wait – Andrew understands it, Simon understands it, Philip understands it – and we know they’ve understood because of what they do next. Whatever it is that they risk losing – their work, their priorities, their plans for the day, even their allegiance to their Rabbi, their family responsibilities, their identity – none of it matters once they’ve understood.

Following then, means all sorts of things which are part of the Christian life. I won’t go into all of them here, but the important thing is to realise that all of them – repentance, obedience, baptism, joining the church community, etc – are things that result from the decision to walk in the way that Jesus taught.

In summary, then, being a Christian is about understanding, and understanding means following. You are a Christian if you understand who Jesus is and what he came to do, and understanding this means following him.

(“Hang on,” you might say, “isn’t this dangerously close to salvation by works? Isn’t the whole point that we need a saviour because we have found it beyond us to please God by our own shoddy character?” Yes, this is true. To think our obedience saves us is to confuse correlation with causation. Forgiveness is a gift; it is not deserved or earned or paid back. But, because you understand what Jesus has done for you, you will follow him.)

What it’s not about

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something about being a follower of Christ and wrote about it in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship (which I heartily recommend, though it’s deeply challenging).

Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian. (But before you form your picture of a theologian in your mind… you should know he was also part of the underground confessing church in Hitler’s Germany, who turned down the opportunity to escape from Germany because he felt God’s call to serve there. Oh, and he was part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. Ultimately Bonhoeffer was caught, sent to a concentration camp, and executed days before the allies liberated his camp. So think part time theologian, part time spiritual ninja.) And he was passionate about people understanding what it means to be a Christian. He lived in time when people thought it was enough to belong – to be baptised members of the German church. He realised that according to the Bible, this is not at all what being a Christian is about.

  • Being a Christian is not a feature of your cultural background. It’s not something you’re born with, like being Irish, or having red hair. Nor is it a way of defining your identity against other people – I’m a Christian so I’m not a Hindu or a Muslim, not queer or a Marxist.
  • Being Christian is not about subscribing to Christian values, or voting in a conservative way, or holding to respectable middle class values like family, hard work, or the free market economy.
  • Being a Christian is not even about being religious, if by “religious” we mean performing certain practices or being good, moral, honest … or whatever we think we need to do to be accepted by God.

When Jesus called a disciple, Bonhoeffer points out, one thing is required in each case – to trust Christ and who he is and what he says, and cling to that as offering better security than whatever else we cling to for security. Than any of the other securities in this world.

  • For Andrew, understanding who Jesus is means realising that following his previous Rabbi is no longer an option.
  • For Simon Peter, understanding what Jesus is here to do means realising that what he offers is more important, more urgent than staying with his nets and putting in a solid day’s work.
  • For us, to understand Jesus is to trust that a future with him is more secure, and more valuable an investment, than even the Sydney housing market.

Understanding Jesus means following Jesus, despite the costs, because what he offers is more secure than the plans we’re currently putting our hope in.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy  he has given us new birth  into a living hope  through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  and into an inheritance  that can never perish, spoil or fade.  This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,  who through faith are shielded by God’s power  until the coming of the salvation  that is ready to be revealed  in the last time.  In all this you greatly rejoice,  though now for a little while  you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:3-6)

Not ready? Come and see

Not everyone who met Jesus was ready to follow him. At least, not straight away.

There is one person we haven’t yet spoken about from the passage. Remember Philip? Well, he has a friend called Nathanael, and so Philip tells Nathanael about this man called Jesus that he has found:

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael  and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law,  and about whom the prophets also wrote —Jesus of Nazareth,  the son of Joseph.” (John 1:44-45)

But Nathanael is sceptical.

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  Nathanael asked. (John 1:46)

I’ll let you decide what modern-day town is the equivalent of Nazareth is in this context. You get the point – the Lord of the Universe has arrived, and he’s from … Nazareth??? That’s nowhere! Within Nathanael’s experience, this claim seems unlikely. But Philip’s invitation in response is simple

“Come and see,” said Philip.

Many of the people at my church are sceptics like Nathanael. They come because they’re looking for something, trying to find answers, or perhaps because a friend like Philip brought them along and against their better judgment they agreed. I love that they come to church – church is the right place for sceptics.

If this is you, then my invitation for you is the same as Philip’s – come and see. Come and find out more about Jesus. What did he actually say, and do? Can we trust the documents that make up the New Testament? What can we make of his claims to be the only way to know God? Come and see for yourself.