Sunday, July 9, 2006

Sermon for July 9, 2006

Lovers or Liars?
1 John 4:11-21

An interesting lawsuit was been brought before the courts in New Mexico this past Summer. The family of Ben Martinez, who recently died at the age of 80, is suing Fr. Scott Mansfield and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The lawsuit claims that during the funeral for Mr. Martinez, Fr. Mansfield called him a been a lukewarm Catholic who had been living in sin and going to hell. Clearly, loudly and without hesitation, the priest allegedly said that the Lord vomited people like Ben out of his mouth to hell. The lawsuit also says Mansfield, while walking to the gravesite after the funeral, swore and said that he didn't care what the people of the town thought, that he had put the Martinez family in their place. The claim lists psychological pain, physical afflictions, anxiety, depression and humiliation allegedly suffered by Martinez’s family in the months after the funeral.

Although the case raises issues about freedom of religion and freedom of speech, I think there is a bigger question at stake in the Martinez case. It seems the family and the priest are at odds over the definition of a Christian. I’ve had people tell me that I’m not a good Christian. So let’s all ask ourselves this question today. What is a Christian?

Is a Christian the same as a churchgoer? Is a Christian someone who is a good person with strong moral fiber? Is a Christian someone who believes and confesses the right creeds, or a person who believes all of the correct things? Is a Christian someone who acts just like you do? Is a Christian a conservative Republican or a passionate liberal? Sometimes we hear that a real Christian is someone who makes a decision to accept Jesus – someone who is filled with joy and never has one’s faith shaken. Others say a real Christian is faithful to one’s denomination, as if Congregationalists are the only people who are not hell bound. What IS a Christian?

Go to an Internet search engine, type in the words “true Christian”, and check out all the results. You won’t believe how many kooks are out there claiming to have the exact formula to test whether or not you are a real Christian. One site claims that a true Christian:
Does NOT worship on Sunday
Does NOT believe the doctrine of the Trinity
Is certain that he does NOT have an immortal soul
Is aware that Christmas is not Christ’s birthday and Easter is the ancient fertility goddess
Knows he will NOT ascend to heaven upon his death and most of all
Believes Christ will return soon as the King of Kings.
Another site that is more traditional claims that a true Christian will:
Desire to obey God and study the Bible. Real Christians will increasingly understand the Bible, admit they sin, sin less and less, love others, not love the world and have the fruits of the Spirit
The Athiest Foundation of Australia has a test to be able to spot a true Christian. They say that a true Christian is one who literally follows the words of Christ. So, true Christians will be able to:
Handle snakes, drink poison, and walk over scorpions. They must hate their families and also be hated by their families.True Christians Are Perfect. They can move mountains, and wither figs.
The site goes on to say
There are many different types of Christians, many sects and denominations. In their pride and arrogance they all claim to be true believers. But it is important to make sure that we have the real thing because Jesus said that there would be many fakers.
In [many Bible passages] Jesus tells us about false prophets, false Christians. When dealing with Christians ask them if they are 'true' Christians. If the answer is 'yes' then chuck them a [poisenous snake] and stick a few scorpions in their shoes
What these sites all have in common is that Christianity is defined by following a certain set of rules. First they pick and choose Scripture passages that they think are the most important. Once you fulfill a long list of unreasonable requirements, and you can know that you are (or someone else is) a Christian.

You might be surprised to find out that the word “Christian” appears only three times in the NT. And all references indicate that the word “Christian” was a term of ridicule, a slur placed upon Christ’s followers by their critics. For example:
We find the term in Acts 17:28 on the lips of King Agrippa, an unbelieving magistrate who asks Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?
It is also found in 1 Peter 4:16: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear the name.” Peter indicates that early believers in Christ suffered a great deal of persecution as Christians. In fact, for Peter, being a Christian and suffering are always linked together.
The third text that uses the word Christian appears in Acts 11:27 where we read that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Notice how the disciples don’t get a choice in the matter. They were called Christians by others–it was a term applied to them.

So, we learn that a Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, one who clings to the gospel. But, a Christian is one who is prepared to suffer for the sake of Christ, if necessary.

Let me say right here, this all makes me very uncomfortable – for two reasons:
1. I don’t like to suffer.
2. Suffering has nothing to do with the definition of a Christian that I was raised with. I was taught that a Christian is a person who tries his best to follow Jesus -- a good person who goes to church, and fellowships with other Christians.

But the use of the word “Christian” in the NT doesn’t say anything about doing things, nor does it mention being good. No, being Christian has to do with following the unpopular path of suffering and humiliation, all the while professing Jesus Christ as Lord of your life. I gotta’ tell you, this definition is not going to win friends. Church growth experts do not tell us that suffering and sacrifice bring in masses of new church members. We are told to build churches, add programs, use upbeat music, and provide off-street parking. But early Christians didn’t do any of that stuff, nor did they define their identity by it. They identified with the suffering Christ. Associating with Christians meant you were voluntarily allowing yourself to be a target of ridicule and persecution.

Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone willingly align him or herself with a message of meekness, and suffering? We can sum it up in one word: LOVE.

A Christian is defined by love. A Christian is a person who is in touch with the love of God, freely given to us through Christ. In his letters, John reminds us that God is already made known to us. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.” John goes on. “This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us . . .” (4:7-10). It’s not what you do or say or believe that makes God love you. God just loves you. God has singled you out for grace. God revals God’s self as the God for others – God the loving Giver.

But love like this calls for action. Such complete love calls us to align ourselves with God’s way of doing things. God, the loving Giver, asks us to love in return. I think this is the bare essence of being Christian. A Christian loves because he or she knows the love of God. John is not talking about love as an ideal , either. A real Christian puts love in action. It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God,’ and then throw your garbage in your neighbor’s lawn. John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don't love your neighbor. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see, whom you touch, with whom you live? It is also important for us to realize that true love hurts. This is where the suffering part comes in. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. It requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me if I bring injustice, instead of peace, to those around me.

A man was about to commit suicide by jumping from a high bridge, when a second man ran up to him shouting, ““Stop! Stop! Don’t do it!”
“But I have nothing to live for,” said the first man.
“Maybe I can help you,” said the second man. “Are you religious?”
“Yes, I am,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you a Christian, Jewish, or Muslem?”
“I’m Christian,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
“I’m a Protestant,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Charismatic, Reformed, or Baptist?”
“Reformed,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Presbyterian, or Congregationalist?”
“Congregationalist” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man excitedly. “UCC, 3-C, 4-C, or Independent”
“UCC” said the first man.
“UCC Then die, infidel heretic!”” And the second man pushed the first man off the bridge.

To categorize and stereotype each other is to hurt each other. When we spend our energy looking for what makes us different, instead of recognizing that God loves us all, we ignore God’s command to love each other as we have been loved by God. I find it interesting that the early church did not call one another “Christians”. They called one another brother and sister. A real Christian is not only a follower of Christ, but a spiritual brother or sister to others. A real Christian is one who strives to be like Jesus and embraces the Jesus in others. A real Christian is one who loves Jesus and also loves the Jesus in others – even if the person is different – even if the other person disgusts us, or hates us – even if the other person is an enemy. A real Christian is a loving-Giver, just as God has lovingly given to us. If we say we love God, and don’t love others, we are liars. Are you a lover or a liar?

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