Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world. God did not send him to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him. People who believe in God’s Son are not judged guilty. But people who do not believe are already judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. They are judged by this fact: The light has come into the world. But they did not want light. They wanted darkness, because they were doing evil things. Everyone who does evil hates the light. They will not come to the light, because the light will show all the bad things they have done. But anyone who follows the true way comes to the light. Then the light will show that whatever they have done was done through God. John 3:16-21, ERV"Are you a Christian?”
Mainline Protestants, especially many who tend to go to churches like ours have a hard time answering that question without some theological gymnastics. It's not as easy a question as it may sound. What is a Christian? What criteria do we use to decide who is or isn't one, and who does the deciding?
There is one version of the story out there that says real Christians see Jesus' death on the cross as a transaction by means of which Jesus paid for the sins of believers and won them eternal life. Using verses like the passage I just read from John’s Gospel, some believers say eternal life is a heavenly reward after death for "true Christians"—the "Elect," the "saved"— sinners who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow all the correct beliefs of their church. The first type of Christian claims God loves only those who are “saved,” and that they alone are truly God’s children. Their version of Christian ethics warns that individuals should be wary of trusting their own minds and emotions, for these can be manipulated by Satan. Questions and doubts are to be resisted as the work of the Devil. All Truth is found in the Bible and known for sure by believers who have received correct interpretation from the Holy Spirit. They say true Christians read the Bible literally and consider it an accurate and flawless account of God’s will for humankind.
In America, when people talk about Christians, this version of the story gets the most coverage. The word Christian is often used by the media in a narrow way to include only this type of Christian, excluding pretty much everybody else. The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Protestants and ultra-traditional Catholics has given the word Christian an unpleasant flavor for many Americans — Christians included.
Other people tell another version of the Christian story. This second version figures far less often in the mainstream media than do the legalists. Sometimes they seem virtually invisible. They worship a God of love and they envision the church, at its best, as a Church that changes the world by demonstrating God’s love in active ways. They tend to belong to churches like the United Church of Christ or the Presbyterian Church USA; American Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Some belong to groups like the Quakers or Unitarian Universalist. Some are voices within traditional groups like Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists.
These Christians see the work of Christ as a powerful and mysterious symbol of God's infinite love for suffering humankind and as the natural culmination of Jesus' self-giving love. They think that God loves all human beings and that all people belong to God, no matter what they believe or what religion they follow. Their version of Christian ethics teaches that the mind is a gift of God and that God wants us to think for ourselves, to follow our consciences, to ask questions, and to listen for the Spirit’s still, small voice. They see truth as something known wholly by God. Religious creeds and belief statements can only attempt to point the way. So, they insist that the Bible must be read critically, intelligently, and with an understanding of historical and cultural contexts.
The second type of Christians think Jesus wasn’t interested in making a one’s personal faith the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. Faith isn’t about following what someone tells us to believe. Belief has nothing to do with being scared that if we don’t say the right words, or show up at the right church, or live certain lifestyles, God will punish us. No, they nurture faith that can tolerate doubt. Faith that can grow and change. Take our tradition, for instance. Congregationalists believe there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies of faith, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on Scripture and personal experience. Our faith is informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. The United Church of Christ thinks we must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, affirmed:
“the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”Faith calls each new generation to listen to God and follow God’s breath. This means we need to be willing to let go of the tethers that can keep us from being pliable, versatile people of faith.
So, are you a Christian?
To some, this second version of Christian faith is threatening. By and large, the first type of Christian thinks the second type of Christian is not a real Christians at all — or at least a fallen Christian. They will use John’s Gospel as an absolute litmus test to prove their point. The second type are seen as those who reject the light and live in darkness.
There is another difference in the two types of Christians. It has to do with how they view the secular world. The first type of Christians have become steadily angrier to what they see as spreading secularism. They think that secular humanism is winning adherents by the millions and posing a serious and snowballing threat to Christian faith and democratic freedoms. They think secularism has warped Christianity into a parody that has little or nothing to do with love and fosters suspicion and conspiracy theories. In essence, they think secularism has stolen Jesus. The culture at large has yoked the name of Jesus and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.
Consider this example for the magazine Christianity Today, a representative for the first type of Christianity. The article opens with a picture of Richard Dawkins, the poster child for everything that is wrong and threatening about a world that works intentionally and actively to destroy Christian Faith. The author says,
“Christians need . . . to recognise the new secularism for what it is – an attempt to undermine and destroy Christianity. We need to stand against its fundamentalism and we need to stand up for the poor, the young, the disabled and the marginalised (who most need the Good News), by proclaiming the gospel of Christ against the elitism and intolerance of our new fundamentalist atheists. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail!”It’s his way of saying, “They think we are the fundamentalists. Well, the secularists are the real fundamentalists. They think we are elitist and intolerant. Well the secularists are truly elitist and intolerant.”
I can’t argue with some of that. As I’ve pointed out over the past few sermons, we do live in a more secular, more humanistic world in which Americans care less and less about organized religion. We also live in a more pluralistic, multi-faith America. In terms of the American religious landscape, we can see that many people are pulling away from organized religion. Especially when it comes to Christianity, many people do not want to associate with a religion that is seen as elitist and intolerant. Americans are becoming a collection of individuals with individual experiences, individual perceptions, and individual constructions of reality. This means, if we want to make sense of our chaotic, harmful world, less people rely on outside forces like God. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it ourselves.
The second type of Christians see things a little differently. They don’t see secularization and pluralism as challenges. They are opportunities. To them, the world, the universe itself, belongs to God. Creation has been blessed and pronounced good. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. All are one in God’s realm. Here’s the opportunity: Just because religious institutions are losing their authority does not mean that people are losing their quest for or desire for God. Instead of the church, people are connecting with God through nature, through popular culture, through literature, films, and music. Whether one’s inspiration comes from Bach or Beyoncé, every note of creation is another reminder of God. Whether we watch an infant learning to walk or an elder aching to keep step, each footprint is another reminder of God. When we feel the touch of love, it is the fingerprint of God, a revelation of the mystery. So the whole distinction between sacred and secular just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not helpful. It’s not true. There is only one universe. It’s all sacred. It all reveals the divine. Since there are billions of us on this planet, if we can’t start honoring the divine presence in all people, all religions, and all things, then what hope there is for the world.
So, why haven't the “Type-2” Christians made more of an effort to rescue the word Christian from all the negative associations it has acquired in the minds of many Americans? Partly because we treat faith and religion as a private matter. Partly because we feel silenced by the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which “Type-1” Christians define true Christians from false ones. Partly, perhaps, because we sense the danger of seeming smug and self-congratulatory in our professions of faith.
The unfortunate result of silence is that one Christian point of view plays an invisible role in the discussions of issues that roil our society. We saw this with the marriage equality debate in Maryland. For the most part, people framed the faith concern as a clear-cut contest between "Christians" who supposedly upheld responsibility, values, and family, versus liberal secular humanists who supported tolerance and separation of church and state.
The time has come for a challenge to be made. It is time to take Jesus back. It’s time to take Jesus back to show the highest spiritual and moral aspirations for humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back to guide us along the path of transformation. It’s time to take Jesus back and invite others to receive his love in ways that do not mutilate or deny our humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back and to unshackle the word Christian, ¬and the living Christ itself, from the partialities and principles to which they have been captured.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves:
To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God's forgiveness;
To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world;
To embody God's Love for all people;
To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life;
To embrace the unity of Christ's church;
To discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.
It’s time to take Jesus back.
How (Not)to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith.