Who is a Christian
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
11 March 2007, 10:30 (Lent 3)
‘Am I a Christian?’ No one who can answer that question with a loud and confident ‘yes’ or a loud and confident ‘no’ will want to listen further to this sermon! But those who hesitate and wonder might.
Someone, for instance, who doesn’t find the church’s preoccupation with sin very helpful but still believes in a Christian way of life. Somebody who goes to church occasionally but can’t believe everything they hear there. Somebody who takes a good look at the way Christians carry on and decides that they don’t deserve the label. Somebody who wonders whether he is a Christian or not. Somebody who would like to be a Christian if she honestly could and knew what it entailed.
People like this on the edge and circumference of the Church community have a great deal to teach the Church in Lent. They know, for example, that you are not really a Christian just because you get baptized, or go to church a bit, or live in a Christian country. These are formalities. Christianity is something more. They know that people are not really Christians just because they accept and believe the bible and the creed. There have been too many people who did that and did not love other people or God for that answer to be convincing. Besides, being a Christian means accepting and believing – not in them, but in someone and something they talk about. They point away from themselves.
These ready answers won’t do because they don’t go deep enough. They fix on things which somebody can do while being miles away from the kind of goodness which is the thing that matters about being a Christian.
So we must ask again: Who is a Christian?
‘To dare as a single person to have to do with God’ – that, said the philosopher Kierkegard, is Christianity and there is no escape from it into the collective of Christendom. The Church, he once said, is in a clear and historical sense often the place of rebellion against God, a skulking in the bushes from his presence.
Professor Donald Mackinnon has said that the silence of Jesus at his trial, particularly to the question put by the High Priest: ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’, is an area of theology too little explored. When Jesus was being interrogated at his trial the answers he gave about himself were sometimes evasive and sometimes sheer silence.
The Jewish rabbis have a wise rule that no one can proclaim himself to be God’s anointed (the Messiah, the Christ). That was to be done by God’s evident favour towards him (‘Thou art my Son, my Beloved, listen to him’) and the perception of his fellow men (‘Truly this man was the Son of God’). Like master, like disciples: we may not call ourselves Christians unless we are answering relatively superficial questions about our life-style rather than our hearts. Far better than calling oneself a Christian is to wait for God and neighbour to do so – to wait on them in love and be silent!
This is not an appeal to English modesty or the imposition of a strict and silly rule. It is, I believe, all of a piece with the heart of the matter of Christianity which I take to be the working out of the commandment to love God with all my strength and intelligence and my neighbour as much as myself. We are saved from the self-centred solipsism of bothering about ‘am I a Christian?’ by the gospel which says we must each lose our lives for God and neighbour if we would really find them. To put it very bluntly, it is only the person who doesn’t care twopence whether they are a Christian or not who is one.
Love is when someone loses himself or herself and finds somebody else. It is when neither is self-conscious because each is fascinated by the other. It is when a boy chases a girl and doesn’t care how silly he looks or what it costs in tickets and flowers, or when a craftsman forgets his lunch because he is making dovetail joints! Then, all of somebody’s life, their physical, mental and spiritual energies are absorbed in something and somebody else. Without it, nothing, least of all orthodox religion, is really worth while – ‘Though I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing’, says St Paul.
At its roots I have discovered that my life as a Christian is hidden from me, goes away from me, into God and other people. In discovering about love, I have lost a kind of certainty, perhaps several kinds. And a certain well-known form of evangelism is lost to me too. But I have found a gospel – and a recognizably, fundamentally Christian one too – and must work it out in deeds and loving relationships. Hidden from me as it is and must be, it is my root or fresh spring. To say it again in New Testament words from the Jesus of the Gospels, I find my life by losing it. The two poles of its energy, according to St Paul, are death and resurrection.
The experience of losing life and letting it go makes the Christian realize that he walks with the fact of death. One day he will die. And so will the people into whom his life is lost and hidden, by whose love it is sustained.
The Christian is accustomed to himself and other people as sinners, as people who are not fully or entirely alive. This sometimes makes us want to back away from others and from ourselves – very possibly into religion. ‘He who separates himself from sinners,’ writes the Jewish thinker Martin Buber, ‘walks in their guilt. But the good person is able to suffer for the sins of another as though they were his own. To live in the life of others, this alone is righteousness.’
To put it graphically the Samaritans with their telephones are true disciples. To put it paradoxically by monkeying with the creed, ‘I believe in the communion of sins and the forgiveness of saints’. Here is a Christian humility and compassion in all its realism, joining me to other people whoever they are and not keeping me away from them in a denominational enclave from which I dole out religious largesse and into which I contrive to lure them.
We are all sinners who will die. There are no special cases. The gospel is of a God who became un-special, and took upon himself, in responsibility our sin and our death. It liberates us – to follow his example and live his life! Acceptance of death and sin as part of life is realistic compassion. The other side of the same coin is life and happiness. The losing is the way to finding, the dying to rising to new life.
So who is a Christian? A Christian is a human being trying to work out the gospel that everything is his: life and death, religion and worldliness, tragedy and comedy, wickedness and goodness. Here in a single man or woman or child, as in the single Christ things come together. Like the master, a Christian is a joiner.