Growing up, my world seemed pretty simple. Being religious meant being a Christian. I didn't know many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists. I didn't really even know anything about them. About as exotic as any of my friends got was being a Mormon. Today things are different, even if we don't always notice it. Mosques, synagogues, and Temples are everywhere. Just go two miles up Adams, and you'll see a Hindu Temple under construction. Continue on up to Auburn Road and take a right, as you head toward Rochester Road, you'll see two different mosques, one on the left and one on the right. Further down you'll find an Albanian Catholic church, and then coming back down John R, at the corner of Long Lake, you'll find a Romanian Pentecostal church. Turning right on Wattles, you'll come to a Serbian Orthodox Church sitting next to Troy Athens High School, and then further on down Wattles, you'll find a Croatian Catholic Church, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Jehovah's Witness church, and a Reformed Jewish Synagogue. Scattered all along this route you'll find Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, evangelical, Presbyterian, Methodist, and many other traditions. This is just a bit of the religious world I experience all the time, driving around this community.
It is common to hear people say, I'm not religious, but I am spiritual. People who speak of themselves in such a manner tend to be theologically eclectic and often stay clear of the kinds of religious communities I just mentioned. They're concerned that such entities, whether big or small, Christian or not, might put boundaries on their ability to pick and choose what they believe and practice. With all of this religious diversity, from the institutional to the non-institutional, what does it mean to be a Christian? Or perhaps better, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in today's world?
1. Being a Follower of Jesus Today
To get this admittedly rhetorical conversation going, I'll give you a definition of what it means to be a Christian. Your definition might differ from mine, but that's okay. This is just the beginning of our conversation.
A Christian is a follower of Jesus whose life is formed by a relationship with the God whom Jesus revealed to the world, when he took on flesh, lived, and died, and then was raised from the dead, so that in him all things might be made new. Yes, and a Christian is someone who loves God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and then loves one's neighbor as oneself.
Maybe your definition adds to or subtracts from this brief statement, but hopefully we can all agree that if we love God and seek to follow Jesus, then this relationship with God will impact the way we live our lives.
In order for us to stay in relationship with God, we must nourish that relationship by spending time in God's presence. There are many spiritual practices that can aid in nurturing the faith we profess. We can talk to God through our prayers and listen for God's voice in quiet meditation. We can read and contemplate the scriptures, aided by other devotional and theological works. There is music and there is nature, which stir our souls and lead us back to the God who made all of this possible. Nurturing this relationship can and should happen both in moments spent alone with God and in moments spent in the company of others - especially as we gather together at the Lord's Table. This love for God, which is nurtured by our faith practices, should lead naturally to loving our neighbor. As the prophet Micah put it, God has called us to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic. 6:8).
2. Living in Right Relationship with Your Neighbor
But, who is this neighbor that we're supposed to love? That's what the lawyer wanted to know! He wanted to know where the boundaries were. From the nature of the discussion it would appear that his neighborhood was smaller than that of Jesus.
Jesus answered the lawyer's question with a parable that turned his world and ours upside down. It wouldn't be a priest or a Levite, the religious leaders of the day, who would exemplify this love of neighbor. Instead, it would be a Samaritan. This suggestion must have repulsed the lawyer, who likely viewed Samaritans as dirty, evil, and detestable! To get a sense of his surprise, think in terms of an illegal alien from Mexico giving aid to a white suburbanite in Phoenix, as a pastor and an elder from a good middle class Protestant church pass by.
Mohandas Gandhi wasn't a Christian, but he offers us a good example of the kind of neighbor Jesus is envisioning. It's interesting that Jesus was one of the influences on Gandhi's ethic of nonviolence. He took seriously Jesus' call to turn the other cheek and he used it effectively to lead his people to independence, in part by reminding the British of the teachings of their own faith. Gandhi would have appreciated the question everyone was asking just a few years back: "What would Jesus do?" Although Jesus didn't give us instructions on how to deal with modern technology or national policy discussions, he did show us how to love God and neighbor. I don't know what kind of car he would drive - remember he was known for walking -- but I do think that Jesus would have agreed with Micah, when the prophet says that God requires of us justice, loving kindness, and humility as we walk with God.
Martin Luther King had a dream "that one day this nation will rise up, and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." We still haven't reached that day. Racism and discrimination are still with us. After 9/11 many Muslims became victims of prejudice and fear. Christian preachers continue to disparage Islam, Muhammad, and Muslims. Then there's the issue of immigration, which we as a nation have been unable to resolve. In calling us to love our neighbor, I believe that Jesus wants us to work for the good of everyone, no matter their religion, politics, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, race, or social class.
Although we all fall short in this calling, sometimes things begin to change for us when a new relationship stirs us to action. I had never really thought much about the place of women in church or society until I met Kari. We worked together at a Christian book store when I was in seminary. We quickly became close friends, and since both of us were studying theology and ministry - she at a local Bible college and me at the seminary - we talked a lot about her call to ministry. Although she had the gifts and the calling, her faith community put limits on what she could do. Through our friendship I received a gentle nudge from the Spirit to become an advocate for the equality of women in church and society. Some of you may have felt a similar push from the Spirit on other issues. Being a Christian means being an advocate for justice and that means advocating for the equality of all human beings, even those we don't agree with!
- LOVING KINDNESS:
Christian faith leads to compassion and mercy toward others, no matter who they are. The Samaritan didn't ask the injured man about his religion, race, economic status, immigration status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. He was simply moved with pity for a person in need. Consider Mother Theresa, she didn't ask about the background of the lepers she served in India. She saw the need and got busy. Sharing God's loving kindness with my neighbor might lead me to volunteer with hospice, serve meals at a homeless shelter, build houses in Mexico or in Detroit, or care for AIDS victims as they face death.
Being a Christian also means being humble. Humility recognizes that we don't have all the answers. It leaves room for doubt, and it allows us to listen to the voice of others. We like to be right and we want our answers black and white, with no shades of gray. As Joe Friday used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am." But, in today's postmodern, pluralistic world we must be ready to hear God's voice in unexpected ways. Disciple pastor Jan Linn speaks of living with "clear ambiguity." That is, sometimes the answers we seek are "as clear as mud." (Jan Linn, How to be an Open-minded Christian without Losing Your Faith, Chalice Press, 2002, p.72).
As Christians living in the 21st Century, we face difficult and complicated questions, and often we don't have a clear and unequivocal word from God. Issues like the environment, immigration, war, divorce, homosexuality, the use of alcohol, capital punishment, abortion, and the role of women in the church all stand before us. Devout Christians take stands on all sides of these issues, so, what should we do? It takes humility to stop and listen to the other side. History can help us in this. Remember that in the 19th century many Christians believed that it was okay to have slaves. After all, Paul told slaves to obey their masters. It took a war to get our attention, but today most American Christians abhor slavery.
It isn't easy being a Christian. But then justice, compassion, and humility don't come easily. Fortunately, we have a loving and gracious God, who is slow to anger and quick to show mercy. God's wondrous grace allows us to take risks. If we fall, the Spirit is there to lift us up. So, as we consider our calling to be a Christian in today's world, let us recite and meditate upon the "Prayer of St. Francis," (Chalice Hymnal, 468), praying that God will make each of us an instrument of God's peace in today's world.