What makes a person a Christian? Some would say it is baptism, but that is just a sign, a beginning. It was the beginning of Jesus’ path to Jerusalem, to ministry and to the cross. Baptism of babies relies on the parents to bring them up in the Christian faith, and then they are supposed to be confirmed in their faith by the bishop when older. But it is just the beginning, it doesn’t make you a Christian, it just signifies that you intend to follow Christ by starting on the path.
What was Jesus’ message? What did he ask people to do? His call was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:17. Repent means so much more than saying sorry! It means turn around to God, or literally, in Greek, ‘enter the mind’ – become God-conscious, or God-filled. The kingdom of heaven is not a place, it is a way of being. It is what you can become when you have entered the mind of God. ‘Repent, the kingdom of God is near.’
He also said “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Matthew 4:19. His call was to help more people to find the riches of being God-filled.
Possibly the most famous words of Jesus are the Beatitudes – who are the blessed?
Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:2-10)
All those people are blessed, because they are following the Way to the kingdom of God.
And then there is the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus said to the person “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Luke 10:27-8
Do this and you will live? You won’t die if you don’t do that, so what did he mean? Is there some extra quality to life that we miss out on if we don’t follow Jesus? Is there another dimension, a spiritual dimension to existence that we enter when we repent, when we become God-conscious. I would say yes, yes, yes! Follow the way of Christ and you find a whole new dimension to life.
Christians were first called “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2, Acts 18:25) They weren’t called Christian until some years later.
So it was that for an entire year Barnabas and Paul met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:26)
So to be a Christian is to be a follower of the Way of Christ. The Way of Christ is what he taught and showed in his life.
Looking at the Sermon on the Mount, I can see a man of great spiritual wisdom, drawing on the depths and essence of the Jewish teachings to highlight the most important features of that body of knowledge. The emphasis is not just on high moral standards but is coupled with love and compassion and forgiveness – not being judgemental, not putting himself above others, but wanting others to follow his path. His teaching was some of the most inspired ever. If we lived the way he taught, we would be in a world of peace, compassion and harmony. He trusted in his Father God and acted out of that God-nature in him, as it is in us. He taught the simplest of messages about love for God, for others and for self, but challenged us with the totally radical nature of that call, getting to the heart of the lower human nature which calls for revenge, payback, nursing grudges and holding on to hurts.
Honesty? – ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’
Perspective on life? – ‘Store up your treasures in heaven.’
Worry? – ‘Do not worry about your life.’
Judgementalism? – ‘Do not judge or you too will be judged.’
Love? – ‘Love your enemy.’
And so it goes on – often hard teaching but with a wisdom and honesty that tackles the heart of human nature
Looking at his life, I see a man of prayer, a man of compassion and forgiveness and ability to heal, a man of integrity and patience and love. He is the founder and inspiration for the Christian life.
When we say a creed, whichever one it is, we say what we believe – but believing is not what Christianity is about. You believe a set of rules, you can believe in a person, but to be a follower, you have to become one. You do that by acting on your belief. If you believe that Jesus was the light of the world, that he came to enlighten all people, then it is right to follow him. Following is much more than belief. A disciple is defined as a follower and student of a mentor, teacher, or wise person. But you have to become a follower – its an active thing, something you have to do. It involves change, growth, study, prayer. Jesus spoke about this in terms of fruit. He used the idea of fruit a lot of the time – it connected with the rural economy and agricultural times in which they lived.
Luke 6:43-4 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.
We are known, not by our belief, but by what we become, our fruit.
John 15:8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
That is what is expected of followers of the way, of Christians – that they bear much fruit – and become disciples, followers. In the letter to the Ephesians, it is put like this:
Eph 5:8-9 Live as children of light- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.
Another parable of Jesus was the parable of the sower, who scattered the seed, which fell in various places. He said:
Luk 8:14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.
Fruit is a useful analogy for people. Take the orange for instance. Oranges are like people – did you know that?
- They can be difficult to peel – thick skinned – but sweet and juicy inside.
- They can look beautiful on the outside, but be dried up and juiceless inside
- They can by thin skinned and fall apart as soon as you start peeling.
- Whatever they look like on the outside, does not necessarily tell us what they are going to be like on the inside.
- Whatever the external appearance, oranges can give you a surprise – they can be sour, they can be tough, they can be dried up, or they can be ripe and sweet and juicy – just like people!
Ripeness is realted to fruit and was a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. In Aramaic, the everyday language that Jesus spoke, and in Hebrew and in all Semitic languages, the word for ‘good’ primarily means ripe, and the word for ‘corrupt’ or ‘evil’ primarily means unripe. When translating into Greek, or English, the meaning of the word has to be narrowed down, you have to choose between ‘good’ or ‘ripe’, ‘evil’ or ‘unripe’. For instance, in the Lord’s prayer we say, ‘But deliver us from evil’. That could equally validly be translated as ‘But separate us from all unripeness’, i.e. bring us to maturity, to wholeness. It gives a whole different slant to the teaching of Jesus if you look at the original breadth of meaning of his words.
Which brings us back to the orange and fruit. We are made to mature into ripeness, to bear good fruit. To do that we are to follow the way of Christ, and that is what a Christian is – someone who has committed themselves to following the way of Christ, so that they may be ripe and bear good fruit in this world and the next.
The Christian faith is primarily about helping us to walk the way of Christ, into maturity, into wholeness, into light and love, into an awareness of God’s presence in us. It is about our transformation to be made in the image of Christ, to become ‘Christed.’ It’s a life-long journey, a Way to be followed. Believing is just the start of it – becoming is what being a Christian is really about.
In coming to church, in worshipping together, in our prayers, we are hoping to follow the path he laid out before us. But isn’t it easy to come to church with a whole agenda that gets in the way of us seeing God? Isn’t it easy to find we are holding a grudge or animosity towards someone, or something annoys us and distracts us from the central reason we are here?
The Christian way is about being changed by the grace of God – but in order to receive that grace, we have to surrender to it. In a service of worship, the first thing we should do is surrender ourselves to God. That’s why the first prayer we say in the Holy Communion service is known as the collect for purity – purity in our worship. In that prayer, we say “all hearts are open to you” – and that is what we should be doing as we come to worship –opening our hearts to God. The newer version puts it like this: “May your strength overcome our weakness, your radiance transform our blindness”. This is surrender, giving ourselves over to God
That is exactly what Jesus did – he surrendered his life to God. When he was in the garden of Gethsemane, praying earnestly before he was arrested, he was struggling with his own will. Who would want to go through torture, beatings and a horrible death on a cross? He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He surrendered his human will to God. And what happened next was that an angel; appeared to him and gave him strength.The grace of God came upon him. An angel is a messenger, so what it really says is he received strength from God, once he surrendered his will.
Christians are people who have committed themselves to following the way of Christ, surrendering themselves to God, as he did. But its not as easy as that. For will, we could read ‘Ego’ – that conscious part of ourselves which determines what we do and is very self-centred, and self-aware. Becoming God centred is about putting our ego and self-centredness down, and centring ourselves in God. Remember the meaning of the word ‘repent,’ when you look at the Greek, is actually better translated as ‘enter the big mind’ – enter the consciousness of God, be centred in God.
To me, this is the meaning of the story of the fall of Adam & Eve at the beginning of the bible. Adam & Eve existed in this blissful state with God, until they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – then they became aware they were naked and put on the fig-leaves and hid from God, and were cast out of the garden of Eden. That speaks to me of a time in human evolution when our brains developed to the stage where we became self-aware, we began to see ourselves in a different light, we became self-conscious. At that stage we became aware of ourselves as individuals, separate from God, no longer held in a blissful state of innocence. As the individuality took hold, so our egos started to develop, and we began to lose our awareness of God’s presence in us. Ego gave rise to wanting things for ourselves, to greed, to envy, and the roots of all that is wrong with our world. The spiritual journey is about finding our way back into the presence of God, back to Eden. But it only happens as we put down our ego and surrender to God.
We see the same story retold in the parable of the prodigal son – if the son represents humanity, and the Father represents the aspect of God in us. The son takes the Fathers riches and goes off until he realises he can’t survive without the Father – and then he is welcomed back into the Fathers home. We put down our ego and we are welcomed back into the presence of God. Do you see? It’s all about surrendering to the grace of God.
This is the meaning of some of the enigmatic phrases Jesus said:
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Denying ourselves is about not paying attention to the ego, the part of self that is simply our experience of separateness from God. Denying the ego is hard, it is a cross to bear. To be picked up. So put down your ego and pick up the cross of surrender and follow Christ.
Matthew 10:39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
On the surface, that looks like a load of nonsense. But what if we rephrase it to: “Those who find life in their ego alone, will lose it, but those who put down their ego will find divine life, or fullness of life” – which is what Jesus said he came to bring.
St Paul put it another way:
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.
Paul is saying the same in his way. Don’t go following your ego in life, but surrender to God and see how you will be changed, how you will begin to know God, to walk with God. The letter to the Colossians says this:
Colossians 1:27 God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Christ in you, the hope of glory. In the Common English version, it is even clearer
Colossians 1:27 God did this because he wanted you Gentiles to understand his wonderful and glorious mystery. And the mystery is that Christ lives in you, and he is your hope of sharing in God’s glory.
Christ lives in you. What a thought! Its not the same as saying Jesus of Nazareth, the man of flesh and blood, lives in you. Christ literally means anointed. The Christ was seen as the anointing of God, or the presence of God in human beings. So Jesus was the Christ supremely, a human being filled with God, but the Christ also lives in you and me, the presence of God in us.
We find this abiding presence of God by following the teachings and inspiration of Jesus the Christ. It is the way of love, humility, compassion and service. It involves putting down the ego and surrendering to the grace of God.
So what makes you a Christian? Becoming a follower of Christ, putting down the ego and coming back to the presence of God in you. Then we find the loving arms of the welcoming Father God enfold us, the prodigal Son, and bring us into the feast of abundance and wholeness.