July 24, 2016

“What Makes a Christian?”

I want to start with a question: what makes a person a Christian?

Christian is an identity – much like where we are from, who our family is, what we do, what we like, etc. Identity is important, because it defines who we are to the rest of the world. The first form of identity we get is our name.

I’ll speak from experience: It’s hard having an uncommon name. Growing up with the last name Chrisohon, people often mispronounced it, misspelled it, or just bumbled around it until I rescued them. I finally decided to do a little apologetics and started saying, “It’s Greek,” which I’m very proud of that heritage. Then I added Greek-ish when I realized my grandfather botched it to make it easier to say… he didn’t succeed.
While talking about that with my friend, he asked, “how do you know you’re Greek?” “See my feet? With that much hair, either I’m Greek or a hobbit.”

Identity matters a lot to us, and knowing we are a part of something bigger than ourselves is one of the fundamental human experiences.

We are here in church today because either we decided or someone decided for us that we should have the identity of Christian. But the word “Christian,” has a lot of meanings to a lot of people. We are just as “Christian” as the Mennonites who work at the Country View Market. We are also as much Christian as tattooed hipsters in Nashville and Denver and Chicago. My buddy Eli came to seminary with ear gauges, punk style, and a ridiculously advanced knowledge on the meanings and theology of communion.

Through our history, the primary way of understanding what a Christian is is belief in the pathways set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in some form. After that, different groups take different approaches. There’s a lot of belief under that label, so it would be helpful to know where to begin to understand what Christian means when you walk into a church like ours on a given Sunday.

Today, churches use a couple of methods for establishing a rough bedrock of what we mean when we say we are Christian: creeds and doctrine.
“Pastor Nick, you forgot the BIBLE.” I didn’t. The Bible is a big book that has gone through years of translation. Some think all translations are exact, whereas others, like myself, think the nuances of the writers gets lost when we don’t study the text. Doctrine and creeds are where others have done some thinking for us in distilling basic concepts from the Bible.

I think creeds are helpful in trying to make sense of what makes a Christian at our core. In a previous draft of this sermon, I bucked the idea of explaining the creed and instead walked through Wesley’s rejection of creeds in favor of a transformative understanding of what makes us Christian, and then I planned to talk about some inspirational Christian leaders like Mother Teresa, MLK, and C.S. Lewis That’s all still very true – no matter what you “believe” about Jesus, if your heart is full of dark, angry emotions, you are likely in need of transformation in Christ – but it is good to note how important the creeds are.

I decided that I needed to do some homework and found a sermon by a pastor in California that did a teaching sermon on the Nicene Creed. He highlights two important details that I will share today. Given not everyone likes the teach-y thing, and I try to keep my sermons around 12 minutes, I will encourage you to research and dissect the Nicene Creed further in Sunday School or Bible Study. I am happy to teach it, as well. Today will just be a quick glance.

First, some background: The Creed was written during the Council of Nicea in 325 and was later edited in the First Council of Constantinople in 381. It has been edited, re-edited, unaffirmed, and re-affirmed numerous times. It articulates some of our most foundational, and often least considered, beliefs about God.

The sermon I read begins by noting that we, collectively as Christians, suffer from an amnesia of belief. Very few read and study the Bible with the attention to detail it deserves. Much of our belief is as informed by popular, secular sources as it is by theological study, if not more.

Answering that amnesia begins with humbly recognizing we are probably wrong about at least one thing we believe, and then by taking our spiritual education seriously.

Knowing and substantiating what we believe offers us protection in an ever more secular world. I won’t say that our world is anti-religion, although a certain vocal sect is. By and large, most people are ok with “live and let live,” but a lax attitude toward knowledge and a growing anti-intellectualism stymy our growth in personal piety. What makes a Christian a Christian needs a little bit of structure so we have common ground on which to speak – even if we disagree about it.

So let’s take a look at two, important details that make studying the Nicene Creed worthwhile:

First, the opening line has a subtle but powerful difference from the more popular Apostles Creed that we usually recite. The first word in Greek is “pistoumen,” from which we get the translation “We believe.” We. We is important, because Christians for millennia have known that a person cannot claim Christianity as their own; they must be welcomed into a community of faith. Faith by one’s self usually ends up either dead or turned deeply, and dangerously, inward. By naming that “we believe,” we recognize we are accountable to everyone else who believes, too. There is vulnerability in claiming our creeds and being baptized into the faith.

In God’s plan for the church, God knew that we would not agree on everything. The UMC is no different. We are deeply divided on matters that have great importance to our common life. No matter what, though, if we claim this creed we put ourselves in league with others who worship Christ as the only begotten Son of God, who died, was resurrected, and sits with God as we prepare for the life to come. That’s a big statement.

Secondly, I want to highlight, as the original did, the meaning and depth of the word “believe.” Today, we take belief very lightly. One can think or “believe” one thing and do the exact opposite, sometimes without consequence. Here, the word has a binding element to it. You could equate it to trusting or having committed faith in something. You cannot say “I believe” or “We believe” and turn around and do something antithetical to it. What you say you believe points to how you will live.

To say that you believe that we are a part of one church, a part of God’s kingdom, and that Christ will come in victory means that you better be living by Christ’s teachings. As heavy as that sounds, it actually brings me great comfort. Every choice I make has meaning, even if I never see it. For all my faults and misgivings, I believe in One who will come in glory. I don’t have to be one of those people that angrily gets in the face of those who are not like me – I simply must live as an agent of change, hope, and justice, and I will please my God. Because I am part of a bigger picture of ‘we.’ Because I gave up my life to God and refused to live with spiritual amnesia, even though I was a Christian worship leader. I needed more, and I have it.

Like my original sermon said, Wesley was hesitant with creeds as proof of faith or as a qualifier for what made one a Christian. I think that is right. Ultimately, God wants to work in our hearts and lives in ways that bring about the kingdom of heaven to earth. I don’t think saying the right things or believing the right things puts us in God’s favor. I think how we love is what does that.

Read your Bible, learn about our history and tradition, and be transformed by our life together.

Bless you all, now and in the world to come. Amen and amen.

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