Pastor, Am I a Christian?
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
What are the core Christian beliefs by which you live? What are the teachings or practices of faith that make you who you are, and —whether or not you live up to them entirely—- identify you as a member of a Christian church? These matters are particularly acute for me as one of the teachers of our confirmation class of very bright young people. What do you pray they learn and come to affirm over the next few months? But they actually come up often in the course of ministry these days: …as the new elders and deacons discussed the “essential tenets of the Reformed faith” they promise to uphold . . . . whenever Christianity is portrayed with a single brushstroke as anti-science, anti-intellectual, against sexual minorities and women . . . . . . and as we seek to reach out to our diverse neighbors in downtown Denver. What is our message? What are we inviting people to do or become? Questions like these prompted journalist Nicholas Kristof to approach Tim Keller, evangelical leader and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, a congregation known for attracting young urban professionals and providing opportunities for service and mission. Kristof wondered if his own particular mix of belief and doubt and commitment to justice and truth qualified him as a Christian. Keller was cordial and non-judgey, but made it clear that rejecting essential beliefs destabilized the whole enterprise. I wouldn’t draw any conclusion about an individual without talking to him or her at length [he said]. But in general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary. [NY Times, December 25, 2016]
The full interview is worth a read, because it highlights a dynamic tension about the nature of faith. Is it primarily a matter of believing some essential things about God and Jesus? Or is it something else? Our first reading, from Isaiah, is a word that challenges the sufficiency of orthodoxy. Here the prophet rails against beliefs that do not result in action. Listen for God’s Word. [Isaiah 58:1-8]
The people prayed to God. They observed the rituals and recited the holy word. But the prophet called them out for going through the motions, paying lip service to faith . . . . and then living as if none of it mattered in real life. Their belief in the God of the covenant had not affected their relationships with humans, particularly with vulnerable ones and those in need. Surely there is a component of faith that transforms and empowers practice. In his earthly life, Jesus did more showing than telling, and once he simply noted “By their fruits you will know them” –in other words, when it comes to faith, what people do is a far better indicator than what they say.
…..but who among us will claim that our actions consistently and completely reveal our commitment? That we always love our neighbors as ourselves. . . that we do good even to our enemies, forgive without limits. . . . hold no grudges. . . . do justice in every situation. . . pursue peace relentlessly. . . always be kind to calculating and annoying people . . . . never lie or cheat or gossip or act selfishly. . . . . it takes only the tiniest amount of self-awareness to understand the impossibility of perfection. Even if we never said a word, our actions would convict us all of hypocrisy at best, not to mention denial and outright betrayal of our identity as God’s people.
The Almighty must have decided that being a cosmic record-keeper wouldn’t be much fun or productive and so God sent Jesus into the world as a living demonstration of unconditional love and its power to change the human heart, to heal divisions and jagged breaks, and to bring life out of the worst things, even death. The Church calls it “grace,” and I stand here today only because of it. We gather here only because of it. It’s poured out upon every one of us whether we believe or not, whatever our doubts and in spite of our failures. “Grace alone” was the reformers’ cry.
Here’s how the letter to the Ephesian churches put it way back in the beginning: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—-not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. [Ephesians 2:8-10]
The essential Christian belief is that there is no doctrine, no rule, no creedal statement necessary except this one: that God loves us and intends for us to have life, here and now and eternally. In Jesus we see the closest approximation to God’s love in a human being, from his humble birth to his execution. . . and then, in ways that defy imagination and reason, in a new life beyond the grave, a spiritual presence that is as real as the physical presence of the one sitting next to us right now.
Friends, the thing that animates this faith is not a bunch of people saying they believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, who was born of the Virgin Mary. . . ….No. The thing that animates this faith is a bunch of people who seek—however tentatively and imperfectly—to follow the One through whom we find the heart of God to be pure love, only love, love without limits or boundaries.
I think Tim Keller and many evangelical Christians get it wrong when they insist that only through affirming some statements about Jesus can a person find God and experience life. It seems almost backwards to me. Instead of inviting others to believe something, what if our primary invitation was to experience that life and that love as it is visibly demonstrated in this imperfect community of people? What if we invited them to join us as we strive together to follow Jesus, to apply our whole heart, mind, strength, and soul in an enterprise of love toward God and neighbor and self? There are some consequences to this approach. It means we don’t just tolerate questions; we encourage them as important ways to nourish spirituality. It means we are unafraid to explore the heights and depths of human knowledge through science with wonder and gratitude. It means we don’t simply appreciate diversity; we consider it a blessing and something to cultivate. It means that faith is not a “thing” to accept or reject once-for-all, but a lifelong process we never fully complete. It also means holding a posture of deep humility, acknowledging we do not claim the only way to God, but one good way. I’m pleased that the Bible study chosen for small group gatherings in home and here at Central during Lent (beginning in March and continuing through the first two weeks of April) will provide opportunity for each of us to renew our commitment to this enterprise and strengthen our practice of loving. I plan to participate, and I hope you will too—and invite someone to join you.
Perhaps there is no better place to begin than here, at the Table of our Lord, for it was over meals that Jesus most clearly demonstrated the inclusive welcome and unconditional love of God. On one level it’s such a little thing—a chunk of bread and swig of grape juice—-but a little thing that offers a taste and a glimpse of where this path is leading: a thanksgiving feast; heaven on earth at a table where no one is beyond the bounds, and everyone belongs.
There’s an old story about the church member who complimented the pastor following the service one Sunday. “What a wonderful sermon,” he exclaimed. To which the pastor replied, “Well, that remains to be seen.” Pastor, am I a Christian?— –Nicholas Kristof wondered. I think I will write him a different response. Something like “Well, that remains to be seen.” May it be so, for all of us.