For the next month we’re going to focus in our sermons on spiritual basics, the kind of bedrock stuff where the actual energy for Christian living comes from. We did this three years ago as well, and like then, we’ll be having both this four part sermon series,and an instructed Eucharist. Today’s topic is being a Christian, and the next two are going to cover being an Episcopal Christian, being a practicing Episcopal Christian, and then finally being a practicing Episcopal Christian here at Emmanuel.
Now these are not, of course, four options to pick and choose among. They’re a chain of developments. Being a Christian comes first, taking on the central identity God gives us... being an Episcopal Christian is choosing a community in which to live out that central identity...... practicing it is inviting God to shape your way of life to reflect your commitment… and doing it at Emmanuel is choosing which local group of Christians will support you and challenge you.
But so often we can get distracted from the first and central thing by some of the details of those later. We’ve fallen into that bad habit as Episcopalians certainly for the past few decades, wasting most of our denominational energy on talking about things we don’t like about other Christians, or on arguing over details of internal policies. Our own numbers, the ones the Episcopal Church collects, show that nationally membership is 30% lower now than it was in 1980, and attendance down by 1/3. Episcopalians baptize half the people now we did 40 years ago. If we’ve proved anything in my lifetime at least, it’s that the more you neglect the heart of the matter, the less energy and joy you will have and the worse things will go.
So let’s get to the heart of the matter. Being a Christian. If you had the privilege of explaining that to someone in a few minutes, what would you say? Now it would depend, I suppose, on who your friend was and whether she or he held any of the common misunderstandings about Christianity. You might need to head some of those off first: For example, many people now assume that anything religious is subjective and private, so if your friend assumed that, you might want to clarify that Christianity makes public truth claims, and if it could be demonstrated if the events where we claim God acted did not happen, then, as St. Paul says, “our faith is in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Another thing many people assume that it’s about joining an organization, so maybe that would be a misunderstanding you’d want to head off as well. Maybe you’d quote that famous line that sitting in a church doesn’t make someone a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes them a car. And finally, these days many people assume all religions boil down to trying to make yourself into a better person, so if your friend thought that, perhaps you’d focus on making sure that they heard that in our case that assumption is exactly backwards. We are about God’s grace, not self-help. I’ve mentioned before a hilarious video of a moment in an episode of The View where the entire table was brought to stunned silence when two Christians on the panel mentioned that Christianity was not about being a better person. As people started to burst out, “WHAT?” Joy Behar rushed to change the subject.
Now maybe your friend wouldn’t assume any of that, but many people do. And if some of us have brought these common misunderstandings with us today – that Christianity is a private preference, or that it’s about joining an organization, or that it’s one of many options for self-improvement, I’d love to take you to coffee and talk more about them. They are the way our culture frames things, the air we breathe; but they will block you from being able to figure Christianity out. So my invitation to coffee is serious, but I’m not going to devote any more time this morning to talking about assumptions that get in the way.
I want to use three images from the Bible to picture for us what being a Christian is. Most Christian groups tend to emphasize one more than the others, but God inspired all three and I think it’s helpful to try and balance them. The three images are these: Adoption, Acquittal, and Apprenticeship. A Christian is someone whom God has adopted, whom God has acquitted, and whom God has apprenticed. In all three cases, the subject of the sentence is God; we are receiving something that’s done to and for us as a free gift of grace. Our role is to accept the gift and then respond.
First, Adopted. (Cf Gal 4:1-7) This is a family image. Most of us here probably have relatives who are part of our family by marriage. Sometimes people develop very strong relationships with in-laws, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes marriages break up and people who were part of your life for 10 years suddenly aren't around anymore. But adoption is something very different. I have a niece who is adopted, and she will never stop being a member of the family, no matter what she does. There's no way out once you're in. Our claim, as Christians, is that God offers us something like that in Christ. In and of ourselves we have natural human life, but in Christ, God graciously offers access to his own supernatural divine life.
So it’s even stronger than a legal adoption; it’s more like being miraculously made into a blood relative. I always get stuck here trying to find the right adverb for HOW God’s life dwells in his adopted people. I'm tempted to say that God’s life takes up residence in us "substantially," but then I worry some philosopher out there will want me to define substance. Or I want to say "materially," but then I worry some child will want to know what material God is made of. Should I say tangibly, or actually, or authentically, or legitimately, or genuinely; I don't know. What I'm trying to get across is -- it's real. It’s not a metaphor. God’s own life really starts dwelling in us when he makes us his in Baptism. It really replenishes itself as he feeds us with it in Holy Communion. It seems almost too good to be true, but it is true. God adopts us.
But he doesn’t just adopt us, he also aquits us. (Cf Rom 3:19-24) Scripture and tradition tell us that God is perfectly holy and pure. Yet he offers himself to the likes of you and me, confused people, full of weakness, tarnished. And the experience of adoption in Christ only makes you more aware of how tarnished you are. I used to think I was a pretty good person, but my problem was that I was comparing myself only to other people who were also tarnished. Now that I’m able to look at Jesus, the perfect image of God, I realize how often I fall short of his image in me, how his holiness and my sin are like oil and water. So the question is how can that distance be vanquished? And if it were, how could we even tolerate the white light of perfection? Does God just pretend he doesn’t notice who we are? What kind of solution is that, if it’s not based on truth? These questions are the source of a group of images in Scripture that come from the courtroom, from the experience of standing guilty before a judge.
When we genuinely get real about our flaws, we know instinctively that God can’t just pretend they’re not there. He is the truth; he can’t lie about what’s wrong in humanity. Somebody has to fix us and all our personal and political and ecological and systemic messes for real, with a solution that honors justice, not a sham that papers over the truth. Who will rectify the mistakes? Who will pay for the damage? And in a classic image, our tradition suggests that the judge stepped down from the bench himself and said, “I will. Justice will be served, but it’ll be served at my expense.” God carries our brokenness and all its consequences to the Cross and absorbs all the damage it has done himself so that he can, with both mercy and truth, pronounce us acquitted.
Now there are many ways to talk about this, so don’t get mired in the details. It’s mysterious, and this is one of many images. But the end reality is that somehow, we find our darkness swallowed up by Christ’s light, we find our ugliness washed through and through by his beauty, we find ourselves completely accepted by God just as if we’d never betrayed him. We are acquitted, or another word is justified. We’re no longer trying to compensate for our sins ourselves, we aren’t plea-bargaining and offering up personal justifications of how it wasn’t that big a deal, we aren’t trying to work our way up to being better people -- we’re just standing there, marveling, drenched in his love, saying “Thank you.”
And finally God apprentices us. (Cf Matt 28:18-20) Again, the experience of adoption and the experience of acquittal are beautiful, transformative things. They inevitably leave us wanting to respond, and this – not before! – is the point at which Jesus looks at us and says, “Follow me.” He doesn’t give us things to do until the experience of being adopted and acquitted has sunk in and changed us inside, and given us the desire to learn his ways day by day, so that we find them more realistic and beautiful and effective than the ways of the world.
The scriptures often use the word disciple for this, which essentially means apprentice; someone who has been drawn in by a master craftsman and given an opportunity to learn the deep kind of how to’s you can’t get from a book. To sit at the feet of the master and watch and absorb and practice. There’s not an app for that. Alexa can’t give you that answer. But if you let the Jesus who has already adopted and acquitted you take the next step and apprentice you, over time he can and he will. He does it in his own way, with many inconveniences, often through other people (most specifically through the ordinary day to day life and work of your parish), and always with lots of trial and error. But when you are his apprentice, everything in life can become grist for his mill, fuel for his unshakable determination to make you his own.
So Jesus is the way, the way of life into which we are apprenticed. Jesus is the truth, the sharp reality of honesty about our sin as he steps down from the bench to provide a loving acquittal we finally admit we can’t manufacture for ourselves. And he is the life, the real life of God that flows into us through him, adopting us as members of his family. The way, the truth and the life. Being a Christian is, in two words, being his. Everything else is secondary.