As we look forward to Holy Week, Easter, and our visit with Bishop Martins in April, we’ve been focusing on spiritual basics, the kind of bedrock stuff where the actual energy for Christian living comes from. Many of you have taken part in the Sunday or Wednesday sessions on the Creeds, and we begin another set on the Bible today. Today also starts a four part sermon series. Today’s topic is being a Christian, and the next two are going to cover being an Episcopal Christian, being an Episcopal Christian here at Emmanuel, 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 is the central identity God gives us... being an Episcopal Christian is choosing a mode in which to live out that central identity... being an Episcopal Christian at Emmanuel is choosing a local group of Christians to live it with... and then practicing it is inviting God to shape your way of life to reflect those choices.
But so often we can get distracted from the central thing by some of the details of our subsequent choices. This is a bad habit the church fell into especially during the Establishment era, when Christians spent lots of energy talking about our disagreements with other Christians, or tweaking details of programs or governance – all of which has resulted in decades of decline. If we’ve proved anything in the past 50 years, it’s that the more you bypass the heart of the matter in favor of focusing on secondary internal issues, 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 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 attributed to Garrison Keillor, that "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 be 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 personal betterment. (I saw a hilarious video of a moment in a recent episode of "The View" where the entire table was brought to stunned silence when two Christians on the panel mentioned that Christianity was not all about being a better person. As people started to burst out, “WHAT?” Joy Behar just hurriedly changed 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 assumptions with us today – that Christianity is a subjective private preference, or that it’s about joining an organization, or that it’s really only trying to be a better person, I’d love to take you to coffee and talk more about them. They are the way our culture thinks, the air we breathe; but they will get in your way if you’re trying 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 Christians 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; something is done to and for us as a free gift of grace. Our role is to receive and 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 relation. 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. God’s life really lives in us when he adopts us in Christ. It really replenishes itself as we partake in the sacraments. It seems almost too good to be true, but it is true. We are adopted.
We are also acquitted. (Cf Rom 3:19-24) Our tradition tells us that God is perfectly holy and pure. Yet he offers to put his life inside 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 the companion who is most vivid to me is Jesus, the perfect image of God, I realize how often I fall short of that 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, if we did draw near as we are, how could we even tolerate the bright 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 the judge. When we see our flaws, we know instinctively that God cannot just pretend we are innocent. He is the truth; he can’t lie about our sin. Somebody has to fix this for real, with a solution that honors justice, not a sham that leaves us as bad off as before. Who will serve the sentence? Who will pay the penalty? 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 with all its consequences to the Cross and pays the price 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. 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 aren’t trying to work our way to it, we aren’t trying to pay the price ourselves, we aren’t plea-bargaining -- we’re just standing there, marveling, wrapped in his love, saying “Thank you.”
And finally we are apprenticed. (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 is the point at which Jesus looks at us and says, “Follow me.” He gives us a desire to learn his ways, to let the things he did and said soak into us 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, but that also 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 learn and practice. You can’t grab your phone and say “OK google, make me a more compassionate person.” If you let Jesus apprentice you, over time, he can and he will. He does it in his own way, with many inconveniences, often through other people and often with lots of trial and error. But when you are his apprentice, everything can become grist for his mill, 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 an acquittal we finally admit we cannot 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.