That was the message on the billboard on I-40. The word “real” was in real big letters.
As I sped by, I couldn’t see who paid for the message. I imagined the sponsor worried that too many folks were not following Jesus’ teaching. Too many not-real Christians around. I also imagined that the sponsors were pretty sure they were real Christians, that they had gotten Jesus’ teaching right, and were following that teaching, which included putting up this billboard. I imagined the variety of political or social concerns that might have motivated sponsors.
The intended effect of the sign, was of course, to make folks think about whether they were real Christians. It worked on me. Driving along the highway, I reviewed the challenging nature of Jesus’ teachings and how poorly I follow them. Jesus said things like “sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Was he kidding? Only speaking metaphorically? He called people to care for the marginlized. I haven’t obeyed that one in any substantive way. He declared harsh judgment on those who ignored people in need. I do that on a daily basis. He taught that we should not judge others (perhaps that we shouldn’t even worry about who is a real Christian) because if we do, we will be judged. He taught that we should love enemies, and do good to those who curse. I’m too often consumed with anger and resentment at those who see things differently than I do. He said we should resolve broken relationships before we come to the altar. I’ve let that one slide. He called us to forgive unlimited numbers of times. I consider it a big deal to offer forgiveness just one time, maybe. He said first shall be last, and vice versa. Try that at customer service lines or in traffic. He said you can’t find your life unless you lose it. Put that in a self help book.
You get the point.
The more I thought about what I know of Jesus’ teachings, and how often I fail to follow them, the more I wondered about what it means to be a real Christian, an odd question for a priest. In oh so many ways, I fail to live up to his teaching of love and grace and forgiveness. And in a season when the New York Times introduces a weekly section devoted to hate crimes in our country, I daresay I’m not alone.
When people tell me that they don’t know if they can be part of the church because the church is full of hypocrites, I can only respond: “guilty as charged.” Mahatma Gandhi, on one occasion, tried to attend a church service, as he was exploring the Christian faith. He was turned away at the door because of the color of his skin. Upon reflection on that experience, he said: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians!” At another point in his life, he said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” G.K.Chesterton, noted theologian put it this way: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”
So what is to be done? Note that the first followers of Jesus were not called Christians. They were called people of the way, suggesting progress not perfection. I came across a passage last week in which Jesus talks to his disciples, teacher guiding students. He said: “By this will all people know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” Maybe that’s all the teaching we need.
Maybe, when all is said and done, there was only one real Christian. We just celebrated his birth. What’s left for the rest of us? Perhaps a New Year’s resolution: Step by step, to be more like Jesus, living into his vision of a community marked by love in all the way that love gets expressed: kindness, compassion, forgiveness, joy, generosity.
His teaching is not easy. But his way with us is marked by grace. We don’t always need to get it right. In fact, we best be careful when we think we’ve gotten it right.
As I contemplate the challenge of being a “real” Christian, in 2017, I’ll try to carry these words from Richard Rohr: “God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good.”
Matthew 11:28-30, New Revised Standard VersionJesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30, The MessageJesus said: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me-watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The Summary of the Law (Mark 12:29-31) or in other words, Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell:
Jesus said: The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
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