Monday, January 9, 2012

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?


I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.  (Mark 1:8)
Jesus makes a remarkable claim on our lives.  He wants us to completely identify with him.  In other words, if someone asks you who you are, he wants you to say first and most fundamentally, “I am a Christian.”
But, what does it mean to be a Christian? Sometimes people get so hung up on being Christian that they forget Jesus.  They think it means voting a certain way or reading the Bible a certain way or saying who goes to hell and who goes to heaven or rejecting the very idea of heaven and hell altogether.
Here’s what Jesus says it means: follow me.  Or to put it terms of today’s Gospel, baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Paolo Veronese's "The Baptism of Christ"
Apparently, some people still settle for John’s baptism of repentance, even though John explicitly said that his baptism was just preliminary.  Let’s look first at John’s baptism, and that will help us to see more clearly what it means to follow Jesus by contrast.
It puzzles some people that John the Baptist drew such large crowds by preaching about repentance.  As a culture, we equate freedom from feelings of remorse with psychological health.  
But I suspect that our attitude toward those feelings only betrays the struggle that so many of us continue to have.  Besides, John was not inviting people to feel lousy about themselves.  He was offering a way to deal with the remorse they already felt.
Remorse plays an important role in our lives.  It helps us to correct course.  In other words, remorse is a feeling we have about the errors of our past.  The point of this feeling is to motivate us to move into the future in a new way.  
Remorse is a powerful motivator precisely because it is the felt reality that the past is more than spilt milk or water under the bridge.  Remorse reveals that, in some very real sense, what we have done—both good and ill—sticks with us.  And the harm we have done can burden us, even imprison us, in the past.

There’s a scene from the film The Shawshank Redemption that paints an especially striking portrait of remorse.  A character named “Red” (played by Morgan Freeman) is serving life for a murder he committed as a very young man.  
In the course of the film, Red goes before the parole board three times.  The first two times we see him try to convince the parole board that he is completely rehabilitated and sorry for his crimes.  Both times the board denies his parole.  
After serving 40 years of his sentence, he comes before the board for a third time.  When asked if he’s sorry for what he did, this is what Red says:
There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. 
Red knows about remorse.  He knows that remorse itself will never set you free.  That’s probably why so many of us resist admitting when we’re wrong.  
We know the awful power of remorse.  But remorse is only part of the equation, and that is what John the Baptist came to tell the people of Israel.
God offers freedom from remorse, precisely because he offers forgiveness or remission of sins.  There is no getting around the remorse, but there is liberation from it.  Just refusing to feel guilt is a shallow psychological trick and a moral dodge.  
John the Baptist offered a Baptism of repentance for the remission of sins: freedom from guilt based on genuine release from the moral debts we’ve accumulated.  Without realizing it, he was prefiguring the power of the Cross.
No wonder people flocked to hear John and to receive his baptism! They wanted to be free from the burden of guilt and shame.  And I for one can’t blame them.  
Pieter Brueghel the Elder's "John the Baptist Preaching Repentance"

But even John stressed that there is more to life than escaping guilt feelings.  Life is about pursuing our dream.  And for that, we need a different baptism: baptism with the Holy Spirit.
In The Acts of the Apostles, we read about Paul’s encounter with some disciples in Ephesus. (Acts 19:1-7)  
Paul asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they reply that they have been baptized into John’s baptism.  Paul responded by baptizing them in the Name of Jesus.
Paul’s point is this.   There is more to following Jesus than getting our sins forgiven.  
Let me put it this way.  When we follow Jesus, our sins are forgiven.  But if our main goal is to escape the pain of guilt, then we are not really following Jesus.  We are pursuing psychological comfort.
The same can be said to those who say that they have accepted Jesus as their Savior. 
Following Jesus means that our sins are forgiven and that we are heirs of eternal life.  But if you accept Jesus as your Savior just to get into heaven when you die, you’re not following Jesus at all.  You’re just using him as a means to get preferred eternal accommodations.
Being baptized with the Holy Spirit means to dedicate our lives to following Jesus.  Not just to let him into our lives as an important component or to use him as a ticket to heaven.  Following Jesus means to let him take over your life completely.  
An essential part of doing that, as Scot McKnight has taught me, is to pursue the dream that Jesus himself gives his followers.  To dream the Kingdom of God.
That phrase has become shopworn.  Ironically, the meaning of “Kingdom of God” is one place that Conservatives and Liberals actually agree.  And of course they both get it stunningly wrong.  
For their own reasons and in their own way, both Conservatives and Liberals reduce the Kingdom to the hearts of believers.  They agree that God reigns in his Kingdom when he reigns in the hearts of believers.  
That ends up reducing the Kingdom to the attitudes and beliefs held in people’s hearts and minds.
But when Jesus taught about the Kingdom, those listening to him knew that he meant more than that.  God’s rightful Kingdom is God’s creation.  Everything.  Everywhere.  
And Jesus himself came to establish God’s Kingdom right here on planet earth.  Jesus knew this because the Father told him so directly.
Let’s look at Jesus’ baptism, and remember that this baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  When he emerged from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart.”  (Mark 1:10)  
God the Father was showing Jesus precisely the nature of his ministry.  Jesus came to exercise God’s sovereign power right here on earth.  His teaching, his healing, his exorcisms, his death and his resurrection embody the power of God to change this world.
That is Jesus’ dream.  God is coming to reclaim the world: to heal it from the ravages of sin and to bring it into relationship with Him.  
Following him means to be Church, not just go to church.  It means to live together in a way that shapes the world—at least a corner of the world—in a way that reflects the reign of God.
Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, serve the helpless, defend the weak, visit the lonely.
Let me give you an example.
Caravaggio's "Penitent Magdalene"

Magdalene is a residential program in Nashville for women who have endured lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets.  Here is what their founder, Episcopal priest Becca Stevens, says about the program:
For two years, we offer housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training, all without charge or taking any government funding…
Women in Magdalene range in age from 20-50, were sexually abused between the ages of 7-11, started using alcohol or drugs by 13, have been arrested on average a hundred times, and have spent about 12 years on the street prostituting…
… After four months women find work, return to school and/or enter Magdalene’s job training program... Magdalene offers a matched savings program to help residents prepare for economic independence upon graduation. Women who remain in recovery two years post-graduation are eligible for a new home buying program administered by two local congregations and Magdalene.
Dreaming and pursuing the Kingdom is an essential dimension of our baptism, the baptism with the Holy Spirit.  We follow Jesus into a broken and hurting world and he mends and heals it one small corner at a time through our beloved and loving hands.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral on January 8, 2011 (Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord).

4 comments:

  1. Powerful sermon this past Sunday. Shawshank is one of my most favorite movies. Have often realized there might be quite a bit of theology therein but couldn't quite put my hands around it. Thank you for your illumination.

    Jim Boyd

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  2. Thank you, Jim. It's one of my favorites. Hope and redemption trump remorse and regret in the film. At least, that's my take on it.

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  3. I missed this sermon on Sunday. I'm glad I got the chance to read it here. I need to remind myself often of many of the principles you mention here. The first of which is "I am a Follower of Christ" not just a Believer. I don’t just believe that Christ is my Savior (and I really do), I also believe he is my Leader, my Example. Of all the things I can identify with (my family, my friends, my job, my church, etc.) the most important and fulfilling is “I am a Follower of Christ”.
    Thank you,

    Jim Himes

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  4. Thanks, Jim. This coming Sunday I will be discussing what it means for Jesus to know us. We often talk about knowing Jesus, but Scripture is also clear that there is a connection between following Jesus and being known by him. I just leave that hanging there and hopefully address some the questions it raises on Sunday!

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