Estimated reading time: 6 minute(s)
My brother-in-law is in town, and so the days are filled with funny little sayings. He’s the master of calling people (mostly) benign little names. Slightly poking fun at all those around him. It’s hilarious!
My favorite from this trip has been calling out the religious affiliation of those around him. 🙂 He will proclaim someone a Christian (or not) based on whatever they choose to do—or not do—in a given situation. For instance, my sister chose to not eat the squid that their neighbors brought over as a gift, and as he retold the story to our kids he said something like, “Aunt Tara wouldn’t eat it, but I was a Christian and ate the squid.”
As far as I know, eating squid does not come into play when determining one’s religious affiliation. But it does get a good laugh!
Now, the weird part is, we know what he’s talking about. We know that to be a Christian means sacrificing yourself for other people. It means doing the right thing, even if you don’t want to. Being a Christian means that you consider others better than yourselves. Being a Christian means you act like Jesus. Right?
Well, here’s where I read too much into my brother-in-law’s jovial remarks. 😉
I know he does not intend any deep meaning to be conveyed by the remarks, and I am certain (as we had a conversation regarding this) that he does not think that doing the right stuff—and not the wrong stuff—makes you a Christian. But the fact that he said, and that we knew it… reveals a deep underlying misunderstanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Most people do think that Christianity is a set of moral principles to live by. Jesus said a bunch of stuff that we should do or not do, and he even gave us an example of what to do by the life he lived here, recorded in the Gospels. But if we stopped there, at just the things Jesus did, or the things he “commanded” us to do… then we miss the whole point.
I love the way a friend interprets the story of the man who came to Jesus, asking “what must I do to be saved?” The man is described as rich and powerful. Jesus first tells him, keep the law. (Which we know from other parts of Scripture is not what we “must do to be saved”.) The man says arrogantly, “I have! I’ve done all that!” He obviously has been trying hard to do all the right stuff, but was still not convinced he was “good enough”, which is a major failing of religion: you can never be “good enough”.
So Jesus says, “OK, well, then sell everything you have and give the money to the poor and come follow me. That’ll do it!” But as you’ll recall, there is not one other place in Scripture where Jesus (or anyone else) says we must sell everything we own and give the proceeds to the poor to be saved. I’ve always thought that what Jesus saw in this man was his love for material wealth, and was calling him to sacrifice that for the Kingdom. That’s the “Christian” thing to do, right? Well, how many of you “Christians” reading this have done that? Everything? Yeah. Right.
What my friend sees in the story is not Jesus adding more rules for us all (or even just this man) to follow in order to “be a Christian”, he sees a man who thinks he can earn his way to heaven, and so Jesus sets the bar even higher, with the hope that he will someday see the futility of his efforts and let God be the one to make him whole. “OK, you (think you) have done all that… well, now you have to do this.” It is the futility of religion. It will never be enough.
But some people define Christianity—including their own—as how you act. Do you choose to sacrifice your own desires or wants for those of the other people around you? Do you stop and help a stranded motorist on the highway? Do you give some change (or a meal) to a beggar on the streets? Do you make a donation at your local grocery store at the checkout line? Do you help your friends move when they have no one to help them? Do you make a concerted effort to visit people who are alone? Do you not throw away food, because of the starving kids in India?? Do you take your shopping cart back??? 🙂
The list could go on and on, and unfortunately for many Christians, it never ends. They are not as much compelled by love—as Paul said, “Christ’s love compels us”—but by a drive to do the right thing. To maintain their status as a “Christian” by doing what is expected of them as a Christian. That’s so sad.
See, it is true that all of those things are good things. Those are all things that Jesus might do. And, if you think of being a Christian as being “Christ like”, well, then that seems like a good thing. But I think the heart of the matter is the heart. If a person is doing all of those things, but only to retain the sense of spiritual status as a “Christian” (or even just feeling that they “have to” because it’s the “right thing to do”) I think they are missing out on the core of what the Kingdom of God is all about.
When Jesus was asked, point blank, what is the most important commandment, he replied, “Love God, and love people. Everything in the law and prophets is summed up by that.” (My paraphrase.) Jesus didn’t say, “You know that ‘No other Gods before me’ one… yeah, that’s the most important.” And he didn’t say, “They’re ALL important, mister! Why do you think I said them????” He said, “Everything you’ve heard me say to do or not do can be accomplished by simply loving God, and loving the people around you as much as you love yourself. Drop the selfish ambition, and really care about other people the same way you would watch out for yourself. Then you’ll be keeping the law”. (Again, my paraphrase.)
If we do the right thing, but do not have love… we’re missing the whole point. (Today is paraphrase day!)
Christianity is about rules. Being a follower of Jesus—a child of God, a member of his Kingdom—is not. It’s about loving God, and loving people. When you do that, you are by default keeping the “rules”, but with a focus on people, on the relational aspect. When you keep the rules to keep the rules (because it’s the “right thing to do”) it’s almost more about you than about the people who benefit from you keeping the rule. You are doing it to maintain your “righteousness” rather than for the benefit of the person you are “doing the right thing” for. You know?
The heart of the matter is the heart. You can’t always tell a Christian by what they do. That can be faked. But the Bible says you can tell us by how we love each other. And that can’t be faked. At least, not for very long.
So, while my bro-in-law, Josh, will continue to proclaim people’s religious convictions based on how they handle various situations, rest assured… it’s just all in good fun. 🙂