by Rev. Doug Gray
The story is told that many years ago, John and Marsha moved into an all Catholic neighborhood. The neighbors invited the new family to go to mass with them, and afterward, introduced John and Marsha to the priest, Father Dominic. When they had talked for a little bit, Father Dominic invited the couple and the neighbors into his study and shut the door. This made the John and Marsha a little nervous, and they mentioned that they were born Congregationalists, and had really never been Catholic. Would it be hard to become Catholic? Father Dominic said, “No problem.” He waved his hand over John and Marsha and said, “You were born a Congregationalist. You have lived as a Congregationalist. Now you are a Catholic.” Then he shook their hands, “There! Now you’re Catholics!” and the couple joined the church the next Sunday. When Lent rolled around, the Catholics all stopped eating meat on Friday. But that first Friday in Lent, one of the neighbors was walking past John and Marsha’s house, and he could smell steak cooking on the grill. He thought he was imagining it. But the next Friday, he was walking by, and again he smelled beef cooking on the grill. It smelled amazing, and his mouth started watering. That Sunday, several members of the church cornered Father Dominic. “Please, Father,” they begged. “You have to get them to stop. The meat smells so good, it’s leading us into temptation.” So the Father promised and the next Friday, he headed over to John and Marsha’s house. Sure enough, as Father Dominic was walking up to the house, he could smell the meat cooking on the grill. He peeked over the fence and saw John waving his hand over each steak. He was saying, “You were born a cow. You lived as a cow. Now you are a fish.” What makes a Christian a Christian? Is there some magic formula that you have to say and do? How do you know? Our passage for today asks some of the same questions…will the answers surprise you?
“What makes a Christian a Christian?” is really not a question anyone can answer. When we moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, the first Sunday I was there, two of the church’s teen-agers were ushering. One wore blue jeans and the other wore baggie sweat pants. That afternoon, Lois Schmidley (who had left 90 in the dust) called me up on the phone. She told me how she couldn’t believe how the girls were dressed. Would I please talk with them about it? I said, “Lois, I think God was glad to see them today. Don’t you?” What I wasn’t going to say to Lois was that those young women were the daughters of an alcoholic who hardly had two nickels to rub together and was hardly able to function, let alone look after his daughters. If the young women had clean clothes, it was because they had cared enough to wash them. If they had fancy clothes for Homecoming, it was because they had worked for them, or borrowed or been given them. I knew that church was one of the few places they were loved and appreciated for who they were. Underneath Lois’ phone calls was the belief that in order to be Christian, you had to dress and act in a certain way. While that may have been her cultural experience, it was not the cultural experience of these young women. What made Lois and these young women all Christian is that they all wanted to be close to Jesus Christ, to learn how to live and love and laugh with Jesus.
What makes someone a Christian is the wrong question. It should be Who makes someone a Christian. Because the answer is Jesus Christ. Does that seems a little weird. Didn’t Jesus die 2000 years ago? Yes and no. Yes, Jesus died on a cross 2000 years ago, crucified though innocent, going to the Cross out of love for God and each of us. No, Jesus is not still dead. People have seen Jesus, walked with Him, talked with Him. And Jesus promised when two or three gather in His Name, there He would be—and over and over again, we have experienced the presence of Jesus in our midst. Around the world today, people are gathering to worship God with Jesus in their midst. Whether they are in stone cathedrals with gold crosses, or mud huts with wooden ones—millions of people are looking to this sign of shameful death and seeing love, looking at a symbol of powerlessness and seeing the gift. That’s grace—love before we were ready or deserved it, love just in time. Jesus is the One Who comes to us, arms open wide, to love in a way beyond what we find in the world. Paul writes, “for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles…” Jesus is Who makes us Christians, and experiencing Jesus’ grace is part of what transforms us.
So we can’t really know who’s a Christian, but we can look for signs of grace. Paul writes, “when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me…” Do we see people suffering out of sacrificial love for others? That’s a Jesus thing. Are we welcoming strangers, standing up for justice, and showing kindness to those who need it most? Those are all Jesus things. The only thing the pillars of the Jerusalem church asked Paul to do was make sure everyone remembered the poor. Jesus did after all. But doing these things doesn’t make us Christian. We don’t get into heaven by putting enough checkmarks in the Book of Nice. We show grace to others because of the grace we have received.
You’ll notice that being Catholic or Congregational or anything else doesn’t make you Christian. It’s not whether or not you eat meat on Fridays, or even what kind of religious experiences you’ve had. It’s not how much money you have, what language you speak, what songs you sing. All those who seek Jesus and try to live by grace are our family in God, on our Team Jesus. It’s not for us to decide who is a Christian and who is not—that’s for God to sort out. It is for us to ask ourselves is my life marked by grace? When others come into my circle, can others warm themselves at the fire of God’s love? At the end of the day, the One Who matters is Jesus, and the gift of grace that changes all we are.