What is a Christian?

The original title of this sermon was ‘What is church?’ but as I started preparing it, I realised I can’t address that question without addressing an even more fundamental one namely: ‘What is a Christian?’ and that’s what I’d like to explore with you now…

 

Well, as with so many things there are two equal and opposite errors we can make here, two extremes to avoid. On the one hand, you have people who think that being a Christian is simply a subset of being English or European or whatever. If you are a citizen of a Christian country, you are a Christian regardless of how often you go to church, pray, read the Bible or don’t as the case may be.

 

Now people who think like that might talk in terms of good and bad Christians, practising or non-practising, but ultimately it’s a tribal thing: we are Christians as opposed to Jews, Muslims or Hindus. And quite frankly (such people might say) it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself or what you call God cos they’re all just different names for the same thing anyway…

 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, you have those for whom the world is divided into two classes of people: the sheep and the goats; true Christians on the right and non-Christians – or indeed people who think that they’re Christians but aren’t really – on the left…

 

And of course there is significant biblical warrant for that position including the parable of the sheep and the goats itself and today’s New Testament reading [Romans 10:5-17] in which Saint Paul says if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved; the implication being that if you don’t confess and believe those things, you won’t be. And then both Saint Peter and Jesus himself talked of the need to be born again so surely it’s both reasonable and right to say that those who have been born again are in and those who haven’t are out? Jesus said you must be born again therefore all Christians should be Born again Christians, right?

 

Well, yes and no. In one sense I’m very happy to wear that label myself. You’re probably already bored of hearing me talk about the life-changing experience I had 20 years ago but that was very much a rebirth. The old Ravi, Ravi Maharishi, died and Ravi Holy was born. So, I am a born again Christian. But there are two problems with that terminology: 1) not everyone is lucky enough to have that sort of Damascus Road experience (or should that be not everyone is unlucky enough to need it?) and 2) the phrase ‘born again Christian’ is now inextricably associated with a particular type of Christianity that is not to everyone’s taste and the point that I want to make here is that there are different types of Christianity, different ways of being Christian and we can’t really say that one is superior to another – although unfortunately some of us do.

 

To give you an example: the church at which I served my title in London, St Luke’s, was very much a middle-of-the-road, traditional parish church albeit a thriving one with lots of young families and children. But to the church round the corner it wasn’t a ‘proper’ church, to them it was a mere social club because we weren’t preaching the gospel in the way they thought we should. Now, I say ‘we’. In fact, they thought that I was okay, cos word had got around that the new curate at St Luke’s had been to the right sort of theological college, one of the kosher ones, and had had the right sort of conversion experience; you know, I can name the exact date and time at which I was converted which is the ultimate test of orthodoxy for people who think in that way…

 

Now I discovered this one day when I saw a young Mum looking at the noticeboard outside the church; so, as any evangelistically-minded clergyman or indeed layperson would do, I asked her if she needed any further help. And she said Oh no I go to…the church round the corner; I’m just checking something for my friend who lives near here… And then she said: actually, are you, Ravi? And, slightly taken aback I said, yes I am but how do you know my name? And she said ‘well we were all very excited to hear that the new curate at St Luke’s was a Christian…

 

Now since most of you don’t know any of the other clergy at St Luke’s, you may not appreciate the full horror of what she said there. But the fact is, the senior minister at that time, John, was and is a saint. He’d be mortified to hear me say that and would deny it furiously but that’s precisely because he is a humble saintly man. But to this woman who I’m sure was a delightful person in many ways herself, he wasn’t even a Christian. And if you ask why she thought that, well, it seems to me that it boils down to the fact that he likes singing different songs to her and uses different language to express his faith: sacrament rather than salvation; piety rather than Pentecost. And of course there are many other saintly people at St Luke’s, both ordained and lay, who would similarly fail this woman’s unofficial inquisition and I find that very depressing…

 

So, those are the two extremes, but where or what is the happy middle? And of course Anglicanism has always been about trying to find the happy middle. As the preface to the book of common prayer puts it: it hath been the wisdom of the Church of England ever since the first compiling of her publick liturgy to keep the mean between the two extremes. And I’ll say more about that next week. But what is the middle ground on this issue of who or what is a Christian?

 

Well, I think that marriage provides us with a good analogy…. In the same way that I was lucky enough to have the full, road to Damascus born again conversion experience, I was also lucky enough to fall in love at first sight – and I’m talking about with my wife obviously. And it was the same for her too. She denies that but she did…

And that’s great but clearly you don’t have to have that textbook, cupid’s arrow start to have a life-giving and life-long marriage; lots of couples who were head over heels in love when they got married end up getting divorced and I’m sure there’s just as many happy couples who might not be able to say exactly when they fell in love with their partner, it was something that grew and developed over time.

 

And I think the Christian life is like that for many people; especially people who have grown up in the church. I know lots of ‘cradle Anglicans’ who couldn’t tell you exactly when they first started believing, they just know they do now. Most of the time. But, you know, if you have a day or even a week of doubt does that mean you stop being a Christian? Well, of course it doesn’t, any more than not being head over heels in love with your wife or husband for every single minute of every single day stops you being married. Of course, I am head over heels in love with my wife every single minute of every day but that’s a bonus…

 

So, to sum up: it doesn’t matter whether you can pinpoint the exact moment that you fell in love with your partner or not; what matters is that you said ‘I do’ on your wedding day. In the same way, whether or not you can identify the hour you first believed to quote the famous Wesley hymn, however you came to the point of wanting to follow Jesus if you have been baptised and confirmed which involves doing what Saint Paul said in our reading today, publicly confessing Jesus as the risen Lord, you are a Christian.

 

Now the only possible complicating factor here is that many of us were not only baptised but also confirmed as children or at least as young teenagers so this raises the question of whether confirmed people who no longer have any interest in God are in any meaningful sense Christians and that of course brings us to the whole question of what the church is which we’ll address in due course…