Saturday, March 10, 2012

What Is a Christ-follower?

When you hear about someone being a Christian, what do you think about?

Popular culture generally looks at a Christian as a raving lunatic who spends his or her time telling everyone else how messed up they are. The challenge for those of us who are doing our best to follow Christ is that there are enough people out there who are like that to really make it hard to be heard. I’ve seen people, who say they serve Jesus, waving signs saying “God hates homosexuals.” I’ve seen others trying to intimidate people into becoming Christians. I’ve met many others who are simply annoying.

As Charles Colson wrote in his book “The Body,” “The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians - when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”  Eugene Peterson put it this way, “The word ‘Christian’ means different things to different people. To one person it means a stiff, upright, inflexible way of life, colorless and unbending. To another, it means a risky, surprise-filled venture, lived tiptoe at the edge of expectation... If we get our information from the biblical material, there is no doubt that the Christian life is a dancing, leaping, daring life.”

George Barna recently did some polling in the U.S. on this subject. The research discovered that people are reframing not just faith in general, but Christianity in particular. While slightly fewer adults - and many fewer teens - are identifying themselves as Christians these days, the image of the Christian faith has taken a beating. This battered image is the result of a combination of factors: harsh media criticism, "unchristian" behavior by church people, bad personal experiences with churches, ineffective Christian leadership amid social crises, and the like. The result is that those who choose to remain Christian - however they define it - are also reformulating the popular notion of what "Christian" and the Christian life mean. Some of those changes are producing favorable outcomes, while others are less appealing.

So the question remains, what is a true Christ-follower? Let’s look, first of all, at those things that don’t make you a Christ-follower.

Going to church does not make you a Christ-follower.
I would say that there are millions of people in the world today who go to church every Sunday, yet do not follow the example of Christ. Going to church makes you religious, but not necessarily a Christian. I would argue that in order to be a healthy, growing Christ-follower you need to be involved in a Christian community, but that act, in and of itself, says nothing about your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Giving money to the church does not make you a Christ-follower.
The Bible is very clear that stewardship of our resources - our handling of money - is a spiritual issue, but it also shows us that many people give for the wrong reasons. A true Christ-follower doesn’t give because he or she has to; they give because they believe in God’s work in this world and they want to make a difference.

Saying the right words doesn’t make you a Christ-follower.
God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said, in Isaiah 29:13 that “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” The apostle Paul tells us that it is both the heart and the mouth that matter. In Romans 10:10 he said, “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

Obeying the rules doesn’t make you a Christ-follower.
Some of Jesus’ harshest criticism was reserved for the Pharisees, a strict sect in Judaism which believed in following long detailed lists of rules that governed every area of their lives. In Matthew 23:27 He told them “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.”

The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, before he found Christ. This is what he said, in Philippians 3:7-9 about him obeying all the rules and regulations. “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

All of these things that we’ve talked about are good things in and of themselves. It’s a good thing to go to church, to help those in need; to live by the rules. But they don’t make you a Christian. So if going to church, giving to the church, saying the right words and obeying the rules don’t make you a Christ-follower, then what does?

Let’s look to an encounter between Jesus and a young man to see if we can find the answer. It’s found in Luke 18:18-30

1.                 He was a young man of standing in the community.

The Bible tells us that he had great wealth. He was likely a well-respected member of the community. Many of us have been raised hearing lines like “they’re from a good family.” What that generally means is that the person spoken of is from a family that is law-abiding; that stays out of trouble; that works hard; is generally honest; keeps their yard mowed; keeps their house in good condition and is generally not an embarrassment to their community.

He was the type of young man that most parents would be proud to have as a son. He wasn’t a wild and crazy guy who was into the party scene.

2.                 He was a religious man.

Not only was he a man of standing, he was a religious man. When he asked Jesus what he must do to be saved Jesus told him to obey the commandments, specifically the commandments dealing with how to treat your fellow man. Things like, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

He had kept all of these commandments from his youth up and he was proud of that achievement. This list of six commands was a list that, if obeyed, would win him favor with all of his friends, family and neighbors. How can you go wrong when you’re not violent, you don’t sleep around, you don’t steal, you don’t lie, you respect your parents and you love people? What a great guy? He was a man of standing in the community; he was a religious man.

3.                 He was lost. 
  • He knew he was lost.
He asked “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
He asked, “What do I still lack?”

  • Jesus knew he was lost.
He didn’t recognize Jesus for who He was (See vs. 17). Jesus immediately saw through this young man’s question to the underlying assumption. He assumed that Jesus was merely a good man. In Mark’s account he noted that the young man called Jesus a good Teacher. Jesus’ rebuke seems strange until you look at it in context.

Jesus recognized the fact that all men are sinners and stand condemned before a holy God. This young man thought Jesus was good, like he was good - it was a prideful and carnal statement. Righteousness is not earned by good works, it resides in God. This young man was standing before God in the flesh and was really wanting to know how he could make himself good enough for heaven.

An indication of where he was is found in his question in vs. 18. Jesus had just told him to obey the commandments and his response was to ask “Which ones?” Which is the magic list? It indicated that he knew he hadn’t kept all of them - and all of us know that we have not kept all of them.

We all play the comparison game like this guy was doing. I’m better than you are because I keep four of the commandments and you only keep three. It’s interesting that, even in prison, the issue of moral indignation is raised. They have to isolate criminals who are guilty of sexual crimes because the other inmates would beat them up because they’re only guilty of robbery or assault or fraud or whatever. Someone has said that people are only bad when they do worse things than I would do myself, otherwise they’re only a good person who’s made a mistake. Romans 3:23 tells us “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I want you to notice exactly what it was that Jesus left out from the list of the commandments. He included everything that related to our human relationships, all of the things that man sees. What He left off were the first four - those dealing with our relationship to God. “You shall have no other gods before Me?” “You shall not make any graven image.” “You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
The reason that Jesus didn’t include them is somewhat speculative, but I think we have a pretty good idea why. Jesus knew this man’s heart; He knows ours as well. He knew what governed this man; I believe it was his status in the community - his reputation, and his money. All of these things came ahead of God. He knew he was lost, Jesus knew he was lost, and finally...
  • His pride kept him lost.
What was it that made this man tick? What guided and motivated his decisions? What was his Lord? It appears from this conversation that this man wanted to stay as close to the status quo as he possibly could - yet he wanted to have eternal life - to be right with God.
In other words, he wanted God on his terms.

Notice that Jesus wasn't okay with that. In fact, the young man became very sad and went away because he had great wealth. He made his choice that money was more important to him than being right with God - and Jesus let him walk away.

God has always and will always demand first place in our lives. He created us and Jesus redeemed us and both of those are good reasons why He deserves that number 1 spot. Being a Christ-follower means He’s leading - not you, nor I. Jesus said we are to follow Him, not include Him on our list of interests.

There are a lot of people who want to be part-time believers. They want to follow Christ when it’s convenient, but Jesus never meant for that to happen and He never left that as an option. As a pastor, I often see people who claim the name of Christ but who refuse to submit to His Lordship. Because of this, they give Jesus a bad name. As Mahatma Ghandi famously said, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christian. They are so unlike your Christ." 

Have the courage of your convictions and live what you believe. Live your life in such a way that you enhance God's reputation in the world.

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