The Almost Christian
Matthew 23:1-12, Philippians 2:5-11
I wonder how many of us can name the 10 commandments? I am not interested so much in the order but content. Can anyone recall any of the 10 commandments? Just shout them out.
- Ø Love God only – have no other gods before God
- Ø No idols, American or otherwise
- Ø Do not take the Lord’s name in vain
- Ø Remember the Sabbath
- Ø Honor your father and mother
- Ø Do not murder
- Ø Do not commit adultery
- Ø Do not steal
- Ø Do not bear false witness
- Ø Do not covet
We hear references to the 10 commandments all the time. We innately understand these to be the basic principles to live by. We teach these to our children and take pride when they follow the good message imbedded in these commandments. If you are one to follow these commandments to the letter, Wesley would argue that you are an ‘Almost Christian.’
There is a popular comedian who made his career on a little phrase that he would include after an “if” statement. He would start with a one-liner and end with his zinger phrase, “you might be a redneck.” Jeff Foxworthy has truly made a name for himself with his observations on what constitutes a redneck. We heard our own version this week in Financial Peace University: “If your truck payment is bigger than your house payment, you might be a redneck!”
I would like to use this popular format to describe the Almost Christian:
- Ø If you attend weekly worship services and faithfully participate in Sunday School, you might be an Almost Christian.
- Ø If you assist with fellowship time, serve on church committees, and help with special church fundraisers, you might be an Almost Christian.
- Ø If you regularly present tithes and offerings and support the various ministries of Backpack Buddies and Angel Tree, UMCOR and the Lighthouse Shelter, you might be an Almost Christian.
- Ø If you read daily devotionals and whisper prayers for yourself and others throughout the day, you might be an Almost Christian.
- Ø If you work hard to be nice to others and maintain a positive attitude in spite of the attitudes of those around you, you might be an Almost Christian.
- Ø If you regularly abstain from gossip, swearing, backbiting, evil thoughts, slandering, and the like, you might be an Almost Christian.
This is a haughty list. At this point you may be thinking that it is impossible to be anything but an Almost Christian.
Jesus regularly criticized the church leaders of his day, calling them hypocrites. The word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word that means ‘actor.’ It literally means someone who acts one way but is in fact drawn to another way. Webster defines a hypocrite as ‘a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs.’ Jesus witnessed the church leaders who made great ceremony about tithing, having someone sound an alarm to alert the masses they were about to give to the church. The Pharisees would wear impressive raiment and insisted on being seated at the places of honor. They took great strides to ensure cleanliness laws including the public washing of their dishes before eating. On the outside, the Pharisees seemed to be faithful followers of God.
We often speak of the Apostle Paul. The letter to the church in Philippi was written by Paul of which a portion was read for us. But we need to remember that Paul for most of his life was a good Pharisee. Paul was the Pharisee of all Pharisees. He had trained and studied in the synagogue his entire life. He was groomed for life in the church and knew the law probably better than most. He was one who offered sacrifices on behalf of many. He was concerned with keeping the Israelites holy in the sight of God. He was most likely convinced that if God were to see the people as repentant and worthy, God would eliminate their enemy the Romans and restore the Israelites to their rightful glory as God’s chosen people. He followed the laws of Moses and did what he thought God was leading him to do.
Yet there was something missing with the Pharisees. There was something missing in Paul. The major difference for Wesley between the Almost Christian and what he calls the Altogether Christian is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is our motivation that is the difference between the two. Are we motivated to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God out of a sense of obligation or duty? Are we more concerned with earning enough points to ensure our name is placed in the Lamb’s Book of Life? Are we motivated by fear of the unknown or by our overflowing love for Jesus Christ?
Many of us are like Paul. We grew up in the church. We were baptized as infants, attended Sunday School as children, were married in the church, made sure our children were baptized and that they too attend Sunday School and worship. We have listened to countless sermons, read scripture, prayed together and supported the church. Yet we may have never experienced the unfathomable love of Jesus Christ for ourselves. We may never have had that special assurance that Christ died even for us.
John Wesley had a similar experience. He was certainly raised in the church. His father was a priest, his mother taught scripture as part of her home schooling. He attended Oxford and followed in his father’s footsteps on the road to ordination. He helped his brother establish their Holy Club where colleagues gathered together to study scripture and ventured out to visit the sick and the imprisoned. He even ventured into the mission field to the New World, sharing his small group model and stringent accountability practices which were not well received. All this time, John suffered from doubts that Jesus would care about someone like him. He could preach this assurance to others, but did not feel it for himself in his heart and soul.
It was only after John hit rock bottom after his failed mission trip that he truly had his life-changing experience with Jesus Christ. While attending a class meeting at Aldersgate, John felt the hand of Christ on his life providing the reassurance that ‘yes’ Christ lived on earth, died, and rose again even for him. The Apostle Paul had a similar experience on his way to Damascus where he was preparing to ‘escort’ Jesus’ followers to Jerusalem for trial. Both men came to a realization of the difference between an Almost Christian and an Altogether Christian.
Are we motivated to do good out of a sense of fear and obligation, or out of an outpouring of the love of Christ in us that is so vast, we can’t help but share with others? Do we maintain the assurance that Christ died even for us because he loved us so much more that we could ever truly understand? Do we face the trials of our lives with the assurance that no matter what, we know that Jesus is right there with us? We know it in the very depth of our souls. If so, than we are well on our way to becoming Altogether Christians.
For the Apostle Paul and the Wesleys’, both John and Charles, they can mark a specific time in their lives when their encounter with Jesus Christ changed their course of action. For some of us though, we cannot point to a specific date and time. For me, I found myself as many others, growing up in the church. I too attended services regularly, went to Sunday School and youth group, sang in choirs and did all the church things. Throughout my life I have been able to feel myself being drawn to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. It all comes down to my trust and belief that Jesus is truly with me always. This belief has grown and developed over time. I do have the assurance that Christ died even for me. At times I still struggle with my faith, but I believe Jesus is right there with me helping me through the struggle. I cannot point to a date and time of transformation, but I can look at a lifetime of drawing closer to Jesus and following God’s calling to ministry. I believe I am working toward being an Altogether Christian.
Today I would like to do something a little different and segue us right from the sermon into a time of prayer. The altar is open if you would like to come forward for prayer and I would be glad to pray with you. If you are in need of healing for yourself or for someone else, if you are discouraged, if you are angry with God, struggling with your faith, or just need a time and place of quiet prayer, this is the time and this is the place. I am going to ask the choir to do something as well by joining in singing ‘Just as I am’ on page ___ of the hymnal. Let us just spend a little time in prayer together. Remember those on our prayer list, those in our community, our children and young people, our nation and our world. Jesus the Christ is with us now and always. Amen.