Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Definition of a Christian

What does it take to be a Christian? Over the centuries, there have been battles over right and wrong beliefs and fights over pure and misguided practices. Although these days we tend to use slightly less violent means to safeguard orthodoxy, many people have been killed in the name of “right religion.” I understand the need for maintaining the core truth of our faith, but I am not sure that there is such a thing as a litmus test for Christianity.

One summer when I was working at a Christian camp, a fellow counselor claimed that, as a member of a particular denomination, I was supposed to believe that my way was right and that other denominations (like his) were wrong. That didn’t make sense to me at the time, and it still doesn’t. Surely there are some practices used by other Christians (like grape juice for Communion) that we would not allow in our own church but that we could acknowledge as permissible for others. That spirit of a wide embrace, modeled so clearly by our savior’s open arms as he hung on the cross, shows up each Sunday in the invitation to Communion offered during the announcements.

Although I sometimes get the words wrong, every Sunday, I attempt to say, “Holy Communion at St. John’s is open to Christians of every denomination. If you would like to receive the sacrament here, please feel invited to do so.” Some of the people in the pews may have noticed that the language I currently use has evolved over the past several months. Back in July, while I was at General Convention, I wrote about the importance of being baptized before receiving Communion—a belief I still hold—but an ongoing conversation I am having with a parishioner has helped me rephrase that invitation, omitting any explicit reference to baptism but, as I have argued with him, maintaining it implicitly.

For almost all of the Church’s history, Communion has only been open to baptized Christians, but I think the very phrase “baptized Christians” has, for those two-thousand years, been a redundancy. If you are a Christian, you have been baptized. The principal means by which we declare that we are followers of Christ has been by receiving the Sacrament of Baptism. These days, however, I meet a lot of people whose childhood families stopped going to church before they were baptized. Since then, they have come back to church as adults and have decided to follow Jesus, but, for one reason or another, they haven’t yet had water sprinkled on their heads. Are they Christians?

In the New Testament lesson for this coming Sunday (Acts8:14-17), we will read about some Samarian believers who had been baptized in the name of Jesus but who had not yet received the gifts of the Spirit. When Peter and John “went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,” no second baptism was involved, but, through the power of their prayer, the Spirit came upon them. In a very real sense, they had already been baptized but were not yet living the Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed life of a Christian. So when did it become official?

A Christian is a person whose life has been given to Jesus Christ. As a televangelist I watched a few days ago put it, to be a Christian you must make Jesus the lord of your life, and that implies that the powers of the world must be placed in subjection to that lordship. If someone asked me, “How do I know whether I am a Christian?” I would respond, “Are you a follower of Jesus Christ?” In my mind, it is as simple as that. Likewise, if someone asked me, “Am I allowed to receive Communion?” I would reply, “Are you a Christian?” It would be hard for me to withhold the body and blood of our savior from one of his disciples regardless of his baptismal status.

Still, though, Christianity implies conversion. Sitting at the Lord’s table and partaking of the heavenly banquet prepared for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ requires conversion—a change of the heart. I believe that through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and born to new life as we “emerge” from the waters. If we are not willing to leave behind our sinful past and embrace that new life, we do not belong at the Communion rail. In the same way, it makes sense to me that everyone who is willing to undergo that spiritual rebirth should be baptized, but, given the complicated histories of contemporary Christians, I am willing to admit that some genuine disciples of Christ have not yet received that sacrament…yet.

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