What makes you a Christian? Are you a Christian because you came to worship today? Are you a Christian because you got out of bed on your only day off and came to church? Are you a Christian because your parents and grandparents were Christian? Are you a Christian because you attend Sunday school and participate in Bible studies? Are you a Christian because you pray? Are you a Christian because you give your money to the church and support community charities? Are you a Christian because you do good deeds? Are you a Christian because you follow a specific moral and ethical code of conduct and never stray from it? Are you a Christian because you were baptized and receive communion? Are you a Christian because you say you are a Christian?
As modern as they may sound, these questions rest at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Like a good pastor, Paul is writing to the church in Philippi to answer their most urgent question: what makes me a Christian? And Paul offers a profound answer. But to understand Paul’s answer, we have to remember the most significant event in Paul’s life.
Paul had a very sudden and very shocking encounter with Jesus while traveling to Damascus one day. Paul was on his way to Damascus to deliver warrants issued by the Roman governor for the imprisonment and execution of Christians. Suddenly, Paul was surrounded by a great light and a voice boomed from heaven, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Immediately, he went blind and he neither ate nor drank for three days. With the help of a disciple named Ananias, Paul eventually realized that this was his turning point. No more persecuting the church; no more killing Christians; no more denying the power and might of God. As Paul took this in, something like scales fell from his eyes. He got up, was baptized, ate a little food, and began a preaching tour that reshaped the course of Christian history for all time. The change was so great in him that he had to change his name from Saul to Paul.
Writing to the Christians in Philippi about what it means to be a Christian—what it is that makes a person a follower of Jesus—Paul has that Damascus trip on his mind. Paul’s former life, before Jesus, was marked by a strict code of morals and ethics, morals and ethics that led him to persecute and murder Christians. In his former life, Paul was at the very height of righteousness; he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the house of Israel, a doctor of religious law, a fierce evangelist. In other words, every box on Paul’s religious checklist had a check mark in it. He fed on this and it gave him a lot of pride. Resting his head on the pillow each night, Paul knew for certain that he stood blameless before God and the world.
But then he met Jesus, and it all changed. Every check that Paul put on his checklist became nonsense. The laws he followed, the violence he perpetrated, the ferocity of his preaching—all of it fell to the ground as dust and ashes when he met Jesus. In Jesus, Paul learned that he was righteous not because of anything he had done, but rather because of what Christ had done on his behalf. In Jesus, Paul came to understand that when God looks at him, God looks at him through the lens of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, Paul saw all the time he had wasted trying to be perfect, all the time he had wasted trying to be pure, all the time he had wasted trying to be right—all of it was a waste because Christ’s perfection, Christ’s purity, Christ’s righteousness surpasses everything. In Jesus, Paul came to know and believe that he was redeemed not because he followed the law and did all the rituals and prayed all the right prayers. No, Paul claims redemption because Christ lived and died and rose again and ascended into power to sit at God’s right hand for him and for the entire world.
You know, when I look at the massive and complex problems we face in our world today, and when I think about how people of faith might speak wisdom and love into those problems, I lament the state of things. But I’m not lamenting declining church membership or low worship attendance; I’m not even lamenting that our culture seems to be totally ambivalent to people of faith—neither welcoming nor hostile. Instead, what I lament is that a growing number of Jesus’ following are making a radical swing back to living like Paul did before he met Jesus. I lament that Christians are going back to thinking that they are Christians because they follow this law, or perform this ritual, or give this amount of money to the church, or hate this person or group of people, or violently persecute those who are not Christians. This is a huge problem; a huge, sad problem.
The problem in our world isn’t that we need more Christians; the problem is that we need more Christians who rely on the power of Jesus and not on their ability to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ’t’ of the law. The problem in our world isn’t that we need more Bible study or more prayer; the problem is that we need more Christians who listen for God in the Word and pray for God’s wisdom instead of picking and choosing what they want to follow or not. The problem in our world isn’t that we need more baptisms or more conversions or more saved souls; the problem is that we need more Christians who know that there isn’t a thing they can do, or not do, to revoke the great love that God showers on all people. We don’t need more redeemed people, we need more Christians who know that they are already redeemed, who ferociously and generously and without fear or shame share God’s good news with all people.
Most importantly of all, we need to be redeemed Jesus people who look at the world and know that this is not the end, that this is not the way things will ultimately be. We need to be people who witness a mass shooting or a mass lay-off and respond not with more weapons or more destruction, but with hope that God will comfort the broken-hearted and dry every tear. We need to be people who witness a mass exodus from a violent country or a massive decline in the economy and respond not with fear and isolation, but with the same amount of grace and compassion as we have received from God. We need to be people who proclaim not the power of empire or government or ethnicity or denomination or political party or social club or group, but who proclaim the mighty power of God that has drawn us out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light. We need to be people who send our thoughts and prayers and then bring those thoughts and prayers to life with our hands and feet. To do anything less would be to deny the power of Christ and his death and resurrection.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, hear this: you have been redeemed. You have been saved from sin and death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Your sins have been washed away, the past is far behind you, you are the apple of God’s eye. You did nothing to deserve it and you did nothing to earn it. You also cannot lose it and it will never be taken away from you. That’s what makes you a Christian, accepting the free gift of God’s love and grace. Whatever else you think makes you a Christian is now considered as loss because of Christ. So forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, lets press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavy call of God in Jesus Christ. One day, Christ will return and all things will be made new and complete. But until that day comes, press on. Press on with hope. Press on with love. Press on with compassion and empathy and humble service. Press on with a light that no darkness can overcome. Press on and nothing—nothing in heaven or on earth, above it or below, no rulers or powers or principalities, and certainly nothing from the depths of hell—will stand against you. Praise the Lord! Let’s all say amen together. Amen.