Thomas Jefferson had died. He was our third president, our second vice-president, and our first Secretary of State. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. As president, he established the US Military Academy, purchased the Louisiana Territory (doubling the size of the US), and commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the west. He founded the University of Virginia, made the Library of Congress possible and abolished the international slave trade. He was also a husband and a father of six or more (oh yeah, way more) children. And that is just a quick sample of all the things he accomplished. I know, it’s a pretty impressive list. Now, based on all of this, what do you think should be inscribed on his tombstone? Let’s put this discussion into a context. Søren Kierkegaard, the philosopher, author, and all-around great Dane dictated exactly what he wanted on his tombstone. He wanted two very simple words: “The Individual.” See, Kierkegaard was all against going with the flow and being a nameless face in the crowd. He wanted to think his own thoughts, make his own choices and stand on his two feet. To be an individual was Kierkegaard’s greatest goal in life. And that is what people do. They put what is most important to them—their greatest accomplishments, their highest honors, their deepest loves—on their tombstone so that those things would be remembered by all. But what if you were like Jefferson and had too many accomplishments, honors and victories to list? What if they wouldn’t all fit? Instead of leaving it up to his family to decide, Jefferson dictated what he wanted on his gravestone (Kierkegaard’s desire for a simple, “The Individual,” was overridden by his family and so now instead of two words, there are thirty-eight, none of which are from Kierkegaard’s own writings which in my opinion, is a real bummer). Jefferson’s tombstone reads: “Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.” Interestingly, Jefferson didn’t think it was worth mentioning that he was the secretary of state, our vice president or the third president. Yikes!
What’s most important to you? For many of us, that is an easy answer. We are Christians; and if there is anything that we want to hold on to in life and in death, it is our faith. But what does it mean to be a Christian? Ten weeks ago, that was an easy question to answer. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus, has had their sins forgiven and will go to heaven when they die. But now, we understand that it is not so black and white as that. A Christian is someone who follows Jesus and embraces his kingdom vision, values and perspectives. That may be too weak. A Christian is someone who follows Jesus’ kingdom teaching in everything he or she does and allows his life to be shaped head-to-toe by Jesus’ words, not just in theory, but in actual day-in and day-out practice. And they do so with such a passion that it becomes the driving force in their lives. And a Christian is also someone who gives themselves to Jesus in the way of justice, someone who seeks God’s justice through God’s kingdom society on earth. And a Christian is someone who advances the cause of peace—peace between people, peace between groups, peace between races, peace between countries. Everywhere the Christian goes, she should be advancing the cause of peace. The Christian is also committed to growing wise, by following Jesus’ words, by modeling our lives after Jesus, and by striving to be remade into Jesus’ image. And a Christian is someone who is committed to Jesus and the way of Jesus. Jesus said it this way: “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” That’s commitment.
Throughout this series, I’ve confessed that I was stealing a lot of Scot McKnight’s book, One.Life. If one is going to steal, one should steal from the best. Here’s Scot’s summary of all I have been saying:
“A Christian is one who follows Jesus by devoting his or her One Life
to the kingdom of God, fired by Jesus’ own imagination,
to a life of loving God and loving others,
and to a society shaped by justice, especially for those who have been marginalized,
to peace, and to a life devoted to acquiring wisdom in the context of a local church.
This life can only be discovered by being empowered by God’s Spirit.”
So, here’s my question: If this is how we define what a Christian is, are you a Christian?
One of my good friends, someone I respect and admire greatly, has stopped calling himself a Christian (for many reasons, including the ones I mentioned in the second post in this series, as well as the lack of clear understanding in our world today as to what it actually means, but most of all because of the attitude of self-righteousness he fears may be communicated in making such a claim) and now prefers to say that he is “trying to be a Christian.” There’s a lot of wisdom there, as well as a lot of humility. See, when I look at everything Jesus includes when he calls us to follow him, I have to admit that I am not a Christian. At times, I can’t even honestly say that I am trying to be a Christian. The best I can do is say that if you look over the whole scope of my life, I hope you will see that in my hearts of hearts, I deeply wanted to be a Christian.
Now, thankfully our redemption does not lie in our effort, but in Christ’s atoning death and God’s provision of amazing, undeserved, outrageous grace. We don’t find the forgiveness of sins by resting in our own goodness or trusting in our own accomplishments, but in resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf. No matter what we do, we must always remember that we are saved by grace alone, not by our own works. But there seems to be something wrong with saying we are Christ followers and then ignoring all the things Jesus calls us to do. Maybe the best I can say is that I am seeking to follow Christ, and sometimes I do so fairly well, and sometimes I do so poorly. But the truth of the matter is this, I can’t call myself a Christian. That’s horrific news. But thanks be to God, HE calls me a Christian. Despite my sin and wandering heart, he has chosen to call me his very own. In truth, he can (and promises to) see me through the lens, not of my failures, but of his love and grace.
Brennan Manning understands this beautifully. He writes:
“Why is Brennan Manning lovable in the eyes of God? Because on February 8th of 1956, in a shattering, life-changing experience, I committed my life to Jesus. Does God love me because ever since I was ordained a priest in 1963, I roamed the country and lately all over the world proclaiming the Good News of the gospel of grace? Does God love me because I tithe to the poor? Does he love me because back in New Orleans I work on skid row with alcoholics, addicts, and those who suffer with AIDS? Does God love me because I spend two hours every day in prayer? If I believe that stuff, I’m a Pharisee! Then I feel I’m entitled to be comfortably close to Christ because of my good works. But the gospel of grace says, ‘Brennan, you’re lovable for one reason only—because God loves you. Period.’”
There is grace; and yet, we must never forget our calling to follow. Yes, to be a Christian is to be a recipient of grace. And to be a Christian is to follow Jesus. Both are true. Both are necessary. Phil Yancey tells the story of a Jewish rabbi who always carried two stones in his pocket. On one stone were inscribed the words, “I am but dust and ashes.” And on the other were the words, “For my sake was the world created.” And carrying both stones enabled him to use each stone as he needed. We need to carry with us each and every day, two stones. One that says, “We are saved by grace.” And the other that says, “Jesus calls us to follow him.” And depending on the day and the situation, we need to hold tight to one of those two stones. That may be the best definition of a Christian yet.
So, when all is said and done, here’s the line with which I am leaving this series: A Christian is someone who is seeking to follow Jesus in all things, and, at the same time, seeking God’s grace not only to enable them to follow Jesus, but to sustain them when they don’t. In other words, the only way to follow Jesus is to take hold of grace. Amen and amen.