So, What is a Christian?

January 21, 2001


“So What Is A Christian?”

It can be quite a stretch from the formal language of the Bible to modern street slang, but sometimes they both say the same thing. When Jesus talks, in the Sermon on the Mount, about how risky it is to judge people by how they look or even by how they talk, and then says that if we want to know what others are really like we pay more attention to what they do than to what they say, it’s the same message we hear when a rapper insists that we “walk the walk” instead of simply “talking the talk.” Jesus also knew that religious rhetoric may not only take the place of action, but may even end up confusing people who have more in common than they know — all of which, I hope, will justify my sharing a good story which has both Jews and Catholics smiling at how easily we get so caught up in our own little worlds that we totally misunderstand what an “outsider” is saying to us. The story is also a good test of your memory, so with a few helpful gestures, here’s how it goes:
About a century or two ago the Pope decided that all Jews would have to leave Rome. Quite naturally, the Jews objected strongly, so the Pope offered a deal: he would hold a religious debate with a representative Jew. If the Jew won the debate, they could stay. If the Pope won, they would have to leave.
Realizing that they really had no choice, the Jews picked a middle-aged man named Isaac to represent them. Isaac then insisted that to avoid unfamiliar terms and make the debate even more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. He and the Pope would use sign language only. The Pope felt confident enough to accept this odd idea, so on the day of the great debate he and Isaac sat opposite each other for a few quiet moments before the Pope silently raised his hand and showed Three fingers. Isaac responded by raising one finger. The Pope next waved one finger in a circle above his head. Isaac responded by pointing with one finger to the ground where he sat. When the Pope next pulled out a wafer and a cup of wine, Isaac responded by pulling out an apple — at which point the Pope suddenly said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
An hour later, as Catholics got together to ask the Pope exactly what had happened, he said, “Well, first I held up 3 fingers to represent the Trinity. He reacted by holding up 1 finger to remind me that in both our faiths there is just ONE God. Next, I waved my finger around my head to show him that this God was all around us. He responded by pointing his finger at the ground to show that God was also right HERE, with us. Finally, I pulled out the wine and wafer to show how God absolves us from our sins. He, in turn, pulled out an apple to remind me of Original Sin. He had an answer for everything. I saw no point in going on!”
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the Jewish community had crowded around Isaac to ask what happened. He said, “Well, first of all the Pope held up 3 fingers to tell me that we Jews had 3 days to get out of town. I raised l finger to tell him that not a one of us was leaving. Then he waved one of his fingers around to let me know that the whole city would be cleared of Jews. But I showed him [one finger down] that we were staying right here!” Very pleased and excited, Isaac’s supporters said, “Yes, Yes, and then what?” Isaac said, “I don’t know. I guess he thought it was over. He took out HIS lunch, and I took out MINE.” What’s fascinating about that story is that both men missed the point over and over in their peculiar form of dialogue, but each would have had no trouble recognizing in the other some noble and generous action. Which leads me to the point I would like to make this morning.
I, too, had a conversation several days ago with a friend of mine, neither Jew nor Christian, who calls himself an agnostic and who asked me a pointed and challenging question. “Since you deal with people who profess to be Christians, tell me something: what do they mean by that word? Exactly what is a Christian?” He was too sharp to accept easy answers so we had a vigorous discussion. I got to wondering later how much help he might have gotten from a good unabridged dictionary, so I took a look — and found a 12 different ways in which the word Christian is used. As an adjective, for example, to describe a society whose prevailing religion elevates Christ, as in “Spain is a Christian country,” but of course that doesn’t tell us a thing about how individual Christians act.
Neither does another usage in which someone speaks of how many Christian deaths there were during the medieval Crusades. If you know much about those successive waves of motley cross-carrying crowds that straggled across Europe to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims — what they did on the way, and what they did after they reached the Holy Land — you may want to hold your nose at use of the word Christian in that context. Because on those so-called sacred missions the “armies of Christ” slaughtered whole Jewish communities that worshipped God but refused to convert to Christianity. Some Jews decided it was better to submit to forced Christian baptism than to die, a decision which presumably brought joy to the hearts of those who had thus guaranteed the Jews a place in the Christian heaven. Obviously, the word “Christian” in this context only points only to a religious system and not to the kind of character a Christian is meant to have.
Definition #9 illustrates a rather loose usage in which the word Christian means nothing more than decent or respectable, as when a mother begs her teenage daughter to “dress like a Christian, please, and not like something the cat dragged in.” What a long, long journey that definition represents — all the way from a word so radical it could get you killed, to a synonym for respectability! I’m afraid the dictionary would not have helped my agnostic friend nearly as much as this simple word from Jesus: “By their fruits you shall know them.” With that in mind, here are three stories that illustrate what it can mean to imitate Christ in one’s life.
It rather pleases me that the first one is Jewish, because I think Jesus learned from these ancestors how effective it is to tell stories that turn abstract ideas into something concrete and unforgettable. Here is one of their stories: When the world was young, two brothers shared a field and a mill, dividing evenly eac night the grain they had ground together during the day. One brother lived alone, the other had a wife and a large family. The single brother thought to himself one day, “It really is not fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed. So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother’s granary to see that he was never without. But the married brother said to himself one day, “It really is not fair to divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one. What will he do when he is old?” So every night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother’s bins.
One night they traveled the same way at the same time, and met each other halfway between their two houses. In the moment when they realized what had been happening, and embraced each other in love, the story claims that God witnessed their meeting, and called the place where they stood “holy.” And so, said the Jewish storyteller, the First Temple was built on that very spot. My two sons like to hug each other and say, “I love, you, bro” when they get together, and as they part again, but the words become real when they bend their backs at work on one another’s houses. Words are good, action authenticates them.
Jesus, as a boy, heard parables like that and fell so deeply in love with them that they became his favorite way of talking about God. I think he also would have loved the next two stories, which happen to be quite literally true. One day, on a New York stage, the great Polish actress Helena Modjeska had something happen to her that is the nightmare of theater. She reached the dramatic climax of her final scene….and waited for the curtain to fall. Because a stagehand was daydreaming, the curtain failed to come down. So there the actress stood while all the passion she had built up dissolved, and the audience began tittering in nervous embarrassment. After it wa over and the audience had left, the whole troupe held their breath for what they thought would be the lambasting of all time — a star laying waste to a stagehand. When she finally confronted the shamed young man, and everybody waited for the explosion, she simply waggled her finger and said, “Naughty, naughty!” From that moment on she owned the whole company and they worked like slaves to make the rest of her performance flawless. If you listen, you can hear an echo across time: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.”
The third story comes from the gifted minister, Barbara Brown Taylor, who tells of a pipefitter named Richard who came to live in a small log cabin just down the hill from her house in Georgia. He was 60 when he first came, still healing from heart surgery, but strong and eager to take on all sorts of jobs around her farm. “He fixed the old. tractor and mowed the pasture,” she writes. “He built a stone wall to keep the creek bank from eroding. He mended fences, stacked hay, pruned fruit trees and tilled the garden. He never refused a hard job or complained about a messy one. He took pleasure in the work itself, and did it with such a willing spirit that he made me want to be more like him.” Barbara, an Episcopal priest whom I have been privileged to meet and hear preach, asked this handyman if he’d like a phone in the rustic cabin. He said, “Naw, I’d just use it to run up a bill.” A shower, maybe, instead of just the tub? “Nothing nicer than a hot bath,” he said. “Could we at least get you a television?” “To tell you the truth, I prefer the radio.”
He was, she says, a hard man to do anything for because his needs were so few. “Everything he owned fit into two duffel bags. He would rather walk in the woods than go to a movie. He preferred a can of pork and beans to most of my cooking, although I did uncover a weakness in him for homemade brownies with cream cheese icing. Richard was not what you would call a religious man. The first time he came to supper, I set the table on the front porch with baked chicken, mashed sweet potatoes and cornbread with greens. Richard sat down and we shook napkins into our laps. Then my husband said, “Let us pray,” and a look of panic swept over Richard’s face, as if he had just been asked to play a violin or fly an airplane. He quickly reached up, removed his hat, and bowed his head.
“When the prayer was over I looked up to see Richard as I had never seen him before, with his head uncovered and his face in full light. He looked older, without his hat, and more vulnerable. He was shy about his bald spot, and could not decide what to do — keep his head down, so that I could see it but he could not see me — or hold his head up, so that he could see me seeing him as he was, without his veil. It was more intimacy than either of us could stand, so I understood when [he] declined my next invitation. We settled into a routine of food-sharing instead, whereby I left containers of chili and brownies in front of his door and he left baskets of tomatoes and blueberries from the garden in front of mine.
“I grew to love him, although I would never have troubled him with that information. I had too much respect for his privacy and his silence, which enveloped him like a monk. Two days before Christmas I said goodbye to him. My husband and I were headed to Florida for the holiday. Richard wanted to spend it on the farm, then go home for New Year’s Eve. I asked if he would be all right alone and he said yes. “This is what Christmas is about,” he said, patting one of the dogs on the head. “Peace on earth, with animals. Don’t you worry, I’ll be fine.”
“Richard collapsed the next day with a ruptured aorta and died two minutes after midnight on Christmas Day. Two of his sons arrived in time to be with him. The next day they drove their truck to the farm to collect his belongings, which did not take long. As they were preparing to leave, his daughter-in-law turned to me and said, “You’re the minister, right?” I said I was. “Do you know if he was saved?” she asked me, with fresh tears springing to her eyes. I was dumbstruck. “I don’t know,” I said. “We never talked about it.” I tried to tell her that I have never known anyone who reminded me more of Jesus — who had such a servant’s heart, who was so free of desire, who showed me so well what self-emptying was all about.
“But that was not what she wanted to hear, and I did not have the other words to give her. When I lay my hand on her back, she pulled away from me and climbed into the truck with Richard’s sons for the long ride home. As I watched them drive off, I wished I had just said, ‘Yes, I know for certain he was saved.’ How did I know? Because he lived like he was.”
Hear the words of Jesus one more time: It is not by pious words that we enter the kingdom of heaven, but by living as if that were our home. “By their fruits you shall know them.”