April 23, 2008

Call Me Christian

2008 1512 page5 capurs is a “labelous” society; we can hardly function without “labeling” ourselves and others. Part of that is because labels serve to identify us; they help others know what we stand for. Labels are handy—most of the time.
But labels can also be misleading. When someone asks what I do for a living, I typically reply, “I’m an ordained minister.”
To which the inquisitor always (always) asks, “For which church?”
It’s a fair question. The questioner wants to know if I’m part of a mainstream denomination, or if I lead a congregation that believes in UFOs. Do I support both the death penalty and the right to life? Or am I one of those Christians who oppose war and support the right of a woman to choose an abortion?
All of a sudden identifying myself as a Seventh-day Adventist raises all kinds of interesting follow-up questions—and I have yet to mention any of our 28 fundamental beliefs.
2008 1512 page5Being identified as a member of a particular Christian denomination places me on a whole continuum of Christians past, present, and future whose beliefs about salvation, heaven and hell, mortality, ethics, law, gospel, and lifestyle will not be reconciled this side of eternity.
That’s when it’s important to remember that the word “Christian” means more than just someone who supports a particular denomination; it means being like Jesus. And that means more than just subscribing to a set of beliefs; it means living as Jesus lived.
When I made this point at camp meeting some years ago, someone remarked after my presentation, “It depends on how you see Jesus.” Bingo!
It seems that over the centuries since Jesus lived on earth, His followers have spent more time discussing—arguing, 
disputing, quarreling—about what it means to be a Christian than actually living as Jesus lived.
For example: Jesus lived a life of inclusion. Today most of His followers practice exclusion. In so many words they say, You have to live like us, look like us, eat like us, listen to the music we listen to, wear the clothes we wear, if you want to be one of us. In so doing we risk creating disciples in our own image, rather than in the image of Christ.
The Christian life is a life of discipline, to be sure; but the discipline of Christ is a lot easier than the discipline we impose on each other.
Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).
That’s why I never tire of going back to the Gospels and reading their stories again and again. Read-ing about Jesus’ words and actions stirs my imagination like nothing else, both in how to be more like Jesus, and in how far I have yet to 
go in my journey. Jesus’ ministry against religious tyranny and formalism in favor of a ministry of redemption and inclusion is a challenge embraced by too few of us.
That’s why my understanding of Christianity, as well as my practice of it, is defined by Jesus, and Jesus alone. The church, Adventist or otherwise, is useful only to the extent that it faithfully reflects Jesus’ character to our wider communities. If we ever discover that our loyalty to the institution hinders our loyalty to Christ, we have to stop, reexamine our priorities, and return our focus to Christ.
Start with the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Read it in a translation you don’t usually use. I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. You’ll notice immediately that Jesus’ words are not just challenging; they’re radical, revolutionary. Living those principles led Jesus, eventually, to the cross.
In North America many of today’s Christians have a rather warped view of what it means to be Christian. A good number believe it means throwing our political weight around and changing society by legislative fiat. But let’s put aside whatever traditions that have obscured our focus on Christ and live as He lived—individually and corporately.
When our lives reflect the values Jesus taught and lived, then, and only then, can we call ourselves Christians.

Stephen Chavez is managing editor of the Adventist Review.