What I love about a vacation — besides sitting in the sun at the beach, that is — is that I have time to catch up on my reading. I also love, to be honest, being away from the phone and not worrying about the congregation for a week or two, actually relaxing. Well, that’s not quite true, because I still, in fact, worry about the congregation and think about all of you — you are never far from my mind. I just try not to let Kitty know, which is pointless because she always knows. Like she knows that I sometimes write my article for the Scribe while on vacation. But at least I am sitting in the sun at the beach as I write.

          At any rate, back to the reading bit. Throughout the year, I set aside books I plan to read just as soon as I get around to them, except I never quite manage to get around to them given all that happens in a typical week. So I take a stack of them with me on vacation, as I did a few weeks ago. And something I read in one of those books set off an exciting train of thought leading to this article. That’s the thing about reading for me — it has a way of exciting me with new thoughts and ideas and insights.

          But before I get to that, there’s something else about reading I want to mention. Even though I will soon celebrate the 45th anniversary of my ordination, I have been preaching and teaching for nearly 50 years — since my first year in seminary. Now I entered seminary when I was 21 and I’ve been at work for nearly 50 years … ah, do the math. And what I realize is that even at my age with 50 years of teaching and preaching under my belt, I still have so much to learn — new insights, new ways of looking at things, new ways of saying things. And that’s not only exciting, it’s also scary and embarrassing. It’s scary because I might have to re-think, maybe change, cherished beliefs and views and have my neat little
world thrown into turmoil. And it’s embarrassing because when I come across something that’s really good, I wonder why has it taken me so long to discover that, wonder if I should have already known that, been asleep at the wheel or something. Yet, as I said, it’s also exciting because new worlds suddenly open up to me, deeper understanding and better belief comes. On a very practical level, it means I’m still alive, not dead, still growing. Although in the strictest sense that’s not entirely true, since I believe that we continue to learn beyond the grave when at last we shall be raised up to be part of God’s new creation and see, as Paul puts it, “face to face.” But more about that another time.

          And now back to what I read and what it sets off. An author was writing about what passes for Christianity in America these days and said that it might be wise for many self-declared Christians who think they’re in like flint to think again because their beliefs and behaviors and opinions seem to have little to do with the Christ of the gospels. Then she wrote, warned really, “It is for Christ to decide who the Christians are, who has in fact done the will of his father.” And that’s what struck me in a whole new way, even though I’ve preached and taught this for years.

         What the author said is simply based on what Jesus himself was saying with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats and what he said on a number of other occasions as well. As a matter of fact, it’s what he meant when he said that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He was not saying, as many Christians interpret the words, that only those who believe in him (more accurately: believe the way they think you should believe) have a shot at life in the kingdom. Rather, what he was saying was that he makes the decision, not us — he decides who’s in and who’s out. He is the gatekeeper, the gate itself, he said.

         So what new thought did this set off? This: the best answer you can give if someone asks you if you are a Christian, have been saved, born again, whatever, is to say, “You’ll have to check with Jesus on that one. It’s not my call, or your call, it’s his call.” What this answer says is that it’s Jesus who decides if we have truly done the will of the Father. Our job is to follow the Christ of the gospels day after day as best we can, trust God’s grace and mercy, and live with the hope Christ gives.

         Such an answer says that salvation is not our achievement but the gift God gives out of his gracious love for us in Christ. And it says that our faith in God — our trust of God’s love — is what marks us off as God’s people. We are to trust that as we follow the Christ of the gospels, live with obedience to the way of God, and allow the Spirit to shape our thinking and wanting and acting, we are God’s people. And it also says that we remain a part of God’s people, remain recognizable to Christ as one of his own, only as we seek to do God’s will as Jesus taught it. From the first page to the last page of the Bible, that’s the story: God graciously making people his people and those people being called to live with thanks and obedience and trust, to live with love for God and the neighbor.

          The other thing about this answer is that it would mean the end of Christians saying that other Christians really aren’t Christians because these other Christians don’t believe this or that, haven’t been baptized this way or that way, welcome people they shouldn’t welcome. Instead, Christians could concentrate on making sure that their thoughts and opinions and beliefs and behavior and words are shaped more by the gospels than their upbringing or political ideology or culture itself. In other words, get about the business of being Christian in a way that matters to Christ — doing what he calls us to do. Wouldn’t that be refreshing.

         Now yes, this answer can be rather scary. Will Christ decide that we have done the will of the Father? How do we know for sure? That’s where trust comes in. Yet this answer is also reassuring because so many of us are so hard on ourselves. His judgment of us may be far more kindly that our judgment of ourselves. There is both warning and promise in the answer which helps us stay focused on doing God’s will and trusting God’s grace and mercy in Christ.

         So, the next time someone asks you if you are a Christian, try out this answer. In a culture in which Christianity often seems to have little to do with Christ, your answer may lead to a good conversation, a conversation about what should really matter … Ah well, just a thought from the beach.


                                                                                                                                                          God be with you,