A few of our readers claim I’m not a Christian — I don’t pass their litmus test. For example, some Catholics think I must believe in Transubstantiation and the sinfulness of birth control. Some Presbyterians say I must believe I am predestined to go to heaven or hell. I have several critics who claim the Nicene Creed of the year 325 must be recited and believed or I cannot call myself a Christian. But I don’t think so. I don’t think the focus is on believing. I think doing is what Jesus was all about.
I know there are 26 Pauline quotes that seem to say salvation comes by faith alone and not works, (please don’t quote them to me) but most of the time when Paul said, “works” he was talking about the Jewish regulations which he rejected, and James, the brother of Jesus, makes it very clear when he says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26).
Believing is easy, Christianity isn’t. Jesus doesn’t say, “Come, inherit the kingdom because you believed in the virgin birth, the resurrection and the atonement.” That would have been too easy. Instead, his litmus test consists of actions: “You fed the hungry and thirsty; you took in the strangers and the naked and the sick; you visited the prisoners” (Matt. 25:35). This is how you merit membership. It’s a whole different kind of club. It’s not just believing, it’s doing.
We use the term “believer” all the time as if this identifies a Christian. But imitating Jesus is a lot harder than believing in the Trinity. Jesus did a lot of things that most Christians would just as soon forget. For example, if I’m going to be an imitating Christian and not just a believing Christian, here are just a few of the things I must do:
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1. I must love other people. Many Christians say they love God, and that’s enough. Jesus knew that loving God was all about belief, but belief was not enough. That’s why Matthew’s gospel quotes him as saying: “You want to love God? Here’s how you do it: love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:38). The Greek word “homoia” makes it clear that loving others is identical to loving God. OK, but how about the critics who call me names and say I’m unqualified to write in this paper? Must I love them, too?
2. I must exclude favoritism. Jesus welcomed everybody, prostitutes, the hated tax collectors, the unclean Samaritans. Not only did he welcome them into his group of friends – he ate meals with them. I find this difficult. Have you ever invited a homeless person to join your family for dinner, or a young gang banger, or a radical Muslim? I think Jesus would do this. It’s not about believing, it’s about doing.
3. I must serve other people. Jesus said: I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:24), and he acted like it. He wasn’t arrogant and self-serving like I was when I was vice president of a large firm in Macon. He was the boss of his small group of followers but maintained the attitude of a listener and a fellow traveler. If the story of the wedding celebration in John’s gospel is historically true, Jesus listened to his mother when he really didn’t want to, and then joined in the party with everybody else. Real listening with no big grandstanding, if you’re the boss, that’s hard to do. I know, I’ve been there.
4. I must be a pacifist. Jesus was a sucker for bullies. “Turn the other cheek,” he said. I seldom do that. How about you? Jesus did it that night in Gethsemane. The first Christians did it also. They died in Nero’s Coliseum rather than fight back. I know pacifism is a central part of the message of Jesus: “Do not resist an evil doer” (Matt. 5:39). But how many of us have resisted the temptation to strike back? Remember the last time you heard that someone was spreading a false rumor about you? What did you do?
G.K. Chesterton has always been one of my favorite British authors; he wrote: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.