Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Compass Point #3 What is a Christian? Where do you fit?

What kind of world and church do we find ourselves in and how does Jesus meet us there? As I reflect further on the question "What is a Christian?" I realize that we face a new situation for faith, new at least for many in today's world.

Here's a thought-provoking passage from Shirley Guthrie's book "Always Being Reformed" which provides a "compass point" for navigating our way toward faithful discipleship. Guthrie was a long time professor of theology at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and an esteemed theologian in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) His book "Christian Doctrine" has been much valued for teaching theology in churches and seminaries.

"We live in a post-Christian, multicultural, pluralistic society in which people who are different from one another have to learn to respect one another and live together in peace: people of different religions and the ever-increasing number of people with no religious faith at all; people who live by different ethical values and norms; men and women who are no longer willing to play the subservient role traditionally assigned to them, people who differ in sexual orientation, race, class and cultural heritage. In the past, we assumed that our traditional white, middle-class, Euro-American, male-defined Protestant understanding of God and Christian faith and life is or should be normative for everyone. But now we have to learn what it means to be Christians (and Presbyterians) in a church and world that no longer belongs to people like us."

Guthrie comments that he made that above observation in a church context and heard someone remark: "How can we get it all back?" and was then applauded for saying so.

When we are honest about things, we know that we'll never get back that older cultural experience of church. And we should be glad about it. Every experience of what it means to be a Christian is culturally conditioned, and sometimes those cultural factors are in fact oppressive and limiting of the gospel.

I think of one of my favorite New Testament passages, Ephesians 2: 11-11. Paul writes that "in Christ you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jew and Gentile) into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility." Eph 2:13-14

Something about the gospel and Jesus Christ does not like dividing walls of hostility. When we ask about the meaning of being a Christian in today's world, that is surely one of the affirmations we need to make.

In the church I now serve I regularly celebrate the wonderful diversity of those who worship in a congregation near a major military base in a metropolitan area. We have a growing number of Korean worshipers and a plan by some to reach out even more effectively to the Korean community; an African American man and his family join us frequently; a young man from Central America and his American wife have come; native born German and Scottish and Japanese members participate. You could account for some of this diversity by proximity to a military base. But not all. I am welcomed each Sunday by a Downs Syndrome adult in her early forties with the most loving hospitality at church. She is well loved by us all. And I remember how my own autistic sister, when she was young, was not always understood or easily embraced.
So many things are changing in how we understand what it means to be a Christian and to be a church.

We are leaving behind the era of Christendom, when being church was the norm and where certain expectations of what Christians should look like were fixed in all too stereotypical ways.

We are progressively entering the post-Christendom era which "is not designed to change your mind- it is designed to change your life." By that, I mean that we no longer view being a Christian as just thinking the right thoughts, but practicing a way of life that does in fact break down barriers, where Christ makes peace between those who are "different".


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