Some of you are old enough to remember the popular song of the 1960's sung as I recall by Cilla Black, a British pop singer. "What's it all about, Alfie?" And that's the question I want to address in this sermon. What's it all about? What's Christianity all about? What does it mean to be Christian?
We have sometimes made the answer to that question very complicated, and that's because we Christians have often thought it means believing the right things, getting our beliefs right. A few examples to illustrate what I mean:
For the first one, we go back in time almost a thousand years to the year 1054. This is the year of what is known as "The Great Schism," the great divide or division between western Christianity and eastern Christianity that produced the Roman Catholic Church and eastern orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome excommunicated the bishop of Constantinople and the whole eastern church, and the bishop of Constantinople excommunicated the pope and the whole western church. The issue that led to this was a theological question concerning internal relationships within the godhead. More specifically, does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son--that was the position of the western church--or from the Father only--that was the position of the eastern church. And when you think about this, you almost want to say, "How on earth could you ever know about internal relations within the godhead?" I think it might be a guy thing.
Another example. For this one, we go to the 1600's and the reformed church in the Netherlands. In the early part of that century, the Dutch Reform Church almost split over the issue of supralapsarianism versus infralapsarianism. Now, since I know you all know what that's about, I won't bother to explain. Actually, I will. The issue in this case was did God decide to send a messiah before the fall--because God knew the fall would happen--or did God decide to send a messiah only after the fall because only then was the messiah necessary. Supralapsarians argued that God knew the fall would happen so the decision to send a messiah had already been made before the fall. Infralapsarians argued the opposite. Again, getting our beliefs right mattered and one wants to say, "How could you know that?"
Another one. This one for a couple of centuries, at least, dividing Methodists and Lutherans. Is perfection possible in this life? Methodists said yes. Lutherans--and I grew up Lutheran--said no, we are always sinful and yet justified. The Latin phrase is simul justus et peccator; and, of course, we Lutherans knew we were right on that one.
My favorite example is a story that I heard 35 years ago, and I've never had the chance to check it out to see if it's really factual. But this one comes from the late 1800's in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War. A small town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities--I think it was Raleigh--and there for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina--he happened to be a Baptist--and told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water seems to have been the argument.
The point of all these examples is that Christians, and maybe even Protestant Christians in particular, have been very concerned about believing the right things: infant baptism versus adult baptism and so forth. So that sometimes we have made being Christian very complex, as if it's about getting our doctrines right. But being Christian is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple.
Three statements to explain what I mean:
First of all, being Christian is about loving God and loving what God loves. Loving God, of course, that's the central point of the Gospel text that you just heard. Jesus quotes a passage from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy--"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind"--and so this is the heart of both the Jewish tradition and because Jesus speaks of it as the Great Commandment, the heart of the Christian tradition as well.
And in addition to loving God, we are to love what God loves. And what does God love? Here the best known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, provides the answer. "For God so loved the world...." God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation. And, of course, this is also the central point of the Genesis story of creation. After each day in that six-day creation story, we are told "God saw that it was good," and at the very end, "God saw that it was very good." Now, of course, God doesn't love the world simply as it is. God has, to use a phrase from Robert Frost, a lover's quarrel with the world. God loves the world and wills that it be a better world.
The second statement. Being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. We need transformation. The process of growing up does not incline us to that deep love of God and that deep love of what God loves. The growing up process inclines us to be concerned about ourselves. This happens to all of us.
And so Christianity is a way or a path of transformation. Again, it's not very much about beliefs, so there are some. But the earliest name of the Christian movement in the years after Easter, according to the Book of Acts at the beginning of the 9th chapter, is followers of the way. Christianity is about this path or way of transformation. And transformation involves practice. The process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God, and centered in God is known decisively in Jesus, requires an attention to our relationship with God. In some ways our relationship with God is like the human relationship. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, spending time in it, being present to it. And so it is with our relationship with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God. It happens through the traditional practices of the Christian tradition, worship being the most important collective practice, prayer being the most widely used individual practice. Prayer and worship are not because God needs them, but they are about our own transformation.
And the third statement. Being Christian is about being part of a community of transformation. It's about living within the Christian tradition and Christian community as a means to the end of transformation. This is church as a community of formation and reformation and all of us need this. We grow up, those of us who live in western culture, we grow up in a culture that has values very, very different from what is most central to the Bible. That was our first socialization, our first formation. And so Christian community is about becoming involved in a process of re-socialization, so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by involvement in Christian community.
It has struck me over the years that Christianity, when you think about it, is not very much about believing, even though many people think of it that way. Believing, when you think about it, has very little transformative power. You can believe all the right things and still be quite untransformed. You can believe all the right things and still be mean. Rather, Christianity is about entering into this process of transformation.
Let me conclude with one more way of putting this. Being Christian is about passion. Now if you had told me this when I was twelve years old at the end of childhood, I would have wondered what you were talking about. Sunday morning by that time was not the most passionate time of the week. But over the years I have become convinced that being Christian is about passion. It's about our passion for God, that passion that St. Augustine spoke about when he said, "Our hearts are restless until they find their home in you."
And Christianity is also about God's passion for the world, that the world itself--the humanly constructed world in particular--be transformed in the direction of God's dream, a world of justice and peace.
And so, finally, being Christian is also about participating in God's passion. This is what we are called to. So, ultimately, being Christian is about loving God and changing the world. It's as simple and challenging as that, and it is the way of life.
A prayer from St. Augustine from around the year 400, and so we go back in time some 16 centuries to these words from a North African bishop:
O God, from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to be turned is to rise, and in whom to stand is to abide forever. Grant us in all our duties your help, in all our perplexities your guidance, in all our dangers your protection, and in all our sorrows your peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, our Body, and our Blood, our Life and our Nourishment. Amen.