Have you ever tried to guess where people are from by the way they talk? The other day I was chatting with a nurse about her husband who plays golf. She said, “He’s wicked good.” I said, “Massachusetts or Maine?” She said, “I’m from Maine. How did you know?” I said, “Nobody in the South says wicked unless it’s Halloween.”
I remember when my stepsisters and brothers would come visit us from Chicago, we would get the biggest kick out of their accents. And they would get the biggest kick out of ours! They always laughed when we said, “Y’all.” When we would go out to eat with them, they would ask the waiter, “What kind of pop do you have?” “Pop? What’s pop?” “You know, soda pop.” “Oh, you mean Coke.” That’s always a dead giveaway that someone is from Atlanta. They refer to all brands of soda as “Coke” even if it’s not Coke. And Atlantans never say “Co-ca Co-la” or “At-lan-ta.” You drink a “Cocola in Atlanna.”
Yes, sometimes it’s easy to tell where people are from by the way they talk. And sometimes you can even guess who people are and maybe what they do by the way they dress and carry themselves.
One time I was in a bank and I was chatting with the teller. She said, “You’re a preacher, ain’t ya?” “How did you know?” She said, “I don’t know. You just seem like a preacher. The way you talk and handle yourself.” Well, I wasn’t wearing a clergy collar and I certainly wasn’t pronouncing a blessing on the bank. Perhaps it was just my holy glow?
Of course, sometimes people can fool you. They can put on a real good act. They are not who they claim to be. I had a friend who was a real practical joker. One night we were eating at a Mexican restaurant, and he bought one of their hats and began walking around the restaurant acting like the manager. And people believed him! He carried himself with confidence. Just began walking around tables asking people how their meals were. It was hysterical. Before we left though, he did a rather cruel thing. He approached a big table of people and asked them how their meal was. Then he said, “Tell you what, have a dessert on us tonight!” And then he left. Can you imagine? He had them fooled. He looked like a manager and talked like a manager. But he wasn’t a manager.
Sometimes it is easy to tell who people are. And sometimes it’s not. I wonder if it’s easy for people to tell that we are Christians. I wonder how people can really tell that we are true blue followers of Jesus Christ. No pretending. Do we have a dead giveaway? What do you think might convince someone to say, “Yep. Yep, they are a Christian”? Is it by the way we talk? Is it the way we dress or the way we carry ourselves? Is it our habits? Our kindness or the beliefs we profess? Or is it simply because we claim to be Christians and our names are on a church roll?
I recall hearing a fiery preacher at a conference as a teenager. He got all lathered up and said, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” It’s not a bad question. The witness says, “Yeah, he’s my neighbor. I once saw a Bible in his car, and every Sunday morning I see him and his family dressed real nice going to church. They must be Christians. Yeah, I’ll testify that they are Christians.” Another witness says, “Well, no. I watched the same family fighting in the parking lot of the church – screaming and yelling – I’m not so sure.”
The lawyer says, “Well, what about this person? Do you think he is a Christian?” The witness says, “Well, I have never heard him say a cuss word. He never loses his temper. And actually, in Atlanta I have seen him allow someone to merge in front of him in traffic. Oh, one time I heard him praying on the golf course. At least I think that is what he was doing. Yeah, I will testify that he is a Christian.”
Is that enough evidence, you think? Would that really convince someone?
I got a phone call many years ago when I was serving my very first church. I was really wet behind the ears. It was a small country church and one of my members was calling me all upset. “I need to talk to you.” He came over to the office and sat down in a chair and said, “People are talking, and folks are really disappointed in you. We may have to go to the bishop about this.” “Well, what is it?” “Well, there is a rumor going around that you were at a bar the other night. Please tell me this is not true.” “Well, yes, it’s true. The place is called Applebee’s and it was very crowded. The only table we could find was in the bar.” Oh, it was a real scandal for a while, but I got away with it.
Some people think the strongest evidence that we are Christians is found in our ability to follow the rules, following the dos and don’ts. Not misbehaving. Not drinking or smoking or cussing. Good church attendance. Being good boys and girls.
But the good Protestants among us strongly disagree, don’t we? “No, no Charley, the strongest evidence is faith. Did they repent of their sin and give their lives to Jesus Christ? Remember Ephesians says, ‘We are saved by grace through faith, not by our works, lest anyone should boast.’”
The defendant says, “Yes, I am saved. I am a Christian. When I was a teenager, I came down the aisle and accepted Christ and was baptized. I am a Christian! I can show you the place in my Bible where my pastor signed his name next to the date of my baptism.”
You think that’s the strongest evidence? Would that be enough to convince people?
No, no Charley, remember Jesus said, “The world will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” And the book of James plainly says, “Faith without works is dead.” That’s much stronger evidence. That’s the real stuff. Are people walking their talk? Are they backing up all their preaching about love with action? Those folks are the true Christians. That’s how you can tell. Well, it’s hard to argue with that. Many people believe our kindness and love is the strongest evidence that we are Christians.
Of course, I wonder where Jesus lands on all this? I guess he’s the one who really counts, right? Does Jesus believe us? Is he convinced? What do you think convinces Jesus that we are serious about following him? You know, throughout his ministry Jesus was highly suspicious of people who wanted to follow him. He knew he had admirers. Fans. And he had some hard things to say to them:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
Wait, wait! Back up, Charley. That’s another matter altogether. Who can do that? Isn’t following the rules enough? Isn’t having faith in Jesus enough? Isn’t being kind to others enough? I thought we had all of this Christian faith business figured out. Put your faith in Jesus. Behave. Be kind to people. Go to church. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Well, apparently there is something else Jesus is looking for in those who would be his followers.
In our text Jesus is before Pilate. The religious community wants him executed and they want Pilate to do their dirty work. Jesus knows whatever he says to Pilate could get him killed. Pilate asked Jesus, “What kind of King are you exactly?”
And then Jesus says something to Pilate that defines his ministry, defines who he is. “You can call me King or whatever you like, but I will tell you why I was born: to testify to the truth of God, that God is real. You can take me now and torture me, but my purpose is to bear witness to the truth – the truth of God at all costs.”
That’s our Jesus! Isn’t it? Going all the way for us. No compromising. Telling it like it is.
Oh, but then Jesus says something else. Are you listening? “My followers, those who belong to the truth, those who take root in me, those who draw life from me, will listen to my voice and do what I do. In a moment of truth, they will listen to me and not compromise. They will be obedient as I have been obedient.”
Could it be that a real follower of Jesus is one who, well, looks like Jesus? Could it be when faced with a moment of truth, a follower of Jesus will listen to his voice and be obedient, even if it costs them?
You’re at a party with all of your friends. Everyone is having fun and telling jokes. And then someone starts to tell racist jokes. What do you do? Listen to Jesus and walk away or laugh with them to be part of the group?
You’re in the cafeteria at school and you see that poor, bullied kid just sitting by himself eating his lunch. And your friends are saving your seat like they always do, and they are calling you over. What do you do? Do you listen to the voice of Jesus telling you to sit with him and risk getting ridiculed yourself?
Your estranged brother calls you. You have been bitter about him for years. You said you would never forgive him for what he did. You don’t answer it and you send it to voicemail. He wants to reconcile. Do you listen to the voice of Jesus or just ignore it?
“Fred Craddock once decided to go back home for a visit when he was on school break. It is no place special on the map. It is just a little town in Arkansas. On the first morning of his visit, he ventured downtown. He walked into the diner that had been there for a hundred years. Fred just wanted to sit there, eat breakfast, and remember simpler times. He said the place had not changed at all. Everything was the same, even the owner.
“As Fred waited for his fried eggs, the owner walked up to him and said, ‘I know you! You used to live here. You went on to be a preacher! I need to talk to you.’ Fred nodded yes, but he thought, ‘Just go away! All I want is breakfast and some quiet.’
“The owner pulled up a chair and began to talk. He said to Fred, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Fred said, ‘About what?’ The owner responded, ‘About the curtain!’ He motioned to the curtain and Fred looked. The curtain had been there for years. Fred recalled that curtain from his childhood. The curtain wasn’t just there for decorative purposes. It had a practical purpose. The curtain separated the white customers from the black customers. The white customers would enter the restaurant through the front door and eat on that side of the curtain. The black customers entered through the back door and ate on that side of the curtain.
“Just then, Fred’s breakfast was delivered. He wanted the owner to finish up his story because his eggs were getting cold. Fred asked the owner, ‘So what is the problem?’ The owner said, ‘Should I take the curtain down or should I leave the curtain up?’ Fred gave him a blank look and the owner continued. ‘If I take the curtain down, I will lose my business, but if I leave the curtain up, I will lose my soul!’” [taken from a transcript from an unknown source]
When it counts, do we listen to the voice of Jesus or do we ignore it? Oh, listening to Jesus, being a follower, it will cost you, no doubt about it. But at the end of the day as you are getting into bed thinking about what you did and the consequences of it, if you listen closely, you will hear Jesus say to you, “I saw what you did today. I have been telling the angels all about it. I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
Let us pray.
Lord, help us to not only hear your voice but obey it. It’s in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.