Friday, September 15, 2006

The Almost Christian (Acts 26:19-29)

Sorry about the late post. A little under the weather this week)

By the time Wesley preached his “The Almost Christian” sermon, he’d become something of a celebrity in London. Establishment churches disliked his open-air preaching and his strong belief that people could know they were saved, and only four churches in all of London will let him speak in their pulpits.

So Oxford in 1741 was the perfect place and time to let the establishment have it – Wesley was stickin’ it to the man more than 200 years before anybody ever used the phrase.

He takes his line from King Agrippa’s statement to Paul. While defending himself against charges of sedition and rabble-rousing, Paul speaks so well Agrippa finds himself listening a lot closer than he thought he would. He scoffs nervously – in the King James translation Wesley used, he says, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!”

So what, Wesley asked, would make someone “almost” a Christian? What made someone else “altogether” a Christian?

Getting to “almost” would take quite a bit of work, first of all. They practiced basic virtues of justice and fairness, like “even the heathen,” Wesley said. They did good works for people who were in need, and they didn’t expect fame or a reward. They regularly attended church, and not just to be seen, either. They were properly respectful of worship and they were fair, honest and faithful in all their dealings with people.

So, Wesley asked, how is it possible that someone could do all those things and still be “almost” a Christian? Surely such a person was altogether a Christian. Ah, no, he said. He knew, because he had done every one of those things for years and he knew that for a large part of his life, he was only an Almost Christian. Just like, perhaps, many of his listeners.

What was the difference? It wasn’t in what they did – an Altogether Christian would have the same virtues the Almost Christian did. It was in the why. An Almost Christian might do all those good works for worthy reasons, but the Altogether Christian did them because they flowed from his or her love of God and love of neighbor.

Almost Christians, if asked why they did these good works, might say “Because God told us to,” or “Because they’re in need,” or “Because they’re the right things to do.” Altogether Christians, Wesley said, would answer, “Because God loves me and God loves my neighbor. If I’m going to love God, then I’m going to live that out in my life.”

Wesley was starting to explore one his major themes, and it’s a theme that Christians have wrestled with for most of our history. We can do our best to be worthy of God’s love, and do our best to heal our relationship with God. But it won’t be good enough. We can’t reach God’s level, or even reach the level God has made us for. So God reached out to us and took us in, even though we couldn’t reach to him.

So we do our best, but it isn’t good enough, and God takes us anyway, no matter how far short we fall. But we should still do our best anyway.

In his sermon, Wesley asked his audience how many of them, if they took a good long look at themselves, would even make it to Almost Christian? Forget about scoring a hundred – how many of them would be “B” students, or even “C” students? Johnny Cash used to call himself a “C-minus Christian,” and I imagine he wouldn’t even lay claim to being an Almost Christian.

So why worry about how unfair it is to the Almost Christian that all their work only gets them to “Almost?” Why worry about that when I’ve got a long journey ahead of me to even get that far? Better worry about what happens to all the C and D Christians, all of us who fall waaaaaay short instead of just a little short.

But wait – why “worry” at all? God loves us and has opened his gates to us, inviting us all in regardless of how good or bad we might think we are. No need to worry – we made it! And now, having made it, we want to double our efforts, and reach as far as we can, as a gesture of thanks to God for the gift he gave us.

Ironic, if you think about it. The best way to become an Almost Christian is to start out by being an Altogether Christian.

Ironic, but good news nonetheless.

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