When I worked at a college, one of my students told me about meeting someone on campus who wasn’t a Christian – for most people, college is one of the first times in their lives when they meet people from different backgrounds with different beliefs.
The young man said after he’d talked with the new person for awhile about whatever was going on around them, he happened to refer to church, and the other person said something like, “You’re a Christian? Wow, I wouldn’t have known that.”
You may or may not have heard the same phrase in your life. Either way, you can understand how it can have a good meaning or a not-so-good meaning. The good meaning, which is the one my student encountered, comes when the people who say “I never would have guessed that” is complimenting you. They’ve either had bad experience with church people or they’ve heard about bad experiences with church people, so they’re surprised you’re not a jerk like those others they’ve met or heard about.
The bad meaning, of course, is that we’re exactly that jerk and we’re not doing much at living up to the name we’ve taken: “Christian.”
As Christians, we need to understand something about how we live our lives. We follow Christ. And according to Paul, that means sin no longer rules in us. Common sense, right? Following Christ is different than following our own path, because if it’s not, why bother? If we follow Christ, we do different things than we would do if we just followed ourselves and our own desires.
People who follow Christ should find themselves moving away from sin. It isn’t easy and it involves a whole lot of steps backward mixed in with the steps forward and it depends upon God’s help, but it’ll happen.
Be careful here – we do not, under any circumstances, have any call to judge ourselves as better than those other people. Remember Paul’s words from another part of Romans, how everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Still applies.
But if the way of the world around is focuses on looking out for our own interests and to heck with everyone else’s, for example, then that conflicts with our way, which puts love of God and love of neighbor at its center.
And here comes the unpleasant and uncomfortable part, in which we remember how often we haven’t measured up to that description. I’ll let you call to mind the details of your own shortcomings, because remembering mine is depressing enough.
A friend of mine talked on his blog about the nice Father’s Day lunch he, his wife and two-month-old daughter had this year. Because he thinks like this, he figured out that Sunday lunch is probably the most conspicuous meal of the week for Christians. In some places, we stand out because we’re dressed up, and when we walk into restaurants Sunday at about 12:20 (or earlier if our pastor didn’t have as much to say), folks can guess we’ve been to church. Other church people stand out because they all come in as a group at about the same time.
My friend said he remembered hearing one waiter grouse about us because the church folks he’d had to deal with were lousy tippers. Maybe true, maybe not. But we can’t escape the fact that we’re probably never as visible as Christians to the world around us as when we eat out Sunday after services.
What do people see when they see us then? Do they see us give thanks for our food? Do they see us be pleasant to our servers or demanding and rude? Do they see us whine about a long wait or use the chance to talk with folks, either ourselves or the others waiting with us?
Of course we ought to be living changed lives whether someone’s watching or not, but it has a bigger impact when people see us and know who we are. And of course there are big changes to worry about in our lives too when we follow God.
But remember – the servant was trusted with small things before he was charged with the care of larger matters. You could make a good case that someone who couldn’t be trusted to be generous to a restaurant server probably couldn’t be trusted with much else.
I think Jesus and Paul both might have said just that if they were spreading their message today.