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You asked for a sermon on “The Almost Christian”

 

Acts 26:28

Many well-known preachers have preached well-known sermons on the person who is “almost” Christian. We can understand why. After all, the church has always been fringed with those who seem almost Christian! They appear to be on the cusp of the kingdom. They are sincere, zealous, concerned, committed, even though what they are committed to is less than the gospel; for if they were committed to the gospel (that is, committed to Jesus Christ, him whose gospel it is) they would no longer be “almost” Christian.

No doubt the well-known sermons by well-known preachers have used the text of Acts 26:28, where King Agrippa says to the apostle Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Note the archaic English: “Almost thou persuadest me…”. It’s from the old King James Version of the Bible (1611). Actually, the meaning of the Greek text underlying the English is ambiguous. Modern translations therefore read quite differently. Look at the Revised Standard Version, for instance: “In a short time you think to make me a Christian.” The sense here is entirely different, for there is no suggestion here that Agrippa is “almost persuaded”. On the contrary, he sounds defiant, intransigent, and perhaps even slightly mocking: “What makes you think you are going to make a Christian of me?”

The background to the text is this. Paul is on trial before Festus, the Roman Governor. Paul defends himself before Festus, telling the governor of his vocation and his mission to the Gentiles. Paul includes his seizure at God’s hand on the road to Damascus. When Festus hears all this — especially the Damascus road episode — he says, “Paul, you are mad.” Paul then turns to King Agrippa, the puppet Jewish ruler in the Roman province. In his exposition of the gospel (which Agrippa has overheard) Paul has argued that Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfilment of the Hebrew prophets. Now Paul says to Agrippa, “Do you believe the prophets?” Agrippa knows that Paul has backed him into a corner. If Agrippa says, “No, I don’t believe the prophets”, Paul will reply, “You don’t? You are a Jew and you don’t believe the prophets? What kind of a Jew are you?” On the other hand, if Agrippa says that he does believe the prophets, Paul will reply, “You tell me you believe the prophets and you have heard my reasoning as to why Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophets; so you too must believe in Jesus too. Then why am I on trial?” Agrippa knows he’s been cornered. Wearily, even slightly mockingly, he says to Paul, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian.”

Those well-known sermons of yesteryear on the theme of the “almost” Christian; they often appealed to a misunderstanding of the text of Acts 26:28. But no matter! Regardless of how the text may have been misread, many people are “almost” Christians. Our Lord admitted as much himself when he said of an earnest seeker, “You are not far from the Kingdom.” Not far from the Kingdom, to be sure, but also not quite yet in!

Today I am going to preach the sermon you have asked for: the “almost” Christian. Never mind the text in Acts 26; think instead of the text in Mark 12, “You are not far from the Kingdom”. Surely it means, “You are almost a Christian.”

Who are the “almost” Christians?

I:(i) — In the first place, they are those people who view the gospel as a trustworthy guide to personal morality. They deem personal morality to be the most significant aspect of anyone’s life. They know what overtakes a society when personal morality is undervalued. Chaos overtakes such a society.

Billions of dollars have been poured into the innermost inner cities of the U.S., into what is now called the “urban jungle”. There is virtually nothing to show for the billions spent. Robbery, murder, extortion, drug-trafficking; all these thrive, even proliferate. Not to mention the “graft”. Not to mention the indescribable violence. And no one knows what to do about it.

American cities? The last time I was in criminal court a judge was sentencing two 19-year olds who had jammed a knife against the ribs of a Brampton teenager and had stolen his Chicago Bulls jacket. As the judge pronounced sentence he told the two 19-year olds that they were despicable, loathsome in fact. “We don’t want a society where someone is going to be physically threatened and psychologically traumatized just because he’s wearing an item of clothing someone else wants”, the judge hissed as he locked up the two fellows. But of course such a society is the one we are certainly going to have when personal morality breaks down.

Moralists are correct in reminding us what happens when morality is set aside: no one can be trusted, everything breaks down, society crumbles.

In primitive societies a man often had more than one wife. Yet regardless of how many wives he may have had, he wasn’t permitted another man’s wife. The most primitive society knew what would happen to the society if wife-raiding were permitted.

Is cheating on examinations a small matter? If we think it is, then we should be prepared to be represented by a lawyer who knows nothing, be operated on by a surgeon who wouldn’t know an artery from an eyeball, sold drugs by a pharmacist who is just as likely to poison us, and drive on a bridge whose engineer builds collapsible bridges. To say that cheating on exams is a small matter is, to say the least, that professional competence is unimportant. Not only is this ridiculous; it’s lethal. (Strictly speaking, these considerations are nota even moral, but rather merely utilitarian. The moral issue is that cheating on examinations is simply wrong.)

Moralists who look on the gospel as a trustworthy guide for personal morality are not far from the Kingdom.

 

(ii) Who are the “almost” Christians? Those who regard the gospel as a program for social improvement. Surely a major factor in social improvement has been high-quality public education. Egerton Ryerson (who preached from this pulpit last century) was the father of Ontario’s educational system. I maintain that his vision was grand. He envisioned quality education for all children, not merely the sons and daughters of the rich, not merely the sons and daughters of Anglicans (the established church). He envisioned public education which was not at all inferior to private schooling, available to all regardless of financial status or religious affiliation. It was to be paid for by the taxpayer, since the entire society would benefit.

I am aware that there are problems with our health-care system. Nonetheless, I admire the populist prairie Methodism which eventually gave Saskatchewan quality health care for everyone, the remaining provinces soon following Saskatchewan’s example. Does anyone want to return to the days when hospital bills loomed as the biggest threat to any family? My mother was hospitalized for 75 days with a heart attack. Had she sold everything she owned (and thereafter become a ward of the state) she still couldn’t have paid the bills. Does anyone want to say that quality medical care should be available only to the most affluent?

“Almost” Christians recognize that it was the gospel which accorded women a place they were denied in ancient Greece and Rome. They recognize that the gospel inflamed those who led campaigns on so many social fronts, such as child labour and working conditions in mines and factories.

(iii) Who are the “almost” Christians? Included among them are those who recognize the Christian inspiration to the arts. Whenever I walk through an art gallery which features the history of painting I am startled at the gospel themes depicted. The annunciation to Mary; the boy Jesus “stumping” the clergy in the temple; the crucifixion, the return of the prodigal son.

My favourite musical composition is Handel’s Messiah. Close behind are Mozart’s Requiem and Masses. What about Michelangelo’s sculpture? And the gospel themes of countless novels! “Almost” Christians know that the gospel has inspired those art-expressions without which we should be humanly impoverished.

“Almost” Christians, those not far from the Kingdom, in a word, are the people who have seized one implicate or aspect of the gospel; they then identify the whole of the gospel with this one aspect. To be sure, they have skewed the gospel by doing this, and because they have skewed it they are near the Kingdom but not yet in it. Then how do “almost” Christians cease being “almost”? How do we simply become citizens of the Kingdom of God?

II(i): — First we need to see that the core, the hub, the essence of what the Christian church is about is the living person of Jesus Christ himself. To be sure, a moral code is useful. We’d all rather have moral neighbours living next door than immoral. Nonetheless, a code, however moral, is qualitatively different, categorically different, from the living person of the risen one himself.

We often fail to grasp this point, I think, inasmuch as we are misled by the word “believe”. In everyday English “believe” has the force of “admit the truth of a statement”. “Do you believe what you read in the newspaper?” means “Do you admit the truth of the statements in the newspaper?”. “Do you believe in Jesus?”, on the other hand, means eversomuch more than “Do you believe statements about Jesus?”. Our Lord did not first ask people to believe a statement about him, however true. He first asked people to follow him, live with him, love him, know him, trust him. The emphasis is always on him; the living person himself; nothing less, nothing other.

Mark tells us that the purpose of our Lord’s calling disciples was “that they might be with him”. What was the point of being with him? There is no point in addition to being with him. In view of who he is, being with him is the point! It’s as though someone were to ask, “What’s the point in loving one’s spouse?” In view of who our spouse is, loving her is the point. It isn’t the case that the point of loving our spouse is to gain something beyond loving her. To be looking for something beyond loving her is not be loving her at all.

“Almost” Christians assume that Christianity is helpful or useful somewhere, somehow. Christians, however don’t think first of usefulness; we think first of truth. Christians know that Jesus Christ himself is real; that he loves us, longs for us, calls us into his company. Once in his company we know that life with him needs no justification beyond this, just as loving one’s spouse is not a means to anything else and needs no justification in terms of anything else.

 

(ii) To say all of this slightly differently. We move from being “almost” Christian to actually being Christian as we come to see that life is finally, ultimately, profoundly, not a matter of codes or schemes or artistic inspiration but rather a matter of relationships; as we come to see that faith is simply a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

I often think we are confused by the different meanings of the English word “faith”. The word “faith” can mean either “that which is believed, the truth to which we subscribe”, or “our ongoing trust and love and loyalty and obedience.” When the Apostles’ Creed is recited the clergyman conducting the service usually prefaces it with something like, “Let us stand and repeat the historic expression of the faith.” “The faith” here refers to the notions, the ideas, the opinions, the views which people are asked to subscribe to. Everyone knows, however, that anyone at all may indeed subscribe to all the right ideas, even acknowledge them as true, yet be possessed of a heart which is far from God. Did not God himself say through the prophet Isaiah, “This people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote“? Listen to another translation: “This people has approached me with its mouth and honoured me with its lips, but has kept its heart from me, and its worship of me has been a commandment of men, learned by rote.” Isaiah’s people use the correct theological vocabulary, but all the while they neither fear God nor love God. Yes, they go to church, but their worship (so-called) of God is but a “commandment of men learned by rote”. They have not yet worshipped God because they have known themselves overwhelmed by God. The commandment of men is but learned by rote, having not yet been written on their heart. The apostle James says that the devils espouse an impeccable theology; it is entirely orthodox. Nevertheless, they remain devils.

If we are to understand the “almost” Christian and how we move from “almost” to “Christian”, we must differentiate between the two meanings of the word “faith”. After all, someone who can subscribe to every last item in the Apostles’ Creed is said to be possessed of strong faith, while someone who can’t is said to be possessed of weaker faith. The truth is, both of them could be possessed of no faith at all inasmuch as both of them could subscribe to right ideas yet be possessed of no trust in our Lord, no love, no obedience. We move from “almost” Christian to “Christian” as come to love our Lord, honour him, trust him, fear him, thank him, obey him. We commit as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of him as we know of him. And if for awhile there are items in the orthodox expressions of Christian belief concerning which we have reservations, then we can wait until our reservations are dealt with; but we cannot wait, must not wait, to commit as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of our Lord as we know of him.

 

(iii) All of which brings us to a point I have mentioned several times in the last few minutes: obedience. Jesus maintained that this was a major distinction between pseudo-disciples and genuine disciples. With, I imagine, a peculiar combination of exasperation and grief Jesus says to some would-be (i.e., “almost”) disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” Then he adds immediately the parable of the man who built his house on rock (which house survived a flood — flood being the biblical symbol for chaos) and the other man who built his house on sand (which house collapsed into ruin). The point to note is this: it is obedience which spells the difference between thriving and dying.

Have you ever heard of George MacDonald, novelist and poet? C.S Lewis wrote of George MacDonald, a 19th century Scottish writer, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself.” I think Lewis was correct: to read George MacDonald is to gain great affinity to the Spirit of Christ. What did MacDonald say about obedience and its place in our moving beyond the “almost” Christian? “Obedience is the one key of life.” This should be etched into our minds forever. “Obedience is the one key of life.” “Whoever will live [that is, truly live] must cease to be a slave and become a child of God. There is no halfway house of rest, where ungodliness may be dallied with [flirted with], nor prove quite fatal.” When a young man complained that he did not understand when Jesus commanded him to do this or that, MacDonald commented, “Had he done as the Master told him, he would soon have come to understand. Obedience is the opener of eyes.” Again, MacDonald writes, “It is simply absurd to say you believe or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you.” And finally, “To say we might disobey and be none the worse would be to say that no might be yes and light sometimes darkness.”

 

(iv) The last point has to do with sacrifice. As we have seen so far we move from being “almost” Christian to “Christian” as the living person of Jesus is accorded first place in our hearts and minds and motivation, as we see that life consists in relationships, and pre-eminently in a relationship with him, as faith is seen to entail obedience; and finally as our obedience even goes to the lengths Jesus himself speaks of when he says, “If anyone wants to be mine, let him, let her, take up her cross and follow me.” In other words, the sign that our following is genuine, sincere, whole-hearted and not merely a romp or a picnic is this: our following entails cross-bearing. There is genuine sacrifice we make — gladly make — for him who first sacrificed everything for us.

At this point the “almost” Christian has become “the real thing”. At this point, says our Lord, there is indescribable joy in heaven. Not to speak of the joy in some individual’s own heart.

 

F I N I S

                                                                                     Victor A. Shepherd    

February 1994

Acts 26:28 KJV and RSV
Mark 12:34
Isaiah 29:13
Luke 6:46
Mark 8:34