What does it mean to be a “Christian”? Is it about prayer and worship? Is it about creeds and doctrines? Is it about accepting Trinitarian formulas like Father-Son-Holy Spirit? Is it about being “saved”?
But somehow, these feel like intellectual exercises. If we looked up the word “Christian” we’d find that a “Christian” is is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the Canonical gospels and the letters of the New Testament. "Christian" derives from the Koine Greek word Christ, a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term Messiah.
Central to the Christian faith is the gospel, the teaching that humans have hope for salvation through the message and work of Jesus, and particularly, his atoning death on the cross and resurrection. Christians also believe Jesus is the Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. Most Christians believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, a description of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This includes the vast majority of churches in Christianity, although a minority are Non-trinitarians.
The term "Christian" is also used adjectivally to describe anything associated with Christianity, or in a proverbial sense "all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like." It is also used as a label to identify people who associate with the cultural aspects of Christianity, irrespective of personal religious beliefs or practices.
See, doesn’t that sound like an intellectual definition?
What this definition doesn’t explain is why. Why do we call ourselves “Christian”? Sure we could turn back to this definition, but let’s get out of our heads knowledge for a minute, and move into our heart knowledge.
In this Sunday’s gospel (John 10:22-30), there are some Jews asking Jesus to tell them plainly who he is. There are two ways to understand this question. The traditional way that scholars have approached this question is that these Jews who are asking are hostile towards Jesus and they are annoyed at his claims to be the Son of God. And sure, we can go that route, but it gets us into difficult territory of believing that there are only *some* who are worthy to be included in the Kingdom of God. It’s this kind of theology that has been unfortunately used to make Christians into anti-Semites and oppressors of other cultures, traditions and peoples. So let’s not take the “traditional” route.
Another way of looking at this request of Jesus to plainly explain who he is, is to imagine those Jewish questioners as curious and filled with suspense. Perhaps they have heard about Jesus’ miracles and healings. Perhaps they have heard about the way he invites the oppressed and the marginalized to share a meal. These stories about Jesus may have evoked a sense of wonder and curiosity…who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
And while they have heard the stories, they still do not believe. According to Jesus, they aren’t one of his sheep.
So let’s take a moment to think about who Jesus’ sheep are. Last Sunday, when Jesus met Peter and the other disciples on the lakeshore for breakfast, Jesus told Peter to tend and feed his sheep. I’ve been thinking a lot about that because we know that the idea of “sheep” is a metaphor for Jesus followers. But let’s think about it literally for a moment.
Anytime we see artistic images of Jesus with sheep, he has that very sweet, caring face, and the sheep are always clean, white fluffy and docile creatures. But any farmer will tell you, most animals are rarely that clean and docile…they roll around in dirt, they do whatever they want and generally mill about. Their days are spent eating, sleeping, walking and pooping. So our ideas of sheep are a little off. But sheep under the care of a shepherd start to know their shepherd. They recognize his or her voice, and they know that this is a safe and secure person to be with…the shepherd will not jeopardize the sheep. However, this bond doesn’t happen overnight…it takes time. And sheep don’t recognize their shepherd because of rational, intellectual development…or a long definition found on Wikipedia…sheep recognize their shepherd because of experience.
So when Jesus commands Peter to tend and feed his sheep, he’s asking Peter to take on an important responsibility. He’s asking Peter to be with the sheep (the followers of Jesus) in the midst of the dirt, the milling about, and the daily living. And he’s asking Peter to establish relationship with them so that they recognize that love, safety and security that only God can provide. In other words, it’s not glamorous work, but hard work that requires patience and compassion…it requires that the disciples *be* with and among the followers.
So back to the request of the Jews for Jesus to tell them plainly who he is. These Jews are asking for Jesus to define his mission and ministry in terms of rational, intellectual practice. Perhaps they’re looking for a job title even. But instead, Jesus invites them to experience his mission and ministry. Telling them who he is—the Son of God—hasn’t worked in the past, but maybe if they become one of his followers, one of his sheep, they will experience who he is.
Here’s another way of thinking about it.
I love the band Pink Floyd. Love, love, love. And when I was in college, I got a chance to see Pink Floyd in concert. In my mind, that concert is still incredibly vivid. I remember the car ride in my 1979 Chevette with my friends, the crowd at the NC State Stadium where the concert was held, the smells, the sights, the feeling of the heat from the pyrotechnics, holding up a cigarette lighter during “Comfortably Numb”…all that. Now no matter how much I relate this experience to you, it’s my experience. You could even go home now and look up Pink Floyd on the computer, download some of their songs, watch their videos on YouTube and become experts in the history of Pink Floyd. We could even become the Pink Floyd congregation and start singing their songs instead of hymns…although that might get a bit weird.
My point is this…you can “know” about Pink Floyd or you can *know* Pink Floyd. One is an intellectual exercise and one is an experiential exercise.
And perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at. You can ask him to plainly tell you who he is—the Son of God—or you can experience him…in the dirt, in the milling about and in daily living. Neither answer is wrong, but one is in the head and one is in the heart. One requires intellectual knowing, while the other invites us into intimacy and relationship.
So are we curious when we ask Jesus who he is and what he’s about? Are we ready to be sheep?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.