When does a Christian become a Christian? For simplicity, let me offer four possibilities. Which option, or combination of options, makes best sense to you?...
What do you think? When does a Christian become a Christian? My guess is that, within our parish, we will have a range of views on this question. Indeed, Anglican history includes advocates of each approach. The first option is certainly by far the weakest theologically. Most of us agree that being a Christian has very little to do with what ‘race, place, or face’ we have been given. There is an old saying too, that ‘God has no grandchildren’. Of course that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love grandchildren, or that God can’t, to some degree, be like a loving grandparent! What it means is that to be a Christian we have to have faith of our own. We can’t say we are Christians just because others in our families or in our country are Christians. We need to have a direct relationship with God. Yet even the cultural definition of a Christian has a degree of truth. For if we are brought up in a society shaped by genuine Christian values, then we are likely to be affected. God’s grace does not just work among those who have been baptised, or who have received the Gospel, or had particular direct experiences of the Holy Spirit. Scripture, tradition and wider human experience shows that God’s grace, and the Holy Spirit, also work on other levels, in the wider world. Yet, for most of us, it is one, or more, of the three other options which help us best understand when a Christian becomes a Christian.
So what is it to be? Do we hold a sacramental view of what it is to be a Christian, or an evangelical view, or a spiritual view? Or are they all mixed up, perhaps with a bit of a cultural, or, in an improved sense, a ‘kingdom’ view of God’s grace? As I say, all of these can be found, to varying degrees, in legitimate Anglican understandings of what it is to be a Christian. Each has a certain strength, and also key weakness.es The sacramental view, for example, is clear and objective, and well expresses both the communal aspect of Christian life, and, crucially, the primacy of God’s action in the work of grace. Yet, on its own, it can make being a Christian largely an external thing, and, often, too dependent on Christian ritual and order. The evangelical view, in contrast, has an healthy emphasis on the need for personal understanding and commitment, as well as the importance of scripture. However, on its own, it can become too much a matter of individual opinion and feeling. The spiritual view, meanwhile, corrects the weaknesses of the others, in stressing the power of transformation in a Christian life, where it is lived in ever-deepening relationship with God. Yet it can also lead to false individualism and to exaggerated, even disturbing, emphases on particular spiritual gifts, out of balance with the whole of scripture, healthy tradition, and reason. No wonder we Christians continue to wrestle within ourselves, together, and with others, in seeking this positive equilibrium! As our second reading today, from Acts 8.14-17, shows, followers of Jesus have been struggling with this from the beginning.
Today’s second reading may be short, but it is a real cracker, isn’t it?! All four options of how to become a Christian are challenged. Most importantly, God’s grace is shown not to belong to any one race, place or face. Rather, in this story, God in Christ is shown to have busted wide open the idea that grace can be identified with any one religious culture. As a likely great shock to the first Jewish Christians, it seems that considerable numbers of Samaritans had turned to Christ, without benefit of the main Christian leadership. The Samaritans, the most despised religious outcasts and rivals to the Jews, had grasped the promise of the Gospel. It was all very strange. therefore, it seems, Peter and James, the principal early Church leaders, decided that they needed to meet these surprising new believers to make things official by the laying on of hands. In other words, the evangelical faith of the Samaritan Christians, their sacramental baptism, and the spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit had to be brought together and made clear: each of these things completing the others.
Now, scriptures like this one from the Acts of the Apostles can be misused, if we do not hold the different aspects of God’s grace together. Some Pentecostalists, for example, have used this text to suggest that what really matters is ‘spiritual’ baptism, rather than sacramental baptism. Others in the past, such as Catholic (and Anglican) bishops, have also used it to say that sacramental activity by bishops, such as laying on of hands, is what really matters. However, to use scripture in such a manner not only takes it out of context but ignores the New Testament as a whole. For, in the Bible, people seem to become followers of Christ in different ways. Sometimes they have various types of what we might call ‘evangelical’ experience: first of all hearing and responding to the person or message of Jesus before becoming part of the community of Christ, or receiving gifts of the Holy Spirit. Others however first become members of the community of Christ through being baptised, sometimes simply as a member of a household whose leader has decided to follow Christ. For others again, it is neither hearing and receiving the gospel, nor sharing in the sacraments that begins their Christian journey. Some simply have a God experience which takes them beyond their usual selves; an experience of the Holy Spirit which later leads them into the gospel and sharing in the sacraments. As Christians, we may come into the Faith in different ways. What matters is how we continue the journey.
So, how did each of us become Christians? I encourage us to share our stories with one another. How also do each of us view, and understand, God’s world, the sacraments, the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit? I urge us to explore these things together. For, in doing so, we are carrying on the work which the early Christians were doing together in our second reading today: sharing the gospel, the sacraments and the work of the Holy Spirit, in and for the life of our wider world. And, as we do so, let us be reminded that a Christian is never entirely a Christian until their life’s end, until we are fully sanctified by the love and presence of God. For the sacraments, the gospel, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and God’s grace in the wider world: these are but steps and means along the way. Let us therefore share, rejoice, and walk onwards, together, in the name, and love, of Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Epiphany 1 Year C