TEXTS: Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
So bit ago, the children and I played a few rounds of “guess what kind work they do”, and the clues that had were usually centered upon a person’s dress or maybe the accessories that they were carrying. Sometimes it was pretty easy to look at a person’s dress or maybe at something that they were carrying and say with conviction, “that person is a nurse” or “that person is a teacher” or “that person has a construction job”. Sometimes, especially in this day and age, it’s not that easy to guess a vocation, as fewer employers have uniform requirements. The formality of many office places has been reduced now to dress casual, and even lower than that on casual Fridays. There are a good many places these days that require ID badges, so I guess that an ID card on a lanyard might be a decent tip-off.
In the same manner, you might meet a complete stranger at a party or in some other type of setting and engage in casual conversation, sometimes without that person saying a word about vocation or profession and yet you can get a general idea, just from speech patterns, or the way the person handles himself or herself, what that person does for a living. Vocabulary or the use of certain idioms might give it away. Sometimes even the stance that the person takes, of the body language that is exhibited will clue you in.
I have known a lot of engineers in my life and have a son who is an engineer. One of my favorite jokes about engineers is this: “How can you tell an aggressive engineer from reserved of bashful engineer? The aggressive engineer looks at the tops of your shoes when he’s talking to you instead of the tops of his own.” My second favorite engineer joke is: “An optimist sees a glass as half full. A pessimist sees the glass as half empty. The engineer says, ‘I could design you a glass . . .’”
So the question for us today, the question touched upon by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome, is, “How do you identify a Christian?” “How does a person who has embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ distinguish herself from others?” Another way to put it would be, “What are the ‘marks’ of faithfulness to Christ?” Could you, after ten minutes of conversation with a complete stranger at a party, determine whether that person is a Christian? And please hear me well, I’m not saying, “How can you tell whether a person is religious or not.” or “How can you tell whether a person goes to church on a relatively regular basis or has his name on a church roll somewhere.” No, I’m asking whether a person lives in Christ, or whether that person’s life is directed by the tenants of faith found in the Bible.
In today’s gospel lesson, a lesson that we did not read because I felt that the passage from Romans was more “preach-able”, Jesus said quite plainly to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now while Jesus distinctly said that others should take up their cross and not his cross, the simple fact that Jesus’ cross led to death under the most horrifying of circumstances might render his call somewhat less than palatable to us. Let’s face it, it is part of our human nature to avoid suffering and to seek enjoyment and self-gratification.
Beyond that, the statement that Jesus makes is a little nebulous, don’t you think? Who gets to define what ‘taking up your cross’ means for each individual? What one person sees as drudgery another might see as bliss. One person might see yardwork as a personal cross to bear while another might hope that there are plenty of flower beds in heaven so that she would have a chance to tend them for all eternity. Going to a monthly symphony concert with one’s partner just because that partner loves the symphony might be seen as a terrible burden, while the partner is, at the same time, being transported to levels of absolute ecstasy. With such a wide range of possible interpretations of “burden” it would certainly be difficult to spot a person as a Christian based upon ‘cross carrying’!
Paul on the other hand, gives the church at Rome a veritable laundry list of Christian traits. Paul lifts up genuine love, being zealous for the Gospel, hopefulness; patience in suffering; perseverance in prayer; generosity; hospitality. These, writes Paul, are the traits of a true Christian. To these he adds, kindness even to those who injure you, empathy for those who are suffering, humility (something Paul emphasized w/examples), peacefulness; and, again a point which Paul emphasized, the refusal of vengeance.
I have to tell you folks, I like Paul’s list. And while I know that it is not an easy list of traits to attain, and that to achieve all or even a majority of them is a really difficult challenge, I believe that it is the list to strive for if one wishes to be seen as a true disciple of Christ. These are also traits that can be recognized by others. They can be those things that we look for when we are trying to discern whether a person is a Christian or not.
If I met a person for the first time and struck up a conversation with that person and all I heard from him was talk about what he had accomplished and how important he was to his workplace and all that he did for his family or for the community or how wealthy he was or what kinds of valuable possessions he had, I would say to myself immediately, “This person is not a Christian.” Oh sure, he might be a member of a local Lutheran Church and might even be a regular attender. He might even have bragged about the fact that he sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school and sat on the church council. But that only makes a person religious, not a Christian.
If I met a person and spoke to her and found the conversation being taken steadily toward how others had mistreated her and how many enemies she had and maybe even how she expected to get revenge upon those evildoers that had wronged her, again I would say to myself, “This person is not a Christian.”
If I met a person and found this person talking disparagingly about others and speaking ill of those who did not share same traits as him; talking in general terms about “us” and “them”, I would not see a Christian before me.
Friends, no one said being a Christian was easy. I be first admit that at times can be terribly difficult. Paul even seems to get a bit twisted when he proclaims that kindness to our enemies is a way of “heaping hot coals upon heads”. Now I’m going to say this right here and right now. We should not see kindness offered to our enemies as a way of punishing them or torturing them or even shaming them. Kindness to our enemies should be offered in Christ’s love as true and pure kindness no matter how difficult that might be. No, adhering to the traits of Christianity is definitely not easy and we will all find ourselves stumbling at times.
But if, in the midst of a casual conversation with a stranger, a person finds herself speaking in terms that oppose the traits that Paul offers here to the church in Rome, then I believe that person has no right whatsoever call herself a Christian. In this electronic age, if I see people posting points of self-glorification or disparaging others, then no matter what that person might call himself, I cannot look upon that person as Christian.
So my friends, strive for the good, be ardent in spirit, extend hospitality to friend and stranger alike, live in harmony with others. If we are to be seen as followers of Jesus Christ, and if this world around us is to survive at all, we cannot be overcome by evil, but instead must overcome evil with good. May God grant each of us the strength and the faith to do so! Amen.