Sunday, April 26, 2009
The Almost Christian 2009
Acts 26: 24-29
Today is Heritage Sunday. This is a day set aside by the United Methodist Church to remind it’s people of the strains of tradition that have come together unto the denomination we are members of today, and it is on the anniversary of the creation of the United Methodist church in 1968. Today’s hymns are all Wesleyan, and our statement of belief at the beginning of the service is the Covenant prayer of the Wesleyan movement.
The original sermon can be read by clicking here.
So, Paul’s been in prison for about two years at this point. He was first imprisoned by the Sanhedrin, the came body that tried Jesus in the middle of the night, and Just like Jesus, he was passed on to the Romans because the Romans have a death penalty and the Jewish council doesn’t.
Paul, however, doesn’t stand silently. He tells The council, then the Roman Governor, and finally Agrippa, who is the last of the sons of Herod to be king, his story of who Jesus is, How Paul used to persecute the Jews, how held everyone’s cloak while they stoned Stephen, how he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, and how he’s been in god’s service ever since.
The local governor, who’s in attendance at this hearing before King Agrippa, tells Paul that he’s out of his mind, because of too much learning. See, Festus isn’t Jewish, and so he doesn’t have the respect for the book and for learning that Paul is hoping Agrippa has, Agrippa, who is at least partially Jewish.
He argues to Agrippa that Jesus is just exactly what the Jewish prophets have foreseen, and since Agrippa is Jewish, he knows what the prophets said. Agrippa’s response is to ask Paul if Paul would make him a Christian so quickly? Paul basically responds with “you bet! You and everyone here, I hope becomes just like me, except for my being imprisoned.”.
It’s this seemingly smart-alecky line that Agrippa throws at Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” that John Wesley keyed off of in the middle of the summer of 1741, as he stood before the professors and students of St. Mary’s College, Oxford. He could see so many of the people he was about to preach to as good, basic, decent folks with potential.
This sermon became rather important for Wesley, and was listed as #2 in his list of sermons central to the Methodist movement, the list of 50 some-odd sermons that have been passed down to us as part of the foundation of what we believe.
The sermon was called the Almost Christian.
An almost Christian, he begins by saying, has the form of godliness, but not the power. An Altogether Christian has the power of Godliness, and the outward forms are the evidence of the inward power.
1. An Almost Christian is someone who has the virtues common to all decent people in society; they are just with their neighbors, they don’t rob or cheat them, they don’t pick on those without friends, and they pay their debts.
2. They tell the truth.
3. They feed the hungry and help those who are in need, generally.
4. They have the forms of outward godliness; they don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t engage in gossip. They dress well, modestly, but not so they are obviously rich.
5. They try as best as they can to get along, don’t practice in revenge, are not sarcastic, and they really do do unto others.
6. They are active in making the world a better place, by teaching, volunteering, exhorting the faithful.
7. They attend church regularly, and do with a sense of seeking the truth in a modest mode.
8. They pray alone and with family.
9. They are zealous, they are sincere in their seeking after Christ, they are faithful, and they really want to be stronger with God.
10. They take communion regularly.
Can one be and do all of these things and still be an Almost Christian?
Wesley says yes, and he was one himself.
Here is how one becomes an altogether Christian:
1. They completely love God and desire only him. God makes them who they are.
2. They love everyone. They have no prejudice, they don’t tell jokes in which people who are different from them are the focus. They love even their enemies, and by love, Wesley refers to 1 Corinthians 13; love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.3. They have a faith that produces repentance, love and good works. Good works are not the means of grace, they are the proof.
4. They have a faith that believes Christ is all you really need.
Now, Wesley realizes what standard he has set up, because so few people in churches actually can meet even the Almost Christian standard, never mind the Altogether Christian. He knows that given our faltering hearts and attention spans that equal a squirrels’, there’s no way at all that anyone could ever achieve this over a lifetime. Intention is not enough. That’s what the road to hell is paved with. (His line, not mine) This is why we need the love of God. Through God’s love, and only through God’s love, do we become able to love our neighbors. Only through God’s love for us can we learn what love is, and love God. and life is a journey, one where the goal is to be filled with this love. Only occasionally is someone actually among us who is full.
As I said, this sermon is one of the pieces of the foundation of what we believe as United Methodists. It is foundational that we can only approach God’s level of love by approaching God himself, and seeking after him through Jesus Christ. We can only know about God’s love, and what it means in full, by seeking after Jesus’ teachings. We can be nice to every one, we can feed all the hungry, we can defend the weak and object to people telling mean jokes, but unless we love God completely, we’re still only almost there.
Thank God for the thing called grace, eh? It brings to mind the best morning prayer ever:
So far today I've done all right.
I haven't gossiped, cursed, or lost my temper.
I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over indulgent.
I am really glad about these things.
But, in a few minutes Lord,
I am going to get out of bed,
and from then on,
I'm probably going to need a lot more help.
In Jesus' Name