The Almost Christian
Scripture: Matthew 23:1-39, 1 Timothy 3:1-5
Summary: A contemporary rendering of John Wesley’s famous sermon illuminating the differences between one who is simply wears the Christian label and one who is truly reborn.
There’s a movie made in 2003, and I’m wondering how many of you have seen it. Has anyone seen the movie “Elf”? I heard the basic storyline in a review of the movie and thought to myself that the storyline of the movie sounds remarkably similar to the topic I want to talk about this morning. Because I haven’t personally seen the movie, I run the risk of getting a detail or two incorrect, so if I do, please forgive me.
In this movie, Santa Clause is making his rounds one Christmas night and during a visit to an orphanage an orphan infant sneaks into Santa’s bag and ends up riding all the way to the North Pole. The child is discovered, and after realizing that he was an orphan from the orphanage, the elves decide to adopt and raise the baby there at the North Pole. They dress him like an elf, treat him like an elf, and raise him like an elf.
The more time passes, the more evident it becomes that he definitely is NOT an elf. One major clue is that he grows to be over six feet tall. With each passing year, everyone becomes more and more aware that he is not an elf, and no amount of artificial, outward elf-ness can make him truly an elf. Finally, realizing that he doesn’t belong, he goes back to the real world to try to find his biological family, fit in, and become a normal person. As difficult as it was to try to be an elf, which he wasn’t, it is just as difficult trying to be a normal person because he had been artificially shaped into a form of elfness, without truly being an elf. He is seen as a person who is somewhere in-between, not fitting in anywhere. He is an “almost” elf. He is an “almost” human.
My message today is a 21st century adaptation of a message preached by our denomination’s forefather, John Wesley, back in 1741 called “The ‘Almost’ Christian.” I read this sermon as a class assignment. And I must confess that often times when I read a sermon or book from a culture so long ago and so far away, I read it skeptical of it’s ability to really speak well to us here in 21st century America. Not so with this sermon by John Wesley. As I read his words I was struck by how true and relevant his words are for us today. We live in a nation, a society filled with “almost” Christians. Many of our churches are filled with, even led by “almost” Christians. When asked why they don’t participate in a church family, many non-church people say that it’s because of all of the “almost” Christians who are there. It was Mahatma Gandhi who was almost persuaded to become a Christian, but decided against it saying, “I would become a follower of Christ if it wasn’t for those who claim to follow him.” In other words, he was turned away from Christ by observing the lives lived by “almost” Christians.
1. So what does an “almost” Christian look like? The first thing that we could say about the “almost” Christian is that they are good, ethical people. They know and understand the importance of a good social ethic. When I was in grade school, there was a place on our report card labeled “citizenship” for the teacher to evaluate our social ethic. Now how in the world you can determine if a six year old is a good citizen or not is beyond me. The “almost” Christians are the people who would always receive an “A” for citizenship. They don’t steal. They don’t cheat one another. Lying and slandering one another is totally unacceptable to the “almost” Christian. They view liars and cheats as the pests of society.
They don’t oppress the poor, in fact, they probably look after them; engaging in all sorts of charity work. When they see someone hungry, they feed them. When someone needs clothing, they clothe them. They are typically philanthropists, giving generously to social programs.
The “almost” Christian is a hard worker, not lazy, but working long, hard hours to earn a good income, provide a comfortable life for his family, be recognized and praised by his superiors as he is promoted up the corporate ladder. This is the person will lives by the credo, “God helps those who help themselves.”
2. The second thing we could say about the “almost” Christian is that they are good, moral people. The “almost” Christian is someone who works hard at observing and adhering to a code of morality in which it is wrong to kill, commit adultery and other sexual sin, or destroy one another with his words. They avoid moral vices such as drunkenness, drug use, and gambling. This is a person who is generally good to other people and could quote to you and try to live by The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
3. What else could we say about the “almost” Christian? Well, they are generally religious people. They are people who outwardly demonstrate a form of godliness. Every time the church doors are open, they are usually there. If they know you, they will greet you with a big smile, and perhaps a hug and when you ask them how they are they’ll assure you of how “blessed” they are.
During the singing they will sing loud and proud whether they can carry a tune or not. They could probably, off the top of their head tell you the titles and authors of hymns 142, 267, and 298...quite possibly even the year they were written. They listen intently and nod affirmingly to the pastor’s preaching and will even offer the occasional “amen.” Because of their religious piety they are often offered seats on the church board, dubbed as deacons, or handpicked to teach Sunday School.
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “These sound like the descriptions of a true Christian. Can a person really look like this outwardly and still only be an “almost” Christian? John Wesley was born into a Christian family, the son of an Anglican minister. He was brought up not only respecting the Christian religion, but himself embodying it. At the age of 22 he was ordained as a deacon and began preaching. Three years later he was fully ordained as a priest in the Anglican church. Over the course of the next ten years he busied himself with teaching and ministry in such places as Oxford University and even as a wanna-be missionary to Savannah, Georgia at which he ultimately failed, and returned to England disgraced.
John Wesley was a devoutly religious person, living a religious life, preaching religious sermons, teaching religious thought, leading a religious small group called “The Holy Club.” But by his own admission, he was an “almost” Christian. It wasn’t until May 24th, 1738, after 13 years of “Christian” ministry, at the age of 35 that John Wesley became “completely” Christian.
Observing his ethical, moral, and religious life, and the ethical, moral, and religious lives of the “almost” Christians that we come into contact with, what is it that makes these seemingly Christian people, “almost” Christian? The difference between an “almost” Christian and a “completely” Christian person is not what we see or don’t see on the outside, it’s determined by what’s inside of them, driving them to live ethical, moral, and religious lives.
You see, they are ethical, moral, and religious people as long as being ethical, moral, and religious serves them well. They like to be recognized as good citizens, sitting in places of leadership, admired by their fellow citizens, making the necessary connections to further their business, their good name, or their political ambitions. They love the respect and honor showered on them for being such outstanding people. They love being offered the seat of honor at the banquet. They love seeing their name and picture in the newspaper. They love their positions of leadership in the church because of the respect, the power, and the control that comes with such positions.
What we have to remember about the person who is “almost” Christian is that according to scripture, their heart remains deceitful and desperately wicked, regardless of how they may outwardly appear. And because of this, we have to remember that when it no longer serves their purposes to be an ethical person, then they will become less and less ethical. When morality no longer furthers their own agenda, then they will become less and less moral. When these things happen, they find themselves in the desperate state of being somewhere in-between, not really fitting in anywhere. As difficult as it was to try to be a Christian, which he wasn’t, it is just as difficult trying to be a non-Christian because he had been artificially shaped into a form of a Christian, without truly being a Christian. He is a person who is somewhere in-between, not fitting in anywhere. He is an “almost” Christian. He is an “almost” heathen. He is now one of the hypocrites who so often keeps spiritually hungry people from giving themselves to Christ.
I told you earlier that this message is an adaptation of John Wesley’s message by the same name. But even his wasn’t really original. Jesus first preached this message in Matthew chapter 23. Let’s take just a few moments and together read his words concerning those who could be called “almost” Christian.
There is an answer for the person who realizes that they are an “almost” Christian. There is hope. There is love. There is grace. The most sensible answer for the “almost” Christian is to become “completely” Christian. What does it mean to be “completely” Christian?
Let’s begin with the outward life. It looks much the same as that of the “almost” Christian. The “completely” Christian person is an ethical person. She is a moral person. And She is a religious person. She values truth, honesty, and charity, caring for the person who is poor and struggling in life. She faithfully participates in the life of her church family, incorporating spiritual disciplines into her day-to-day life. She respects and cares for her spiritual leadership. She prays for and encourages her brothers and sisters. She worships and listens to and reads the Word of God, applying it to her life. What is different, however, is that all of her outward Christianity is driven by and emerges out of three things that the “almost” Christian has no understanding of.
The first is a genuine, all-consuming love for God; a love for God that engulfs the entire heart, a love for God that captures and transforms all of our interests and desires and passions, a love for God that fills every empty corner of our soul. This love for God causes her to wake up every morning thinking to herself, “Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever!”
The second thing that drives the life of the “completely” Christian person is genuine love for other people. Unlike the “almost” Christian, this person loves other people not because of what benefit they can receive from that person, but because that person is a living, breathing, feeling human being created in the image of God who needs to feel the love of another as desperately as we do. This kind of love compels us to lay aside concern for ourselves all for the sake of helping someone else know the feeling of being genuinely loved by another human being.
And finally, the “completely” Christian person is driven by faith. Without faith, the “almost” Christian can never hope to become “completely” Christian because it is by grace, through faith, that we are truly saved and born again. The faith we’re talking about here is not simply an intellectual belief in God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, Heaven, or Hell. Satan himself along with every demonic being in existence not only believes in God, but has seen Him face-to-face. Satan knows full well that Jesus Christ not only lived, died, but rose from the dead. Satan and his demons believe every article of faith, and Christian doctrine that has ever been taught. In fact, they are probably more accurate in their theology than we are; enabling them to effectively twist and distort it to deceive and lead astray even God’s chosen, if that were possible. A mere intellectual belief in these things makes us no better than the demons who will one day be eternally cast into Hell.
No, the faith that we’re talking about here is a faith and belief that Jesus Christ and he alone has made the way for us to become “completely” Christian, truly reunited with the one true God of creation. A faith and belief that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ, and now Christ has opened that door to all who will walk through it regardless of their spiritual condition. This is a faith that once we enter that narrow door, all of our sins, past, present, and future are not only covered, but are altogether erased and forever forgotten. A faith that God will transform us into entirely new people, destroying the power of sin in our lives. It is this faith that is the spark igniting the all-consuming love for God and love for people, making us truly “completely” Christian. It’s this faith that frees us from the prison of being “somewhere in-between” and allows us to finally, fully belong.