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Monday, June 13, 2016

Almost a Christian

The following message was adapted from John Wesley's sermon from 1741 titled "The Almost Christian."  I pray it challenges you to consider the very important question:  Are you a Christian or merely almost a Christian.

Acts 26:1-29
1Then Agrippa said to Paul, “You may speak in your defense.”
So Paul, gesturing with his hand, started his defense: “I am fortunate, King Agrippa, that you are the one hearing my defense today against all these accusations made by the Jewish leaders, for I know you are an expert on all Jewish customs and controversies. Now please listen to me patiently!
“As the Jewish leaders are well aware, I was given a thorough Jewish training from my earliest childhood among my own people and in Jerusalem. If they would admit it, they know that I have been a member of the Pharisees, the strictest sect of our religion. Now I am on trial because of my hope in the fulfillment of God’s promise made to our ancestors. In fact, that is why the twelve tribes of Israel zealously worship God night and day, and they share the same hope I have. Yet, Your Majesty, they accuse me for having this hope! Why does it seem incredible to any of you that God can raise the dead?
“I used to believe that I ought to do everything I could to oppose the very name of Jesus the Nazarene. 10 Indeed, I did just that in Jerusalem. Authorized by the leading priests, I caused many believers there to be sent to prison. And I cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. 11 Many times I had them punished in the synagogues to get them to curse Jesus. I was so violently opposed to them that I even chased them down in foreign cities.
12 “One day I was on such a mission to Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. 13 About noon, Your Majesty, as I was on the road, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. 14 We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.’
15 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked.
“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. 16 Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. 17 And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles 18 to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’
19 “And so, King Agrippa, I obeyed that vision from heaven. 20 I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must repent of their sins and turn to God—and prove they have changed by the good things they do. 21 Some Jews arrested me in the Temple for preaching this, and they tried to kill me. 22 But God has protected me right up to this present time so I can testify to everyone, from the least to the greatest. I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23 that the Messiah would suffer and be the first to rise from the dead, and in this way announce God’s light to Jews and Gentiles alike.”
24 Suddenly, Festus shouted, “Paul, you are insane. Too much study has made you crazy!”
25 But Paul replied, “I am not insane, Most Excellent Festus. What I am saying is the sober truth. 26 And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner! 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do—”
28 Agrippa interrupted him. “Do you think you can persuade me to become a Christian so quickly?”
29 Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains.”

            We live in a “Christian” society (or at least we think we do).  Polls show that 71% of Americans claim to be Christian.  However, more and more, people are acting in very unchristian ways.  Even our government is making decisions many feel are unchristian.  We fear our nation is slipping into unchristian ways.
            Paul and the other Apostles lived at a time when Christians were such a small part of the population they seemed insignificant.  It is estimated that less than 1% of the population at that time was Christian.  There were only 40 Christian churches in the whole world in 100 AD!  This tiny group of Christians were spread out across a Mediterranean world filled with debauchery, corruption, and bent on destroying the fledgling Christian faith.  Compared to those beleaguered Christians, you would think we have nothing to complain about!
            Perhaps, the main reason we fear for our country is because it has been so “Christian” in the past.  We remember fondly a time when churches were better attended, people were more honest, and society better reflected the beliefs and values we consider “Christian.”  And now, as we see those values eroding, we feel our nation will soon be “Christian” no longer.
            But then, we need to consider if we truly live in a Christian society now.  Have we ever really lived in a Christian nation?  Does the term “Christian nation” even mean what we think it means?  What does it really mean to be a Christian?  And most important of all, we need to ask ourselves:  Am I really a Christian?  These are the questions we will explore in this message.

The Characteristics of an Almost Christian
            There are many good, kind people in our world who are not Christians.  Sometimes we admire them and mistake them for Christians.  So, the first thing we must do if we are going to define what is a real Christian, is to note the characteristics of someone who is almost a Christian. Then, we will be able to go one step further and describe someone who is completely a Christian.
            Someone who is almost a Christian is honest.  They tell the truth and do not lie.  In fact, they will speak the truth even when it is hard.  They will be honest, even if it goes against the grain of public opinion.  They will tell you what you need to hear even if you don't want to hear it or if it upsets you, because someone who is almost a Christian is truthful.  Yet it is more than just words.
            Someone who is almost a Christian also has integrity.  In other words, they are the same person when no one is watching that they are when everyone is watching.  Someone who is almost a Christian acts the same way on Sunday morning at church that they do on Saturday night.  They have integrity.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--who is standing right at the threshold of being a true Christian--is kind and helpful.  They are the kind of person who always encourages others.  They send cards to people who are sick or in mourning. Someone who is almost a Christian visits people when they are in the hospital.  They are so thoughtful and always know the right thing to do to cheer people up.  Someone who is almost a Christian faithfully prays for others, but there is more.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--who is knocking at the very door--will be very religious.  They refrain from things the Bible forbids.  You would never hear someone who is almost a Christian spewing profanity.  Their talk will always be wholesome and good.  They would never commit adultery or steal.  They would never go around town gossiping about others behind their back because they are almost a Christian.  However, these people do more than avoid bad things.
            The "almost Christian" does many good things.  They go to church regularly.  They volunteer at church and in the community.  They might coach their son's baseball team or teach Sunday school.  They do good every chance they get--even giving to charity, both within the church and without.
            Someone who is almost a Christian--just millimeters away--is always clean and well put together.  They exercise regularly and take care of their body.  Their home is always clean; you can stop by anytime unannounced and you will never find dirty dishes in the sink; there will never be dust on their furniture.  Their vehicle is always clean and tidy; it never smells like the lunch they ate in their car yesterday, because they are almost a Christian!
            These people--who are almost Christian--are some of the best citizens you will find.  They always do their civic duty.  They are proud of their country and community.  They always want to do good and be good.  One more thing:  someone who is almost a Christian prays every morning and night, and before all their meals, and many times throughout the day.  They are always praying to God, because they are almost a Christian.  

            Some of you will say:  "Is it even possible that someone could have all these fine attributes and still only be almost a Christian?"           
            Yes!  John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, who wrote the sermon that inspired this blog, was just such a man.  He said this of himself--that he was at one time only an almost Christian.  Listen to some of the things Wesley did before he became a complete Christian:
Wesley grew up the son of a preacher.  He learned the Bible and godly living from his saintly mother.  He went to seminary and became an Anglican priest.  He traveled from England to Georgia to be a missionary to the Indians.  John Wesley strove with all his might to do good and follow God’s will as a Christian.  Yet it was only after he had already done all these things that Welsey fnally realized he was only an almost Christian.  In 1738 while listening to someone read Martin Luther's preface to the book of Romans, something amazing happened.  Wesley said, "while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  Wesley realized that all the good things he had done, all those things that made him almost a Christian, had done absolutely nothing at all to save him.  Only Christ could save him and so Wesley surrendered everything to Jesus and became a real Christian for the first time at the age of 35-years-old.

A Complete Christian
            Now that we have described someone who is almost a Christian, we can define what makes you a complete Christian.  First, Jesus said you must "Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength…"  God must be absolutely first in your life, no exceptions.  
            Many will say, "Of course!  I do love God."  No, I don't think you understand the gravity of this.  The love of God must engross all your heart, all your desires, all your passions until you are utterly dead to the world; until your pride is obliterated.  Your love for God must take absolutely first place in your life--before your wife, before your kids, before your career, before your hobbies, before all your worldly desires.  You must forsake all else for the love of God--Jesus said this is the greatest commandment.
            And the second greatest commandment--if you are to be fully a Christian (and not only almost a Christian)--is to "Love your neighbor as yourself..."  And in case you're wondering, Jesus said everyone is your neighbor.  It's not just the person who lives next door, it is also the person who lives on the other side of town or the "wrong" side of town.  It is also the illegal immigrants from Mexico who keep crossing our borders and threatening our economy.  Our neighbors are also homosexuals and others with lifestyles with which we don't agree.  Our neighbors are people in other countries who do not share our same values.  These are our neighbors and we are to love them.  The person who shot and killed all those people at the nightclub in Orlando is also our neighbor; so are terrorists who are bent on destroying our way of life.  All these are our neighbors and we are to love them as we love ourselves.
            You say, "Those aren't our neighbors!  Those are our enemies!"  Jesus also said, "Love your enemies.  Pray for those who curse you."  So if you are to be fully Christian, you also must love your enemies--both your own enemies and the enemies of God.  And your love must be such that you would even lay down your life for them, as did Christ.  Lest you forget what this Christian love is, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 tells us, "Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance."
            You say, "Who can live like that? It's impossible."  You are right.  It is impossible.  No human can love like this.  It would be like asking a camel to walk through the eye of a needle.  So there is one more thing you must have if you are to be fully and completely and wholly a Christian: faith.  
            Humanly speaking, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  With Christ we are more than conquerors.  With Christ, we are called sons of God.  Christ said we would do even greater things than he did!  (How is that possible?  How can we do more than Jesus?  He was God! Yet, Jesus said we would!)  Through Christ, we have overcome the world, death, sin (not just the guilt of sin, but also the power of it!).  Through faith in Christ, we are saved!
            But don't be deceived!  Faith that doesn't bring repentance, right living, love and good works, is not real faith; it is a dead and useless faith, the same faith demons have.  You say, "I believe!  I believe what the Apostles' Creed says:  I believing Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried, and that he rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty!"  Good, but don't you know there are demons burning in hell right now who believe those very same things?  That is not saving faith.  It is dead and useless.
            Faith that saves, is trusting in Jesus so that you surrender everything to him.  It is trusting him enough to follow his teachings and do what he says, right now.  Saving faith is putting the love of God and your neighbor above everything else.  It makes you throw away all your pride, all your reliance on your own merits--knowing that all your good deeds are nothing and have no ability to make you good, let alone save you.  That kind of faith changes you.  It changes everything.  
            John Wesley said:  "Whosoever has this faith which ‘purifies the heart’, by the power of God who dwelleth therein, from pride, anger, desire, ‘from all unrighteousness’, ‘from all filthiness of flesh and spirit’; which fills it with love stronger than death both to God and to all mankind—love that doth the works of God, glorying to spend and to be spent for all men, and that endureth with joy, not only the reproach of Christ, the being mocked, despised, and hated of all men, but whatsoever the wisdom of God permits the malice of men or devils to inflict; whosoever has this faith, thus ‘working by love’, is not almost only, but altogether a Christian."

So we must get to the most important question today, which is not are we living in a Christian country, but am I a real Christian?  
I think if we are honest, we will have to admit that not many of us even rise to the level of someone who is almost a Christian. How then can so many go on believing they are completely a Christian. And if not, then what are you to do? Should you go on the same as you were before you read this? Should you go on pretending to others that you are a real Christian or deceiving yourself until the day you are horrified to find yourself before God’s throne and finally realize that you were not a Christian your whole life or maybe almost a Christian, but that you have failed to be wholly and completely and fully a real Christian.
Humble yourself.  Repent.  Let Christ save you and have faith in him alone to help you live as a True Christian from this day forward.

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