what does it mean to be a christian?

Wanting to keep in touch with people as my life faces a shift in focus, I have joined the social-networking site, Facebook. It gives you the opportunity to fill in a 'Profile' with one of the questions being 'Religion'.

What do I write?

I am not sure 'Christian' is that helpful. The word is too fluid and the connotations often too destructive. For some time now (sparked by the Willow Creek world with Bill Hybels, I think) it has been commonplace to use the phrase 'follower of Jesus'. I like that a lot.

But is it sufficient?

No - it is not. In recent months I have gone back to an image I nicked from a book on Greek grammar 25 years ago. I translated it and have used it in preaching classes ever since. It shows the spatial dimensions associated with prepositions (I can just feel your excitement at the moment!):

When these little words are attached to 'Christ' then a much fuller understanding of what it means to be a Christian is gained. While it may all start with being a 'follower-of-Jesus' (as we see in the Gospels), it certainly does not just remain there (as we see in the rest of the New Testament).

I taught Spirituality for just one year... If I was to boil that semester down to one insight it would be this diagram. I called the topic "energising spirituality: being connected with Christ". Let's face it - we are spatially-challenged Christians! If you want the supreme discussion about what it means to be a Christian sit around and reflect on each of the following phrases, and see if you can come up with texts that explain them and images that 'see' them:

through Christ
into Christ
above Christ
on Christ
in Christ
under Christ
with Christ
away from Christ
like Christ
for Christ

This is how I understand my 'Religion'. It is about discovering the significance of these phrases, celebrating them with others of like mind, and letting them take us wherever they will. In doing so I find two themes surface every single day. Spirituality is enabled and energised as we live with these twin realities:

(a) It is about obeying Christ. He is Lord and Master. My life is under 'new management'. I do what he tells me to do and go where he tells me to go. It is about following his direction - not just his life, but also his teaching.

(b) It is about uniting with Christ. We are in Christ. Christ is in us. There is a mutual indwelling. Unique among the religions of the world, Christianity is about a merger with the founder. This is probably the central teaching of the New Testament. Start with the Vine and the Branches (John 15) - and then when you have eyes to see, you see it everywhere!

A little book by John Stott has been gold for me on this one. But like gold it is so hard to locate. Titled as either Understanding Christ (US?) or Focus on Christ (UK?) - but with the same subtitle: An Enquiry into the Theology of Prepositions - I wish you well in finding it. It will be worth the effort.

nice chatting



Ben Carswell said…
Funny that you mention this...

This morning, I turned on the TV to watch the news & caught Bill Hybels briefly - he used the term "Christ follower" and I thought "I like it...no, maybe I don't - it's not quite full enough!" I'm with you, in that I don't think "Christian" is always helpful, as it can mean so many things to so many people. Last week, we were described as "practising Christians" by an unbelieving friend - I guess that's the distinction they make! Personally, I've always liked & been intrigued by the "followers of the Way" description.

Whilst I'm commenting, I thought you had some great observations on NZ sport last week - I particularly enjoyed your comments on Aussie cricket commentators (& agree with you entirely!). The Black Caps were so close to an historic win & would have been highly deserving of it.

Your comments on the RL world cup are quite right, but who would have thought that the Kiwis would beat the Kangaroos? I went to watch England play the Kangaroos in the RLWC & it was great...until the match started. I've always admired Aussie RL & so bought a Kangaroos' shirt in respect of them thrashing England so spectacularly & also to enjoy the fact the Kiwis beat them in the final.

One more thing on the subject of commentators - have you heard Tommy Smyth commentating on footy (soccer!) on ESPN? He's dreadful as a commentator. I've NEVER heard him say anything that adds to the whole experience.

Enough of my rant!
Paul said…
Ah yes, "Tommie Smyth with a y" ... who has many a soccer fan asking 'Why?' :)

I am with you on 'followers of the Way'. I find it intriguing as well and it fits with the journey motif we hear so much about today. But even then, it is not the full-story. At the very least what it means to be 'in Christ' requires lingering reflection...

As for you being a League fan from Britain ... GULP?! ... maybe it was a little expansive for me to assume that NZ would play Australia in the final, even before the tournament started. Maybe there is a bit of sychophant in all of us!
Ben Carswell said…
I'm a Northern Englishman Paul...we're a different breed to the Southerners!

I grew up watching League & playing Union (at the Private school I'd got a scholarship too). On a different note, it was always fun when you'd ask school friends what their dad did - Judge, lawyer, in business were the standard replies. When I was asked in return what mine did, "an evangelist" always led to blank looks!

I'm currently working on an evangelistic leaflet of Ali Lauititi's testimony, which we're hoping would work both here & in the North of England. Look forward to our next catch up, when we can chat all things League, cricket & of course, more of what it means to be "in Christ".
Tash McGill said…
great post Paul - really good!
already i can think of many uses for it!
Mark Maffey said…
Hi Paul

John 15 is one of my favourite chapters. The passion week chapters provide much to chew over in respect of our relationship to each other and to God. One of the seminal verses is John 13v34 By this shall all men know you are my disciples, by your love one for another. Perhaps Disciple of Christ is a truer hallmark of what and in whom you believe and your actions bely the belief.

One of the challenges inherent in this is to know what it is to abide in Christ, to be open to pruning and shaping and to know the truth of John 15 vs 16-17 you didn't choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. This is my command: Love each other.
A couple of thoughts from the early part of John 15

John 15 vs. 1-4 - Jesus, the True Vine
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine

That doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.

Jesus used an image known to the disciples and told them he was the true grapevine

He was the fulfillment of Israel’s hope of being God’s intent for them to be messianic, life-giving and more

Israel had failed to hold to the law and God has to send Jesus to be like new wine

Replacing the old and became a new covenant, a price paid so that from God people weren’t cut-off anymore

For the Father is the gardener, there comes a point when he must reshape his design

Cutting out that which doesn’t produce fruit, pruning the fruitful branches so they will produce even more

You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you.

For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me

Jesus acknowledges the disciples they had been pruned and purified by his message and to him they were true

Jesus call them and us to remain, or abide him, John uses the word over 50 times in Christ we need to keep and be

One of the key ways to do this is to keep in his word, to hear his message to us; his word needs to guide our views

Our actions, for we can’t produce fruit without knowing what it is we are to produce, pears on apple trees you don’t see

We live in a world that sends out messages which say “if it feels right do it”, we must ignore these hold to what is true

Our confession of faith more than just mumbling creeds rather living in light of what Christ has done in him believe

Mark Maffey, April 2008

John 15 vs. 5-9 – Remaining In The Vine
“Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.
For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless Branch
For I am the only way, the only truth, the only life worth living, without me you cannot be a living conduit

For it is not by might, nor by strength, but my Spirit says the Lord, without it you will fail and with fear you’ll blanch

For it only by meditating upon my word day and night that you know my will, and can it follow and intuit
Like Joshua you can be strong and of good courage, you need not fear nor be afraid, you can stand and not flinch

For I have called you to bear fruit and I see all the things you do, and take pleasure in you as you bear my fruit

Beware! They that do things in their own strength and do not remain in me will be thrown away like a useless Branch

And withers, such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me

And my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!

For I delight in those who are prepared to do my will, they will my grace and favour see
I am faithful and just to those who follow my ways, their love for me is not taken for granted
Even those things done in secret are seen by God, for all things to him are plain to see He is the giver of good gifts, if we place our trust in him, that which we ask will be granted

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory
To my Father. “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love Don’t be tempted by what the world offers for when exposed to light it is ugly, gory Rather trust in God plans for you which are for good and not of evil, look to what is above Seek the best thing, that which Mary did to seek understanding of Jesus’almighty love And out of this to serve and demonstrate Jesus to others and as you do give him glory.
Mark Maffey, April 2008
Christina said…
Thanks Paul,
I think your prepositions would make a good Lenten reflection (40 days of Lent 10 prepositions = 4 days on each).

Paul said…
Indeed - and not a bad idea coming from someone who was part of causing me to re-think some of this stuff ... when some of us where chatting in a cafe last year in Ngaruawahia!

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