Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Are You A Real Christian?

"Am I a real Christian?"
"Have I actually been 'saved' from hell and sin? 

"How can I know my status with God?" 

If you have ever considered yourself a Christian, then you have probably asked these questions--or ones like it--at some point in your life. So, how do we know whether we are really following Jesus--if this Christian life were a class, how can we tell what sort of "grade" we would get? 

In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, verses 39-44, Jesus answers our question. Let's set the scene. 

Jesus has just been invited over to the home of a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the "true believers" of their time. They followed all God's commandments written in the Bible to a T--and they even added some commandments of their own, just to make sure. So one of the Pharisees invited Jesus over, and he probably expected Jesus to be pretty grateful. After all, here he was, this extremely good and religious person, and he was, in a way, trying to welcome Jesus into his clique of extremely good and religious people. The Pharisee had also invited some other Pharisees and some religious lawyers over. Maybe the Pharisee expected to have a nice conversation about God, trade a few jokes ("So the high priest walks into a bar...."), and have a good time. But he never expected what actually happened. 

Before the meal, everybody washed their hands. This was not a concern about germs; it was a religious tradition to wash before they ate. Everybody washed up except Jesus. Now, Jesus knew this was very important to the Pharisees, but he held back so that this would start a conversation with them. And sure enough, it did. Read Verse 38: "The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner." 

Then Jesus started to teach, and it was a harsh lesson for the Pharisees. He is basically telling them that they are not as "holy" as they think they are. And not only that, but they are actually contaminating the people around them! Along the way, Jesus gives lists a few ways for us  to test whether we are truly his followers, of if we are being phonies. 

We'll see that the three changes the Pharisees needed to make are: 

1. From washing their hands to washing their hearts
2. From focusing on minutiae to living magnanimously
3. From congratulations to conviction

Let's break down the passage verse by verse and see what Jesus is saying. We will see that Jesus is telling the Pharisees to make three changes in order to be authentically faithful. 

1. From Washing Their Hands to Washing Their Hearts

39 But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Didn’t the one who made the outside make the inside as well? 41 But give from your heart to those in need, and then everything will be clean for you.

The Pharisees washed their hands according to their tradition. But in their hearts, they were greedy and opposed to God. They were filthy inside. Yet their insides--their heart and soul--were made by God. God wants our insides and outside to be clean. And we don't get that way by washing our hands but rather by completely devoting the desires of our our heart to God. Then, Jesus says, everything will be clean. (This explains why he didn't need to wash his hands according to the tradition. Jesus was fully devoted to God, and did not need to be cleaned further). 

2. From Minutiae to Magnanimity

42 “But woe to you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and every herb, yet you neglect justice and love for God! But you should have done these things without neglecting the others. 

Incredibly, the Pharisees tithed (gave 10%) of all their income to God. Apparently, they even tithed on the smallest portions of herbs that they grew. This actually went beyond the God's requirement for tithing in Leviticus (27:30-33)! However, while they were so careful to give God ten percent, they had zero concern for pursuing justice in the world. They had also completely forgotten about showing God's love for others. These are the people who were supposed to have everything figured out. They were highly respected for their religiosity (or as Bill Maher might say, "religulousness"), but they were doing nothing to help out their fellow people. 

How could they possibly think they were doing what God wanted? How could we possibly think that we are, when we neglect the poor, downtrodden, and unjustly imprisoned, or when we act cruelly toward those who offend us--oftentimes the people we are supposed to love the most? God wants us to love others the way he does; God wants us to be magnanimous.

3. From Congratulations to Conviction

43 Woe to you Pharisees! You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces! 44 Woe to you! You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it!”

Clearly, the Pharisees loved getting praise from their friends and neighbors. They enjoyed the benefits that come with a sterling reputation. In a society that valued piety above everything else, they were the top dogs. The Pharisees knew this--in fact that is what they strove for--and they played it up. They took the best seats in the house of worship, and they made a big show of giving daps and hugs to all their bros when they were out on the town. They were popular. Yet by comparing them to "unmarked graves," Jesus is saying something horrifying. In those days, anyone who came in contact with a grave was considered defiled. So people might walk over an unmarked grave without knowing it, and become defiled unwittingly. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, "You are giving everyone who respects and admires you an STD--a spiritually transmitted disease!" Instead of being so worried about getting their props from everybody, the Pharisees needed to apologize to God and immediately turn around. Rather than giving people a good religious show, we need to live the way God actually wants us to live. This can be harder than just going through the motions, but the effect on ourselves and the ones we love will be great. 

The Point: Outward Piety Is No Substitute For Real Faith

So now, how can we tell if we are truly "Christ-followers?" The key is not found in the rules you follow, or what sins you abstain from committing. The key is not found in how much money you give to church or charities. And it definitely is not found in how many people think of you as an "upstanding" guy or girl. Here's the test: 

1. Are you fully devoted in your heart to God?
2. Do you pursue justice for the downtrodden and put others first? 
3. Are you willing to lose the approval of your friends, family and coworkers in order to live out your faith?

Too many times, my answer to these questions has been "no." Thank God that he specializes in second chances. If the Pharisees had turned to Jesus and said, "Change me, Lord!" he would have. Let's think about this today, and pray so that we can be more like Jesus, and less like those dirty, dirty Pharisees. 

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