Almost Christian: A Meditation for Holy Tuesday
On the Tuesday before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus spends the day in the temple courts teaching.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel records the following exchange between Jesus and a legal expert that took place that day:
28 One of the legal experts … came over and asked (Jesus), “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, 30 and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31 The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 32 The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.34 When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions. (Mark 12.28-34, emphasis added)
The legal expert was able to acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ statement but apparently acknowledgement was not quite enough for Jesus.
“You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.”
You’re almost there; not quite, but almost.
In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton wrote a book entitled SoulSearching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In the book they coined the term Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD) to describe what they determined to be to primary religious belief system common among American teens. Kenda Creasy Dean expounded upon this in her 2010 book Almost Christian. According to Dean and Smith the primary characteristics of MTD are:
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die
Dean considers this way of believing as Almost Christian.
In other words, not far from God’s kingdom.
I have to wonder if MTD isn’t a problem for more than just teenagers though. I wonder how many adult “Christians” might resonate with the philosophy of MTD. I could certainly argue that the MTD message is pretty clearly proclaimed from many pulpits across America every Sunday. Like the legal expert, we know that we should love God and neighbor, but ultimately what we really want is to be happy and prosperous and go to heaven when we die.
But Jesus, like Isaiah before him, seems to have a problem with acknowledging him with our lips while our hearts are far from him.
The call to authentic discipleship – the invitation to be fully present in God’s kingdom – involves not happiness and prosperity, but a denial of self and a willingness to take up a cross; it calls us to work in the power of the Spirit to bring heaven to earth here and now instead of simply waiting to go to heaven some day when we die.
An acknowledgement of our own failure to enter fully in God’s kingdom here and now is a mark of maturity; it is a sign that we are not willing to settle for almost.
In his sermon The Almost Christian, John Wesley writes:
“I did go thus far for many years, as many of this place can testify; using diligence to eschew all evil, and to have a conscience void of offence; redeeming the time; buying up every opportunity of doing all good to all men; constantly and carefully using all the public and all the private means of grace; endeavouring after a steady seriousness of behaviour, at all times, and in all places; and, God is my record, before whom I stand, doing all this in sincerity; having a real design to serve God; a hearty desire to do his will in all things; to please him who had called me to "fight the good fight," and to "lay hold of eternal life." Yet my own conscience beareth me witness in the Holy Ghost, that all this time I was but almost a Christian.”
Like Wesley, I want to take a close look at my faith walk. Am I simply going through the motions? Acknowledging God with my lips while my heart is far from him? Am I guilty of living an MTD life?
This Holy Week, we would all do well to take inventory of our lives, to ask the tough questions, to be willing to say truthfully, “I am but almost a Christian.”
At the end of Chapter 12 in Mark’s Gospel Jesus helps us understand what it means to move from almost to all-in, He is sitting near the collection box watching people put in their offerings when a “poor widow” pauses in front of the box and drops in “two small copper coins worth a penny.” Jesus calls over his disciples and tells them, and us if we’re listening, the secret to overcoming an MTD/Almost life:
“All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had ….” (v. 44)
We’ve got to go all-in. We’ve got to give all that we have. We have to move from simply acknowledging Jesus’ words to living them out and letting them transform us.
This Holy Week may we refuse to be like the legal expert; may we refuse to be an almost Christian; may we choose to go all-in and find that as we lose our lives we actually find them.
“The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, "My God, and my All"? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, "That he who loveth God love his brother also"? Do you then love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? as Christ loved you? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God?” – John Wesley, The Almost Christian