On Being a “Good Christian”

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

There are people in this room who are not good Christians. And in this sermon, I am going to identify who those people are. That got your attention, didn’t it?

So a “good Christian.” That’s a phrase we hear sometimes. Sometimes we credit someone else with being a “good Christian,” or even accuse someone else of not being one. And sometimes we get very anxious wondering if we ourselves are “good Christians.”

But what is a good Christian? Someone who believes exactly the right things? Someone who acts in a very moral way? Someone who’s as close to perfect as we can be? But hold on. We are saved by grace, by grace alone, by God’s love freely given to us. We know that. In Romans, Paul tells us that Christ saved us while we were still sinners. We haven’t earned salvation at all, yet we have received it. There’s nothing we can do to take that salvation away. And there’s nothing we can do to add to it.

But there are merit badges, aren’t there? We so often act as if there are. We act as though if we follow God’s commandments well, maybe we’ll get salvation plus. Or salvation prime. Maybe we’ll get the premium mansion in heaven. Maybe God will love us a little bit more. If we just try. If we do the right thing, sacrifice the right way, vote the right way. Then we’ll be good Christians.

But that is a dangerous place to go. Because that path always leads to one of two places. Walking down that path may lead me to think that I’m not a good Christian, at least not as good as others, and there lies great guilt and shame, and a sense that I’m not fit to do the kind of things other people do. And this prevents me from taking hold of God’s grace, truly living my life. Or walking down this path might lead me to think I am a good Christian, at least better than others, and there lies pride, pride which tells me I know better than other people. I behave better than others. I am better than others.

Either way, when we slip into thinking in terms of good and bad Christians, we slip into judgment. Judging ourselves, judging other people. And scripture is clear that such judgment is God’s alone. Not ours.

But here’s the good news: we don’t have to worry about whether we’re good Christians or not. Because we’re not. You aren’t. And neither am I. We are not good Christians, because there’s no such thing. Oh, sure, there are kind Christians and unkind Christians. There are humble Christians and arrogant, wise Christians and foolish. But not good or bad. None of those things make us better Christians than anyone else. There are also tall and short Christians. Old and young. Blue-eyed and brown-eyed. Doesn’t make us any better or worse.

Because a Christian is someone who has experienced the love and grace of God, and who puts the name Jesus as the reason for that experience. That’s it. That’s what a Christian is. And you can’t be good or bad at that. It’s just not how it works.

Arguing over who is and isn’t a good Christian sounds a lot like what Jesus says in the gospel reading today: “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, and calling to one another:

  • We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance.
  • Well, we wailed, and you didn’t mourn.”
  • You aren’t joyful enough.
  • Well, you aren’t serious enough.
  • You’re too strict.
  • You’re too open.
  • You’re not doing it right!
  • No, you’re not doing it right!

The truth is none of us are doing it right. Because there is no doing it right. There’s just Christ. Just Christ.

Christ saving us.

Christ leading us.

Christ giving us his yoke, and us taking that yoke upon ourselves.

A yoke connects of a pair of oxen or other animals together so they can pull a cart or a plow or something else. The yoke enables the plowman to guide the oxen to where he wants them to go. And it keeps the two animals together, working together.

Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us, and to learn from him. This isn’t a burden, not something to add to all the other burdens in our lives. It’s not a special Sunday hat that we put on for worship, and then take off so we can get on with our regular lives. This yoke is not a punishment, a training tool, or a test. It’s a gift. It’s a gift of God’s grace. The gift of a meaningful life. It is Christ’s very life, Christ’s very presence, around our shoulders. Christ’s very life, filling us up, sending us out, and gently leading us.

This yoke doesn’t make us better Christians, or more faithful. Certainly the apostle Paul wore the yoke of Christ, and look what he said in today’s second reading! Paul says that he still does what he does not want. He still sins. The yoke doesn’t somehow force us to do right at all times. But it always provides forgiveness and a new direction when we stray.

Christ’s yoke holds us safely, and guides us at the same time. It doesn’t control us or harm us. It doesn’t make life perfect. But it makes life possible. Wearing this yoke means trusting Christ. Trusting that he loves us. Trusting that he wants nothing less than our salvation and sanctification, and the salvation and blessing of the whole world. It means trusting that he knows the place where we’re headed, the direction we’re aiming. We don’t need to figure that out all on our own. Yoked together, we figure out God’s calling and direction for us together, and we don’t have to know where we’re ending up. We don’t have to know whether we’re “good Christians,” whatever that might mean. Because it’s never about the past. It’s not about what we’ve already done, but about what we’re going to do next. It’s always about now, always about what we’re going to do now. We are just called to trust right now. To listen the best we can right now, and follow the best we can right now. And tomorrow, we’ll be called again to do the same thing: trust, listen, and follow. And the next day, and the next. So we can let go of needing to be right, or good. And we can trust. Where is Christ leading us today?

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