On Being a Christian (with thanks to Hans Kung)

There’s a problem with that title – right there, in the verb.  Being.  There’s a problem that we can all too easily slip into an either-or mode of thinking about reality, and make our faith all about ‘being’ and nothing at all about ‘doing’.  In this version of reality, my ‘being’ Christian is something static. It is the way I am, like the colour of my skin or the length of my nose or my place of birth.  There might be some slow, minor developments over the years, but it is essentially always the same.

Yet Jesus taught us that those who love him (and that’s a good definition of Christian, right there) would DO what he commanded.  He taught that the highest expression of godliness is love.  And love is active.  The writings of the earliest Christians and our records of Jesus’ teaching (the New Testament) abound with instructions for how to act.  It’s all too easy for us to slip into a somnambulant state of ‘being’ in which all is well with my soul – and the rest of the world can go to hell.  And that’s why Christianity is an ‘activist’ religion. Because the world – the lives of individuals and families all around us – are full of pain and suffering.  God rejects the idea that human pain and suffering are normal and we just have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘get over it’, and comes to us to bring liberation and celebration.  That’s the whole story of the scriptures, climaxing in Christ’s Cross and resurrection, and looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth.

So because we have an activist God – a God on a mission – we get to go along for the ride, and we even get to play our part in God’s mission of bringing Shalom – peace with Justice – to the earth he created and loves.  And so we are busy with the business of God’s kingdom.  Doing works of righteousness and love.  Bringing peace and truth to the earth.

So if ‘doing’ is so central to Christianity, how come I’m writing about ‘being’ Christian?

Because even though you can’t really keep being and doing separate (unless you’re involved in Greek philosophy) there is this essential point to be made – that who we are in Christ is in fact more important that what we do.  The doing comes out of the being.  Because I’m Christian, I do stuff, but I’m not Christian because I do stuff.  I’m Christian because of what God has done – and is doing – in and for me.  We talk of God saving us, reconciling us, adopting us, healing us, redeeming us, purchasing our lives from the slavery of sin and setting us free.  In many different ways we describe what God has done for us, and the upshot of it all is that I have a different life now, and a different status.  I am different.  If before I was a slave, now I am free.  If before I was an orphan, now I belong in a Holy family.  If before I was sick unto death, now I am healed and whole and well.  These are differences in my basic being.  Before I was mortal and my life was no more than a brief flicker of existence across the inky darkness of infinity.  Now I am eternal, sharing by the Spirit in the resurrection of Christ, and through him, the immortality of God.

Because who I am is different, what I do is different, too.  My human doing is meant to reflect my human being.  But being comes first.

Putting ‘being’ first has certain consequences.  It means that we don’t fall into the trap of legalism; making our status dependant upon a certain set of actions; “You’re only Christian / saved / one of the elect if you do things our way.”  Putting ‘being’ first undercuts all the human power plays by which we seek to control one another.  No-one else can give or take from me the status that God has given.

Putting ‘being’ first leaves me without protection from God; I can’t hide my sin behind a cloak of religious respectability – ticking all the boxes on the outside, but continuing to be filled with envy, lust, fear, greed, sloth, pride, and anger on the inside.  My ‘good works’ aren’t good enough.  Only God’s work is good enough to save me from these things, and so I need him to have and to hold the real me.  I need to lay down my religious defenses long enough to let God make me his own, and bring me healing and hope.

Putting ‘being’ first means that what I end up doing is done with integrity.  I do it, not because it’s what others have told me is right, or it’s what others want me to do, so much as because it is consistent with my true nature as God’s beloved child in Christ.  Because it’s consistent with what God himself is doing.

I’m an activist.  I want to do so much and I want to make a difference, and I want to see God’s kingdom unfolding in the lives of those around me, and I believe that I might have a role to play in that – by God’s grace.  I am an activist, but only because I am in the hands of an active God.  It is who I am in Christ that makes me what I am.  Being Christian leads inevitably to Christian action, but it is ‘being’ that comes first.

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