I've not seen the film Gladiator, but it remind me of the fictitious story of the Christian thrown to the lions in Rome. He fell to his knees in the arena and prayed, 'Lord, please make these lions Christians.' He looked up, and to his amazement the lions too were on their knees, praying: 'Lord, for what we are about to receive, please make us truly thankful.'
Well, joking - and lions - apart, what makes someone a Christian? Is it more than just saying 'grace' before meals? From time to time we have these 'Invitation Services' so that those of us who are 'regulars' can invite folk we know to come and give the Christian message a first or second thought. So if you are here through an invitation, maybe for the first time, can I say thanks for coming. What I'm going to try to do in the next 20 minutes is to answer the question, 'What is a Christian?'
I know that before I came to faith in Jesus, I wasn't sure what a Christian was or whether I was one. I thought it was basically about being good and going to church - and I was wrong on both counts. And I found it a great help to hear a talk like this. It helped me work out that I wasn't a Christian. And it told me how I could become one. And my prayer is that the next 20 minutes will leave you clear on whether you're a Christian or not, and on what it involves to become one.
Now somewhere you should have a copy of Luke's Gospel, which was handed to you on the way in. It's one of the four eye-witness records about Jesus in the New Testament [NT]. And I wonder if you'd take it and turn to page 16, 'The Calling of Levi'. It's the story of how one man, Levi, became a Christian. And you can answer the question, 'What is a Christian?' from this single incident. Luke 5.27-32:
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, 'Why do you eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?'Jesus answered them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.' (vv27-32)
And that last verse is one of the best summaries you'll find of why God sent his Son into the world. Jesus basically says, 'I have come to call sinners to repentance.' Ie, to call people living without God, to turn back to God. And, laying my cards on the table straight away, that's basically what a Christian is: someone who's come back into relationship with God, through Jesus. And I'd say there are two sides to that:
A Christian is someone who's been forgiven by Jesus A Christian is someone who now lives for Jesus
And you can see both of those things in the calling of Levi.
First, A CHRISTIAN IS SOMEONE WHO'S BEEN FORGIVEN BY JESUS
The Christian message says we all start out in the wrong with God, so the first thing we need is his forgiveness. And that's just what you see in the calling of Levi. Verse 27:
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him…
And that's the first shock of this incident. The trouble is, we probably weren't shocked: the shock is lost on us, because we don't appreciate what these tax collectors were like.
I met a man hill-walking the other day, and we got chatting. He asked what I did and we talked about that. And then I asked what he did, and he looked slightly shifty. He dropped his voice and said, 'I work for the Inland Revenue.' Now whatever you think of today's tax-man, he's nothing compared to what this tax-man was. Levi would have had a franchise from the Roman government to collect taxes on goods passing along his road. Which was really a licence for daylight robbery - and the tax collectors of the day certainly used it. They were very bent and often very rich. So if in those days you wanted an example of a notorious, immoral sinner you'd have named the nearest tax collector. So just try to feel the shock of v27. Let me read it again, with a modern twist:
After this Jesus went out and saw a Barings Bank trader by the name of Nick Leeson sitting at his computer terminal. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him…
After this Jesus went out and saw a boxer by the name of Mike Tyson sitting in his gym. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him…
Or here's one that's fact, rather than fiction:
After this Jesus went out and saw a disgraced politician by the name of Jonathan Aitken sitting in the court-room. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him…
We've only really understood v27 when it shocks us. When we have to pinch ourselves and ask, 'Hold on, can that really be right? Did he really say that to him?' Because the popular myth is that Christianity is only for good people - it's not for the Leesons and Tysons and Aitkens and Levis of this world. But the truth is the exact opposite of the myth. The truth is that Christianity is only for bad people - which is all of us.
Christianity is unlike any of the world's religions. They all have us climbing up the ladder of trying to be good, in the hope that God will accept us in the end for what we've done. Christianity is about God sending his Son down to us in all our sin - all our living without him our own way - finding us just as we are, and offering us forgiveness and a new start. Which is exactly what happened to Levi. Verse 27:
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. (vv27-29)
Which is a lovely picture of a man who has something to celebrate. Something to share. A man who's been completely forgiven and accepted by God.
I know someone who came to faith in Jesus as a student. The night it happened he ran all the way home from church full tilt, because he was so overcome by realising God had come down to him in Jesus, as he was, and that he was completely forgiven and accepted. Someone else said it was like 'a warm bath on the inside'. And I guess Levi was feeling the same. But the religious people of the day were not so chuffed. Verse 30:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to [Jesus'] disciples, 'Why do you eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?'
The Pharisees were a very strict religious group. They thought largely of God as Judge (which of course he is - but he's more than just a Judge). And they thought of the human race as divided into two. Into the good, which of course included them. And the bad, like the Leesons and Tysons and Aitkens and Levis of this world. Not to mention the terrorists and child-abusers and drug-pushers who make us feel morally secure. (I read a very shrewd commentator in the papers the other day. 'We love our sex offenders,' he wrote, 'They make us feel better about ourselves.') And in the Pharisees' view, all that was needed to solve the problem of evil in the world was for God to send his Son, or 'Messiah', to judge people. In their view, he would come as an Examiner from heaven. He would give out passes to the good, and fails to the bad. The bad would then be sent down forever and the good would live happily ever after in heaven.
And that isn't a million miles away from what a large proportion of people today would say if you pushed them. So their question was: 'If Jesus is from God, why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Isn't he condoning their lifestyle, when he ought to be condemning them?' Well, people with no sense of their own sin are always merciless to their fellow-sinners. And here comes the second shock of this incident. Verse 31:
Jesus answered them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous [which is what they - falsely - thought they were], but sinners to repentance.' (vv31-32)
The second shock is that there are some people God cannot help. Some people Jesus can do nothing for. Because they think they're morally and spiritually healthy. They think they're righteous, ie in the right with God. They think they're basically OK. And Jesus says it's people like that - not people like the Leesons, the Tysons, the Aitkens and the Levis - who he cannot help. And Jesus changes the picture in v31. They're expecting an Examiner from heaven, handing out passes and fails. Whereas Jesus says he's a Doctor from heaven. And of course Doctors do examine - but in order to heal. And, v31, Jesus says, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.'
I had to go to the doctor's last week to get my ears syringed - which is a fantastic experience. One minute you can barely hear a thing. The next, you can hear pins dropping three blocks away. The downside is that whereas you thought your car was running rather smoothly, it is in fact sounding dreadful. But as I sat there waiting, I noticed the poster telling us not to call out the GP unless someone is really sick. Don't bother the doctor for the healthy! And that's the point Jesus is making: 'I wouldn't have done the call out from heaven if the human race was well. I wouldn't have bothered coming - let alone dying - if there was no need.'
You see, in God's eyes there are not two groups - the good and the bad. There's just one - the morally and spiritually sick. Or to use Jesus' other word, 'sinners'. And we all belong to it. And sickness is a good picture for it. Just think about it. You can be more or less sick, but you're still sick. Likewise, you can be relatively good or relatively bad, but you're still a sinner, still someone who's turned his/her back on God. The point is we've all turned our backs on God - some of us as decent middle class back-turners, others as terrorist back-turners - or whatever. However we've done it, we've done it. And God is offended.
The other way sickness is a good picture is this. Sickness is fatal. And so is sin. If we go on living without God in his rightful place, we're on a collision course for the day we meet him as our Judge. But he doesn't want it to come to that with any of us - which is why he sent Jesus who says, 'I have come to call sinners to repentance.' Which is great news - if we're prepared to admit that we are sinners. It's great news that Jesus comes to anyone, whoever we are, whatever we've done, and offers complete forgiveness and a new start. And he's able to do that because of his death on the cross. God couldn't forgive sin by just sweeping it under the carpet. Someone had to take the judgement we deserve so that justice was done and seen to be done. And that someone was God's own Son. And when he died on the cross he was paying the price of every sin he would ever forgive.
So that's one side of it. A Christian is someone who's been forgiven by Jesus. So that's one thing to ask: 'Do I know what it is to be forgiven by Jesus, thanks to his death on the cross?' Do I know that experience? Does that make any sense to me? The other side of it is:
Secondly, A CHRISTIAN IS SOMEONE WHO NOW LIVES FOR JESUS
I said a bit earlier that the first thing we need is God's forgiveness. But the point of forgiveness is to restore a relationship. The point of someone forgiving me is not that I can just go on mistreating them with a clear conscience. The point of someone forgiving me is that it gives me a new start: the chance to change and treat them rightly. And again, that's just what you see in the calling of Levi. Verse 27 again:
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (vv27-28)
Up to this point in his life, Levi has completely mistreated God - lived his own way as if God wasn't there. Then, up walks Jesus and says, 'Follow me.' And for my money that's the third shock in this incident. 'Follow me,' say Jesus. And he clearly expects Levi to drop everything and put him first above everything else in his life. And if you were reading this for the first time you might well think, 'Who does Jesus think he is?' And of course the answer is: God's Son come to earth. And it wasn't just his miracles or his resurrection from the dead that pointed that way. It was the whole way he behaved. I mean, here's Jesus, walking up to -apparently - a perfect stranger and saying, 'I want your life.' Which is an outrageous thing to say. Unless, of course, you're God. After all, God made us. Everything we are and have and love and enjoy is from him.
The trouble is, we've taken all the gifts but turned our backs on the Giver. So he sent his Son to reclaim our lives, which are rightfully his. That's what Jesus means in v32 when he says, 'I have come to call sinners to repentance.' And 'repentance' is a change word. It means more than just feeling sorry. It means 'turning back' - from living without God, to living for God.
I have some student neighbours who, on the whole, are excellent neighbours. But they have had their odd moments of music late at night. Both the moments and the music were odd. Once it was 12.30am; I went round, they were very sorry. Once it was 1am; I went round again, they were very sorry. Then one night the music started at 3.30am. So I knocked on the door. One of them opened it, I guess almost expecting it to be me. 'I'm really, really sorry,' he said. And 3.30am in the morning must have made me unnaturally bold. Because I heard myself say, 'I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to change'!
So it is with God. Jesus doesn't call us to be sorry. He calls us, having forgiven us completely, to change and live for him. (We'll never do that anywhere near perfectly this side of heaven - which is why our Christian future needs as much forgiveness as our non-Christian past). So what does it mean, 'to live for Jesus'? Well, v28 it means putting Jesus first in our lives:
'Follow me,' Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (v28)
It means having Jesus as our Lord, or Master or Boss; being under new management, to use the language of the restaurant or the pub. People often ask, 'Does that mean I have to give up everything, literally, as Levi did?' Well the answer is no. Levi was called while Jesus was literally here in the flesh, and that did mean literally leaving everything and following. But what repentance means for everyone is: giving over the whole of our lives to Jesus as our rightful Lord.
That does mean some things will have to be given up, because the new manager doesn't like them. In Levi's case, daylight robbery had to go. And for each of us, there will be things that would have to go. Some of them you'll be aware of now. Some of them you'll only discover down the tracks, as you get to know Jesus better. But whether it's unforgiveness, pride, sexual misbehaviour, bitterness, some wrong ambition or wrong relationship, drunkenness, whatever - we're better off without those things. Jesus only calls us to give up what's not worth having anyway.
The problem is we do love our sins, and letting go of them can be costly - and a lifelong struggle in some areas. But there's plenty that's not given up but given over, to be done for Jesus from now on. Eg, most of us can stay in our line of work, but start doing it according to Jesus' standards. And there's plenty we enjoy which, far from having to give it up, becomes more enjoyable.
I was a dreadful loser before becoming a Christian, so sport wasn't that enjoyable and I wasn't that enjoyable to play sport with. And I remember that being one of the first areas God 'put his finger on' through the words of the Bible and began to change in me. Which made sporting life much more enjoyable. (I don't mean I started winning everything; but that I began to lose with grace!) So living for Jesus means putting Jesus first. The other thing it means is: making Jesus known. That's what Levi was doing in v29:
Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. (v29)
He'd left the lifestyle of tax-collectors behind. But he hadn't left his friendships with tax-collectors behind. I think some people get the impression that becoming a Christian means pulling out of your current set of friends and joining in with a rather weird Christian ghetto - like the Pharisees did in their 'sect' in v30. But Jesus calls us to leave what's wrong in our own lives; he doesn't call us to leave the friends around us who don't yet know him. He calls us to stay among them and make him known. So, yes it does mean being known publicly as a Christian. And that can be costly. Sometimes you have to learn not to worry what others think.
Well, time's up. What is a Christian? Well, there are two sides to it. Someone who's been forgiven by Jesus. And someone who now lives for Jesus - puts him first; and makes him known. I hope that leaves you clearer in your own mind about whether you are, or aren't, a Christian. I hope, too, that leaves you a clear idea of what it is to become one.
Let me end with a few suggestions about what you might do next. You may be wondering whether any of this is true. If that's you, can I encourage you to take away Luke's Gospel (the copies are yours to keep) and read it? You can't decide whether or not it's true without looking at the evidence. Or you may be wondering about the forgiveness side of things. There may be things on your conscience that make you think God couldn't possibly forgive you. In which case, what Jesus says in vv31-32 is for you. If you feel sick in yourself and sinful, you're just the person he came for and wants to forgive. Or you may be wondering about the 'living for Jesus' side of things. What would it involve? What's the cost? Again, a read of Luke's Gospel would answer that. You'll find Jesus encourages people to count the cost. But you'll find he also tells people not to make it an excuse for putting off responding.
But someone here may be thinking, 'I'd like to respond now. I see no reason not to. I see my need of forgiveness. I want this new start with Jesus in his rightful place. So, what do I do?' Well I'm going to end with a prayer which would be a way of making that response. Let me tell you what I'll pray, so that you can think whether it applies to you. I'll pray this:
Lord Jesus, I admit that I have lived my own way without you. Thank you for dying so that I might be forgiven for this. Please forgive me and help me to live for you from now on. Amen.
If that's not appropriate for you now, then why not quietly pray something that is? But if you'd like to make that response this morning, you could echo it in your mind as I lead us in prayer. Let's pray.
If you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, then you can trust that God has heard it. Luke also wrote these words:
everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins in his name. (Acts 10.43)
And if you've just believed for the first time, you can put your name to that promise. You came here unforgiven and living without God. And you've just been completely forgiven, and begun a new life with Jesus as Lord. And the best way to find help in going on from here would be to tell a Christian you know that you've begun. And if you have prayed, or you'd like to but don't quite feel ready, then do pick up a copy of this booklet, The choice we all face [St Matthias Press/The Good Book Co] It's a helpful little summary of 'What is a Christian?' and the step of becoming one.