What does it mean to identify as a Christian? In Adult Sunday school we just finished Acts 11. Acts 11 is the first time Christians were called Christians. These early Jesus freaks were in Antioch, a bustling center of commerce and culture. Christians had to distinguish themselves against the backdrop of a larger culture that was either indifferent to them, or against a portion of Jewish culture that was extremely antagonistic to them. The lions and the colosseums would come later, but not yet. Following Jesus in Antioch was highly personality driven. They had Barnabas, Peter, Paul, James. They had the Old Testament but not anything that resembles the New Testament that we take for granted today. They also had the advantage / disadvantage of being able to define their journey as they navigated in the morally rudderless, economically driven mosaic of Antioch.
I love Houston which has some remarkable similarities to Antioch. In the same-kind-of-different way, following Jesus has similar advantages and challenges today. Houstonians are pragmatic, economically and religiously diverse, and tend to let you figure out your life as you go. The disadvantage is that there is no great enemy to define ourselves against. Some tried to get Anise Parker fitted for her Darth Vader costume but it never quite fit, except in the bathroom.
We should be grateful that we live in a fairly open place, but I get a sense that some of my fellow travelers have nostalgia for the 1980’s and Ruskies when everyone was afraid of being bombed into oblivion. Evil had a name and it was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Commies, and the Reds. As a teenager, I remember reading deadly serious Christian literature explaining verse by verse how the Soviet leader was the bona fide Antichrist. If you did not believe in their interpretation of the Bible all you had to do was behold the birth mark on his head to know that he was the Antichrist with the mark of the beast ushering in Armageddon.
This nostalgia for the bad old days in some parts of American Christianity is alive and well. I have heard people longingly wish we were like the Chinese Christians who have the government driving them underground. Their faith is better. Wishing we were like the romanticized African Christians who have lunatics like Boko Haram stealing their children. Their faith is more real. I even have my own crush on the Sudanese Christians whose faith is alive and well in Houston, even as their countrymen and women die in civil war.
Oklahoma – a peculiar darkness
Growing up in Oklahoma, Christianity was the culture. But we (Tulsans) made it seem like there was a dark brooding anti and un-Christian culture around us. To be Christian was to make a definitive break from the unchristian paganism around us. Upon reflection thirty-five years later there were plenty of bad things to repent of, plenty that needed renewal, but all that sinning and darkness was done by kids and parents who parked their butts in the local pew every Sunday. I did not know any areligious people (except a couple of my family members). I did not meet any Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or even Catholics until I was in my twenties. I met one poser vampire, who was a preacher’s kid. And one wiccan, sort of. She bought a book and then decided she was wiccan.
But to listen to the tele-evangelist and run of the mill preachers of the day it seemed that Tulsa in the 80s, the buckle of the bible belt, was beset by Seal Team Evil destroying the lives of a shrinking minority of true believers. If you thought you didn’t see evil around you, just take a listen to a Beatles or Queen album played backwards and you would have all the evidence you needed that Another One Bites The Dust is a really a true hymn to Satan. Everyone is duped except you and the few who really saw through the veil.
Outside the church, we also had punk rock and the Russians as enemy number one. I still remember my buddies skating over an effigy of Tipper Gore while we listened to the Dead Kennedys in protest to the “stupid” adults telling us what we could and could not listen to through the Parent’s Music Resource Council. The 1986 obscenity trail against Jello Biafra actually makes me nostalgic for the bad ol’ days.
I have decided to follow Jesus
There is made up persecution and then there is the real deal. The legend/story of the hymn “I have decided to follow Jesus” is based on the decisions of an Assamese man who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century in India. Assam is in the eastern finger of India, south of Bhutan and north of Bangladesh. There, this now anonymous man stood up against a village chief and declared “I have decided to follow Jesus…though no one joins me I will still follow.” He and his wife reputedly lost their life while singing the “the cross before me, the world behind me.”
Hagiography, the stories of saints, is always a little fraught with good intentioned embellishment. But what is even harder is what it means to identify as a privileged American Christian.
Flip to the Positive
In the absence of real persecution, how do you mark yourself as a follower of Jesus without a devil to blame? Privileged Christians of any ethnicity in the US have a unique challenge – defining ourselves positively as followers of Jesus I would suggest that our identity in Christ does not necessarily need an enemy to define it. The hijab clad Muslim pharmacist at Randall's doesn’t count. We have a real enemy in the accuser (Satan), but Jesus put him in his place in the desert in Matthew. God continues to check the devil’s power and promises to throw the whole mess of evil into a burning lake in the coming age. There are real battles across the globe with Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, etc for sure, but what does God want from his people in the suburbs of Houston?
In our day-to-day lives we will probably gain a few true enemies to our faith along the way, but there is a peculiar challenge to letting Jesus be the center of your life when the grass is green and you are not bedeviled by devils. 98.9% of the time your faith is about discerning how Jesus wants to use you to bless others with humility and kindness. No - fighting the war on Christmas does not count. Yelling at your secular relative on Thanksgiving doesn’t count. I personally couldn’t care less if the Ten Commandments are displayed in Houston’s courts.
We don’t have the monolithic evils like the good ol’ days nor tribal leaders who will burn us alive for loving Jesus. Martyrdom maybe alive and well across the globe, but thank God we have a different set of challenges. I am perpetually shocked by how unsafe most of us feel when we live in a bubble of relative paradise and security. People are mad as hell, the country is openly divided, but good Lord we have it good. When I was listening to the Dead Kennedy’s and complaining about Tipper Gore, Charles Taylor was gutting Liberia with his own peculiar brand of child soldiers, unspeakable murders, and drugged up henchmen wearing wedding dresses as amulets against bullets. Then and now, we have it very good indeed.
Regardless of our relative safety (even with home grown terrorism) we worry there is someone in the bushes trying to ruin it all and we spend our time worrying about that. We have devils - success and the appearance of success might be our biggest stumbling block. Molech has a great 401K and Baal’s real estate values are through the roof. And those idols are vying for every pew in country. National leaders very interested in the Joneses and the Benjamins while paying lip service to restoring the churches place in society ain’t gonna get us nowhere. We could attempt to gin up another anti-Christ / public enemy number 1, but I think following Jesus is much better than creating enemies. He will give the strength we need at the time we need when real persecution takes place.
If we skillfully extract ourselves from creating a rigidly dualistic faith of Christ/AntiChrist, sinners and saints then we have a really difficult challenge of knowing whose we are. Knowing whose we are is far more definitive than the stew of experiences we have had. The longer I follow Jesus, the more certain I am of his authority, power and presence. The longer I follow Jesus the less certain I am that anything I have experienced or done effects the truth of who I am in Christ. I am a new creation in Christ and that continues every day.
Back to Antioch
Christianity since Antioch has been about following Jesus and making his life and relationship known. These early Christians were taking God seriously. They believed that the covenant of Abraham was being fulfilled through them. This promise is for us too. For the sake of Christ, we are to continue to reach out to more people than there are grains of sand.
So at this point, especially in my study of Acts of the Apostles, I see this scripture as a radical conversation about what is essentially Christian and what role Jesus’ followers have in constructing a community of love in order to carry the holy story forward. If we center on Jesus and his promises instead of what bloodline we claim, our pedigree, or what culture we “own”, then we can’t go wrong, even if we make mistakes along the way.
Gotta wait for part 2