Why do people have such a strong reaction to words like “Christian”, “Church”, and “Jesus”? Are they justified? What have believers done to cause such intense feelings and what can we do about it?
This message is from my Twitch channel’s Devos & Chill series where, on Thursdays, I give a short message before we get into the gaming. Please join us!
We’ve been working our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church over the past bunch of Thursdays and I hope it’s been opening your eyes to see Christianity a little bit differently.
We’ve already covered the history of the letter, the people in it, the reason for it, and the heart behind it – and we’re moving into covering more of the “meat” of the letter now, as we take it apart line by line.
Incidentally, if you want to see any of those other messages, they’re all up on my YouTube page now.
Let’s read the section of the letter we’re in right now – Philippians 1:15-18, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
The part I want to concentrate on today is that first part, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.”
We’ve said for the past few weeks how amazing it is that when this letter was written, Paul, the greatest Missionary of that age – maybe ever – couldn’t travel because he was sitting under house arrest, and had been for 2 years. Last week, we talked about how even though it looked like locking Paul up should kill the spread of the gospel, it actually had the opposite effect, and the story of Paul’s false imprisonment actually worked to inspire more people to stand up and talk about Jesus – even knowing it might get them in trouble.
But Paul says that among these newly inspired missionaries not everyone had the best motives. Some, it seems, were preaching as a way to try to steal Paul’s thunder, capitalize on his imprisonment so their ministry would grow, or even as a way to try to make Paul look bad.
It seems – and I know this is going to come as a shock to you – not everyone who talks about Jesus is a good person. That’s what I want to talk about today.
Words like “Christian”, or “Church”, or “Preacher” are extremely loaded terms these days – and come with all kinds of tropes, preconceived notions, and baggage. Sometimes, just using the word “Jesus” (without it being a swear word), is enough to completely change someone’s opinion of you.
I used to have that problem a lot when I was a full-time pastor. I’d go to whatever function I was invited to, try to meet the friends of whoever invited me, and I’d do my best not to talk about my job. I’m not much good in groups as it is, but I also had this handicap where the moment anyone found out what I do for a living it would sometimes completely break the conversation.
I’d bump into someone, we’d start with the usual pleasantries – the weather, sports, how we knew the host – but inevitably, the conversation would come around to, “And what do you do for a living?”. It’s a normal enough question, and a good one to use if you want to get to know someone – but in my case it was often the end of the conversation. The moment I said, “I’m a pastor at so-and-so church”, the reaction was almost always the same. If it was a Christian, they’d say, “Oh, neat!” And we’d talk about the history of the church, what was going on… and Christiany stuff… .
But, if they weren’t a believer, their posture changed, their tone of voice changed, and 90% of the time the next thing to come out of their mouth was the words, “Oh, I’m sorry!”. Almost like clockwork, when I told people I was a pastor or preacher, they would respond with “Oh, I’m sorry!” and I’d always say, “What are you sorry for?”
And I usually got one of three answers. Either, “I’m sorry for swearing. I didn’t realize.”, “I’m sorry for the people around you because they’re not religious and you must be uncomfortable.” Or, most commonly, they’d say, “I’m not sure… sorry.” And then, they’d suddenly remember something they had to do and walk away. It happened constantly.
The same thing happens to a lot of people who share their faith with others for the first time. Or that they’re going to church now. They could be talking to a friend they’ve known forever, or a member of their family, and still – the mood of the conversation shifts.
But why? Why is there such a strong reaction? I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, inside and outside the church, and I’ve come up with one, good answer. The reason is because that person has met someone who called themselves a Christian, but didn’t live up to their expectations, got caught doing something they shouldn’t, or maybe even hurt them. In other words, in their experience, Christians, Pastors, Churches, and Jesus-people are “hypocrites”.
Or, to be more accurate, that person didn’t live up to what they thought a “Christian” is supposed to be. They expected someone who always told the truth, always had good motives, always shared what they had, always spoke kind words, never felt jealous, or angry, or lustful, or greedy. Their expectation of a Christian is a person who doesn’t have any vices or bad habits, has the correct political opinions (whatever that means), and everything they do is motivated by acceptance, love, and full support for anything that makes other people happy. And they would never judge or purposefully hurt someone.
For them, that’s what a Christian is always supposed to be – and since not a single Christian or pastor has ever met those expectations – all Christians, all pastors, all religious people, are all untrustworthy. And therefore, their words, their gospel, their Bible – can’t possibly be trustworthy either. Because if it was true – if Jesus really did change hearts, make bad people into good people, and Christians were all about love – then things would look very, very different.
Just look at what Paul says here. He’s been arrested for sharing the gospel of Jesus, and has inspired Christians all over Rome to boldly proclaim their faith all over the city. But then we immediately learn that some of these new missionaries have some pretty bad motives. When they talk about Jesus, it’s not to help people meet God. It’s because they’re jealous of Paul’s popularity and want to make him look bad by gathering a bigger crowd than him. When they stand on a stage, or in front of a group, on the outside they are talking about the love of God, but on the inside, they’re thinking, “I’m so cool! Look at all the people! I’m way better than Paul! I’m so glad he’s in prison! Finally, I get the spotlight! I hope Paul hears about this and feels so jealous! I hope he rots in that prison so I can finally get what I deserve!”
In other words, some of them are hypocrites.
Here’s the thing that I’m getting at – and there are two lessons I want to pull out of this section: First, to the non-Christians who are listening, let me say this: Christians aren’t perfect – and we never will be this side of heaven. Sometimes when you think of the way a church or a group of Christians should be, you think of it like a museum. Everything is clean and organized, interesting, beautiful, everyone is well dressed, behaving themselves, talking softly, nodding in humble silence. All the people you talk to are experts, each piece placed with precision, each room meant to inspire, with the declared mission to share that inspiration with the world.
That’s not what the church is, and I need you to change your metaphor. The church, any group of Christians, isn’t a museum, it’s a hospital. It’s a place designed for sick people to come and find healing. But, like any other hospital, it’s a semi-organized but often frantic mess. They are understaffed, underfunded, and overwhelmed. The ones meant to help are doing their best, but everything is always changing, and sometimes they get sick too.
It would be crazy to walk into a hospital and get upset that it’s full of sick, needy, grumpy, addicted, messed up people, right? It would be cruel to walk into a hospital room, go up to the person lying in bed, and say, “How dare you call yourself a hospital person! This is a place of healing! People are supposed to come here and get better! How dare you claim to be one of the doctor’s patients! If you really knew the doctor, you’d never act sick! You’d never relapse! You’d never catch another illness! Your doctor must be a total quack! Look how many sick people he’s surrounded by! All you hospital people are hypocrites!”
That’d be nuts, right? Well, that’s Christianity. It’s not a group of people who think they’re better than everyone else – it’s a group of people who have realized how sick they are, and have come to Doctor Jesus to be healed. But the disease of sin affects every part of their body and soul, and healing takes a long time. You wouldn’t look at someone who is in the middle of cancer treatments and ask them why the cancer isn’t gone yet, right? In the same way, don’t look at a Christian and ask them why they’re not perfect yet. Sometimes, the only real difference between Christians and non-Christians, is that the Christian has realized how sick they are, realize they need help, and are willing to submit to the doctor – while the non-Christian is still pretending that they’re not are sick at all.
And second, to the believers listening. Guys, we need to realize that every time we talk about Jesus, we are fighting an uphill battle against the culture around us. Every time we bow our heads to pray at a restaurant, bring up the bible in conversation, say we’ll pray for someone, put bible verses on our shirt, fridge, and walls in our home – we are inviting judgement and criticism. Most people don’t see those things and think, “Wow, this person is a Christian? They must be such a trustworthy and wonderful person!” No, they immediately put up their guard.
We need to be mindful of that. We need to be mindful that the culture doesn’t understand our Christianese terms and isn’t impressed by our external religious stuff. We need to realize that no one in our culture would ever consider coming to a church for help, because they don’t see us as a place of rescue, but a place of judgment and hypocrisy – even a place of danger.
You remember what the scripture calls us, right? “Ambassadors for Christ”. That means that we need to be not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. We need to wrap our head around that and realize that the only way we will ever get permission to share the gospel with the people around us is if we do the very, very hard work of loving our neighbour, winning their friendship and trust, and then earning the right to speak to them about our faith. And that takes time, sacrifice, and consistency. I need you to realize that and commit to it.