Wesleyan Roots: “The Almost Christian”

 

Wesleyan Roots: “The Almost Christian” #2

A Message on Acts 26:24-29

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

Nov. 18, 2018

By Doug Wintermute

dwinterm@yahoo.com

 

Acts 26:24-29 (NRSV)

 

While he was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” 25 But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. 26 Indeed the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” 28 Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” 29 Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”

 

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Let’s start today by looking at the scripture and figure out what is going on.

 

Let’s go back several chapters in Acts to the 21st chapter. There we find Paul arriving in Jerusalem after traveling. He meets with the apostles, meets with James, and then things go downhill.

 

Some Jews from Asia start stirring up trouble for Paul, saying he is teaching false things about the Jewish religion. The crowd becomes violent and tries to kill Paul, but the authorities come and take him away for questioning.

 

After spending some time away from the crowd, Paul asks to address the crowd, which he does. He tells the story of his conversion and how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, but they didn’t believe him and shouted for this death.

 

The Roman tribune then had Paul strung up to be whipped, which they called “examined,” (yeah, right) but before the Centurion could begin Paul told them that he was a Roman citizen and, therefore, it wasn’t legal for them to whip him. So they stopped.

 

They brought Paul before the Jewish Council, including Ananias, the high priest, and asked him questions. The Jews were still against Paul, taking a vow to fast from eating until he was dead. So the tribune had soldiers take Paul to Caesarea to the governor there.

 

The governor, Felix, has Paul brought before him and Paul again makes his defense. Felix is intrigued by what Paul says, and sends for him and talks to him frequently, but doesn’t free him.

 

This goes on for two years. After that period of time Felix is replaced by Festus.  (And no, not the Festus on the TV series “Gunsmoke.”)

 

Festus listens to Paul’s case and offers to send Paul back to Jerusalem to stand trial, which is what the Jews wanted because they were going to ambush Paul along the way and kill him. But Paul, at that point, appeals to the Emperor, meaning he wanted his case tried before the emperor in Rome. And Festus grants Paul’s request.

 

While Paul waits in prison, King Agrippa, the Roman ruler over the Judea area, comes and visits with Festus. So Festus arranges for Paul to come before King Agrippa to state his case, and Paul does.

 

That’s where we pick up the scripture we read today. Paul tells of his conversion, of his preaching, and even has the audacity to try to talk the king into becoming a follower of Christ.

 

Paul asks, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”

 

Agrippa replies, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

 

In the King James translation of the Bible, which is what John Wesley would have been using, it is phrased as: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”

 

Almost persuaded. And it is from this that John Wesley writes his sermon titled, “The Almost Christian.”

 

King Agrippa was almost a Christian, but not quite. Almost. Close. But not there.

 

Wesley uses that as a metaphor for people who may claim they are Christian, but really are not. Those who may claim to be Christian, but whose actions, deeds, and words are not in line with Christian beliefs and practices.

 

According to Wesley, being an “altogether Christian,” instead of an “almost Christian, requires “… a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that, by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God; whereof doth follow a loving heart, to obey his commandments.”

 

He goes on to ask a series of questions that he encourages people to ask themselves as a form of self examination, to determine if they are an “altogether Christian,” or an “almost Christian”:

 

“Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, ‘My God, and my All’? Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, ‘That he who loveth God love his brother also’? Do you then love your neighbour as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? as Christ loved you? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God?”

 

Ouch. Pretty serious words there, John. But important reflections.

 

Our world today is full of “almost Christians,” people who claim the that they are Christians but who don’t live up to what it means to be an “altogether Christian.”

 

So, is it okay to be an “almost Christian”? There is a saying at “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Does being “close” apply to Christianity, too? Is it acceptable to be “close enough”?

 

So let’s ponder some things in our world that are “almost.” I have some photos to help us visualize these things.

 

Is fixing a broken tooth with superglue “almost” like going to a dentist? (Dr. Brad Westbrook, a dentist and member of our congregation, tells me that he has seen people do this. He also says it never works out very well, either. So, please, don’t try it.)

 

Here is a fish I caught a while back. This “almost” a state record bass, right?

 

Here is a tattoo someone got. It is “almost” correct, right?

 

Here is a homemade auto repair to replace an air intake hose. It’s “almost” as good as that actual part, right?

 

Here’s a homemade hot tub. It’s “almost” as good as a store bought one, right?

 

Here’s another creative auto repair. Those wooden stools are “almost” as good as the original seats, right?

 

Here is a photo of an “almost” lion. It’s actually a dog wearing a fake mane, but it’s “almost” a lion, right?

 

Ahh, here’s a homemade pontoon boat. It’s “almost” as good as one you can by at Sadler’s Marine, right?

 

Now those are humorous but the point I want to make is serious: are you an “almost Christian”?

 

“Altogether Christians” are those who are completely devoted to fulfilling the great commandment to love god and love others. Not just “almost,” not just “sorta-kinda,” not just at certain times or certain situations, but all the time. Not just for certain people, but for all. It’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of discipline.

 

One of the things John Wesley was really passionate about was encouraging others to “holy living.” When we think of that term we might envision some monks or nuns in a monastery or convent, but that’s not what Wesley is talking about. For him holy living meant spending time each day in prayer, in reading the scriptures, and in doing things to benefit others. It wasn’t to separate oneself from society, but to live holy lives in society, serving as an example of the love of Christ.

 

Wesley saw small groups as the key to holy living. The small groups would meet together, discuss the scriptures, pray, and hold each other accountable, asking each person to profess the times when they let God down during the week.

 

We have gotten away from that today in the church, unfortunately. For so many Christians church is just another activity to check off on the list of activities. Go to church on Sunday: check. Go to work on Monday: check. Go to the grocery store on Tuesday: check. And sometimes church doesn’t even make that list.

 

Here at Jacksonville FUMC we have between 900 and 1,000 members on the rolls. Those are official members. And yet look around. This sanctuary can seat 500 people comfortably. And yet our average Sunday attendance last year was 233. This year it is beginning to look like it might even be lower than that.

 

Why? I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this (but you know I’m going to say it anyway), but I believe it’s because we have too many “almost Christians.” Now I know every person can’t make it to church every Sunday, but when the lay leadership committee (what used to be the nominations committee) was going through the official roster of members looking for people to serve in different leadership positions, the phrases, “I didn’t know they were members,” or “I’ve never seen them at church,” or “Why are they on here?” were used way too much.

 

How many of our members are seeking to live holy lives? After all, Hebrews 12:14 says, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

 

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you think I’m coming down to hard on our church members remember that the person the preacher preaches to the most is himself or herself. The scriptures convict me, and Wesley’s sermons convict me. But I think it’s something we all need to hear. We have to stop being “almost Christians.” We are commanded to be “altogether Christians.”

 

So my challenge to you–and me–this week is to be an “altogether Christian.” Let us not be like King Agrippa, an “almost Christian.” To paraphrase Wesley, let us:

 

Share the love of God that is in our hearts. Let us make God our all, desiring nothing but him. Let us be happy in God, making him our glory, our delight, our crown of rejoicing. Let us write the commandment to love god and love others on our hearts, loving our neighbor, which is everybody, even our enemies and the enemies of God, as we love ourselves, the way Christ loved us. Let us believe that Christ not only loved us, but gave himself up for us. Let us have faith in his blood, believing that Jesus, as the Lamb of God, has taken away our sins and thrown them away to the bottom of the sea, that he has erased our sins by nailing them to the cross. Let us remember that we are a redeemed people through his blood, which erases our sins. And let his Spirit be found in our spirit, what we are children of God.

 

That is what “altogether Christians” should look like.

 

And please, if you break a tooth, don’t try to superglue it back on yourself. You only “almost” fix it.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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