We’ve all heard, I’m sure, that the numbers of people who affiliate with institutional religion are decreasing. This is especially true in countries of the developed West. But religion is nowhere near to disappearing. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, a major U.S. think-tank, revealed that 31% of the world’s population identifies in some way as Christian. Almost one in three people on earth would say they are Christians. Here in Canada, a 2019 StatsCan survey showed that 63% of Canadians called themselves Christians. But, curiously, in that same survey, only 54% of Canadians who identified with any faith tradition felt that “their religious or spiritual beliefs were somewhat or very important to how they lived their lives.” What that means is that nearly half of all those in Canada who claim to be Christians feel that their Christian identity is practically irrelevant. Being a Christian is nothing much more than a label of ancestral pedigree. It doesn’t impact one’s everyday life.
In Jesus’ day there was a similar thing going on. Today’s Gospel tells us that many people took pride in being part of Israel simply by virtue of the fact that Abraham was their original ancestor. But then we encounter some harsh words from John the Baptist about this approach to faith: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Ancestral pedigree is not enough, says John the Baptist. In fact, that misses the point altogether. John says that each of us must “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and not simply rely on the faith of those who’ve gone before us. We must believe for ourselves.
What does it mean to bear fruit worthy of repentance? What is the spiritual disposition that one must have? Another way to put this question in our immediate context is: What does it mean to be a Christian, specifically an Anglican Christian? A few days ago I came across a short article by a Franciscan writer named Dan Horan. The article is titled “Don’t Just Be a Christian; Be a Disciple This Advent.” Dan Horan’s argument is that Christian identity, if it means anything, must be lived out as discipleship, as an intentional life commitment to following the Way of Jesus. Some of you know that I’m the co-chair of the Bishop’s Committee on Interfaith Ministry. On that committee is John Hill, a retired priest in our Diocese. Several years ago John Hill wrote a little book titled Making Disciples. In that book he identifies four basic issues that most Anglican Christians seek to come to terms with about their own faith. I think these issues lie at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a person who produces fruit worthy of repentance. Perhaps these four issues resonate with you.
The first issue is a quest for meaning—for love, recognition and purpose. To become a Christian doesn’t mean you need to have all your theological ducks in a row before you take vows of baptism or confirmation. It starts simply with where you are at right now—with all your questions and anxieties and uncertainties, with your simple desire, your longing, for Good News. And that’s exactly what Advent signifies. We are in a season of longing, of waiting for the incarnation, for the birth of Immanuel. It’s ultimately a longing for peace—which is the theme of this Sunday. Peace surely means the absence of violence, but the Hebrew word shalom means “wholeness” and “tranquility.” If the human quest for meaning is to be fulfilled, the fulfillment will surely come as shalom.
The second issue that many Anglicans wrestle with is commitment. If we have a longing for meaning in our lives, are we then committed to undertaking the journey to learning about and living into the Good News that we encounter in Jesus Christ? I’ve known people who are willing to make that commitment, but when the time comes to take on baptismal or confirmation vows, they shy away. That’s because, again, they’re afraid that they don’t have all their theological ducks in a row. But that’s not really what commitment is all about. On any given day, any one of us, no matter the depth of our faith, may be overwhelmed by doubt or despair. So when we recite the Creed and say, “I believe,” it is less a statement of absolute certitude and more an embarking on a life-long quest for knowledge of God. Commitment is simply about affirming that there is something compelling about Jesus Christ, who is the human face of God, and that it’s worth struggling with the foibles of the institutional church in order to keep ourselves linked to tradition—to learn from it, to argue with it, and to improvise and restate it for our own time.
The third issue we deal with has to do with conversion. It’s unfortunate that conversion has become associated with coercion, a kind of Christianity that invests more in hate than love. If we’re going to retain the language of “conversion” and attach any positive value to it, then conversion must be about changing our minds and lives and reorienting ourselves totally to Jesus’ Good News. It’s about embracing what ultimately matters. It’s about taking Jesus seriously, such as when he once told a rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). This kind of conversion doesn’t typically happen overnight. It can be a long process. But it does have a beginning, which is the desire to see one’s life turned around, reoriented, so that a new way of being in the world can be embraced.
The fourth and final issue Anglicans must come to terms with is the question of identity. Are you able to call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus? This is where the rubber really meets the road. We can’t call ourselves Christians simply because one of our parents went to church, or a grandmother was active in her local parish. No, if we’re Christians, then we’re Christians because we ourselves make the claim. In our day, however, the very word “Christian” has become contested. Does it mean those on the Right who celebrate Jordan Peterson and support Donald Trump? Or does it refer to people like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Greg Boyle?
This Advent is a time for each of us to examine the sort of Christian faith we hold. Are we Christians who rest on our ancestral pedigree, along for the church ride, rarely opening the pages of Scripture on our own? Or do we aspire to be genuine disciples, followers of the Way of Jesus, taking time to read the Gospels to enter more fully into the life of Jesus?