Merely Christian

Merely Christian
December 17, 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Religious books are big business. Here in the U.S., sales revenue has been around $500 million per year.

About 50 million religious books are sold each year, both fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary. Maybe you’ll find one waiting for you under your Christmas tree. But with so many books to choose from, how do you know which ones have value? Which ones are bad, which ones are good, and which ones are great? What would you say is the best Christian book of all time?

A poll was recently taken, set up with brackets like the NCAA basketball championship. It was called the “Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament.” Can you guess who made the Final Four?

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. Confessions by Saint Augustine.

In the end, Confessions edged out Mere Christianity for the top spot, the “Best Christian Book of All Time.” But C.S. Lewis shouldn’t feel bad — he was competing against a saint! Saint Augustine! No fair!

I want to talk for a minute about Mere Christianity, published for the first time 65 years ago. Oddly enough, it wasn’t even written as a book. During the darkest days of the Second World War, Lewis prepared four sets of radio talks on basic Christianity, and these evolved into the book Mere Christianity. Over the years, the book’s popularity has grown, and since 2001 it has sold over 3.5 million copies in English alone. On top of this, it has been translated into at least 36 languages. For many Christians, Mere Christianity is their favorite religious book apart from the Bible.

Speaking of the Bible, do you know what Adam said to his wife on the day before Christmas? It’s Christmas, Eve!

So why is Mere Christianity one of the best Christian books of all time? According to The Wall Street Journal (March 24, 2016), Lewis “was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity.” The book is his attempt to explain and defend “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. Mere Christianity.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul is trying to do the same. He is determined to present timeless truths, and to explain and defend the common ground of the Christian faith. Paul is not interested in creating a distinctively Thessalonian style of Christian; instead, he wants to help people to be Merely Christian. He knows that such Christians will be “sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). We need this kind of Christianity now, more than ever — especially with Christianity getting so corrupted by politics that we can hardly recognize it any more.

So what are the timeless truths that Paul presents? He begins with a set of commands: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18). Those are tough orders to accept, aren’t they? They seem out-of-touch with the painful realities of our lives — illnesses, breakups, failures and job losses. We would understand if Paul said “rejoice often” … “pray regularly” … and “give thanks whenever good things happen.” But instead he says that we are to rejoice, pray and give thanks constantly, without regard to the difficulties of our lives.

How can these words make sense to us? I think that Paul issues this command because he is focused much more on God and on Jesus than he is on himself. His eyes are on the culture of heaven, not on the ways of the world. Rejoicing, praying and giving thanks are important because they are “the will of God in Christ Jesus for you,” Paul says (v. 18). Since there is nothing more important than the existence of God and Jesus, and nothing more true than the facts that they have created us and redeemed us, then following their guidance is at the very center of the Christian life.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis offers a similar perspective. He stands aside and points toward God, rather than toward himself. He doesn’t say “look at me,” but instead he says “look at that.” Look at the beauty of God’s love for us, given to us by Jesus Christ. That’s the good news that is at the heart of a life that is Merely Christian.

By opening ourselves to God’s love in Jesus, we become able to love one another. By trusting God to be at work in every situation, we become able to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18). All of this comes from God, who instills in us the ability to love and rejoice and pray and give thanks. “When you teach a child writing,” says C.S. Lewis, “you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, [the child] forms the letters because you are forming them.” The same is true for God — we love because God loves, and God “holds our hand while we do it.”

Remember this the next time you help a child with a task. God holds your hand and guides you with your challenges, just as you guide the hand of a child.

Keeping the focus on God and Jesus, and trusting them to work through us — that’s the first step in being Merely Christian. It requires leaning more on divine power than on human power, more on the Lord than on ourselves. “Give up yourself,” writes C.S. Lewis, “and you will find your real self. Lose your live and you will save it. Submit to death, [the] death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day … and you will find eternal life.” As Jesus himself said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

The next timeless truth concerns Christian behavior: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). A person who is Merely Christian is open to the power of the Spirit of God, blowing where it will and doing the work of transformation. C.S. Lewis is clear that “becoming Christian isn’t an improvement but a transformation, like a horse becoming a Pegasus.”

In the magazine Leadership Journal (Summer 2012), Gordon MacDonald has written an article on “How to Spot a Transformed Christian.” These folks don’t look different from the general population, he says, but they do have characteristics that are signs of inner changes. One of the most important is a passion for reconciliation.

“They bring people together,” writes MacDonald. “They hate war, violence, contentiousness, division caused by race, economics, gender, and ideology. They believe that being peaceable and making peace trumps all other efforts in one’s lifetime.”

Remember the line of poetry from Robert Frost: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”? Transformed Christians are good examples of the “something” that doesn’t love a wall. Instead, they are stirred into action whenever they see a wall. MacDonald says that they take action in the community when they see “dividing walls that separate people, each of whom was made uniquely and loved by God.”

Transformed Christians “do not despise the words of prophets” (1 Thessalonians 5:20) — prophets such as Isaiah, who wrote the verse here in our Sanctuary, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). Transformed Christians want to part of a church that welcomes all people, and sees the potential for spiritual growth in a community made up of people who are old and young, progressive and conservative, gay and straight, immigrant and native-born. Transformed Christians want to be part of a church this is focused not on race or nationality, but instead on resisting evil and holding fast to what is good.

People who are Merely Christian tend to behave in a particular way. Instead of quenching the Spirit, they let it fill them and transform them. Rather than tumbling into evil, they hold fast to what is good. Listening to the words of the prophets, they work for peace and reconciliation. All of this prepares them well for “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Looking around this church, I see you being Merely Christian in a variety of ways. I see it:

  • As you study the words of the prophets in Basic Bible, Feasting on the Word, Sunday Express, Youth Small Group Bible Studies, and The Wired Word.
  • As you show the love of God to others by filling Salvation Army stockings, buying Angel Tree gifts, and providing hospitality to homeless neighbors in our Hypothermia Prevention and Response Program.
  • As you respond to the call to serve as elders, deacons and trustees, and rely on the power of the Spirit to guide you in this work.
  • As you support the mission and ministry of the church through your gifts to our operating budget, as well as to our 2020 VISION Capital Campaign.

Advent and Christmas are seasons of giving, focused on the greatest of God’s gifts to us — the gift of Jesus Christ. His arrival at Christmas makes it possible for us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances” (vv. 16-18). His life of love and service shows us how to “hold fast to what is good [and] abstain from every form of evil” (vv. 21-22). His Spirit gives us the power to be his disciples, and to be his hands and feet in the world.

With the help of Jesus Christ, we can be Merely Christian. And that’s the best type of Christian to be. Amen.

Sources:

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., (1952), 1979. 60, 190.

MacDonald, Gordon. “How to Spot a Transformed Christian.” Leadership Journal, Summer 2012, www.christianitytoday.com.

Marsden, George M. “’Mere Christianity’ Still Gets a Global Amen.” The Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2016, www.wsj.com.

“Religious books sales revenue in the United States from 2011 to 2016 (in million U.S. dollars),” www.statista.com.

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