A couple of weeks ago, I stepped back in time by returning to the small country church where I grew up. In some ways, it seemed the same: walls of light oak paneling, rows of heavy oak pews, durable pine green carpet, a registry posting weekly attendance and offering, and a gentle Jesus with a 40-watt glow smiling down upon the tiny choir loft. Although familiar faces had aged and some names eluded me, there were many warm and welcoming embraces. It felt like coming home.
In other ways, a lot has changed. The music was a refreshing mix, assisted by modern technologies and melodies. A dynamic pastoral duo, soon expecting baby number three, is at the helm. Pastor C led the choir and worship before ushering an encouraging quantity of wee ones off for their service. Pastor Z delivered his message in the isle, illustrating on a whiteboard, infusing energy in his enthusiasm. He spoke clearly and directly, with the confidence of a shepherd minding his flock.
Pastor Z’s subject was the difference between a disciple and a Christian. The latter is a name for those who’ve associated with a theology. It’s easy to call yourself a Christian. Disciples are few, by comparison; it requires deeper commitment. A disciple loves to model the life of the master.
I’ve read how Jews of the time of Jesus were mired in the Levitical law. There were 365 things they were to do and 248 things they were to avoid.* Who could possibly hope to get it right, day after day? But like a cool, clear stream in the desert, Jesus refreshed the landscape. There are only two rules, He said. (1) Love God with your whole heart, soul and mind. (2) Love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s that simple.
Even so, Christianity has diligently continued to create lists defining right and wrong, good and bad, us and them. We can’t seem to help ourselves from splintering off, rules in hand. Some are more rigid or rigorous than others. Some sects make new rules to get around old rules. Regardless of their intent, religious rules tend to have a stifling effect.
And it’s maddening, all these theological lines in the sand. Except for a few foundational tenets of the faith (e.g. the holy trinity, the power of the resurrection) there is a lot to differ about. But nothing, at least to me, much worth the trouble.
More importantly, it is not what God intended. Jesus said, “Follow me. Be my disciple.” Those who do are set free in the journey. Sweet deal. Those are God’s terms. We need not try to redefine them.
It’s not about lists. It’s about love. The difference is grace. You know it when you experience it. Drink deeply of this Living Water.
*Outrageous Love: a love that seeks no reward by Sheila Walsh (J. Countryman, 2004)