What is a Christian?

What does it mean to be a Follower of Christ — a pilgrim on The Way?

For the last 16 centuries or so, the answer to that question has been codified into creeds, sacraments, doctrine and dogma.

Sacraments (outward and tangible signs of an inward and spiritual grace — we say there are at least seven) are manna for The Way of the Cross. Creeds help us outline our beliefs as we’ve come to understand them, and doctrine and dogma can play a useful (but not essential) role in organizing the Church around those beliefs.

The problem is not with these organizing statements and visible signs of our faith. The problem is that we, as the body of faithful who took on the name of Christ, walked very few steps on The Way before we lost our humility, and began to fight amongst ourselves over our various cognitive interpretations of the unknowable. We banished mystery and filled the void with doctrine — absolute statements crafted not to facilitate spiritual growth, but rather to create uniformity of belief and to exclude all who do not conform.

The Way of the Cross requires we travel light: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. (Luke 9:3)” Unencumbered by spiritual “possessions” — the human desire to believe we possess and own the one and only truth — we have to travel with equal parts humility and hospitality. When able, we must offer hospitality to those we (in our limitations) perceive as spiritual and/or physical strangers or foreigners. When in need — and we are always in need — we must have the humility to seek and accept the aid of those outside our spiritual family.

But, instead of traveling lightly, with hospitality and humility, we (especially once we became the state religion of empire) chose to abandon the wandering path of mystery. We gave up the path of the pilgrim, alongside wayward travelers of every other tradition, to build a fortress of doctrine. In all our schisms and attempts at reform since, we’ve only added new wings, new walls and new barricades alongside the old — always confining and excluding.

We aren’t meant to abandon our faith — it is the truth AS REVEALED TO US. But we must climb out from behind our battlements and resume the mutual pilgrimage. Our creeds and sacraments are essential for lighting the path and feeding us along the way. But they must never be used to confine and exclude as we walk on this shared journey.

This goes to the heart of what it means to follow Christ on The Way. It is not about a restrictive or absolute creed, meant to mark the “true faith” and exclude all others. Christ became flesh not only to lift us above sin and conquer death, but also to free us from legalism, so that we may grow beyond its limitations and grow closer in unity to God and to ALL of God’s children.

In Galatians 5, Paul tells us “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” This is commonly read as freedom from slavery to sin and death. That’s appropriate and true, but it’s not really what Paul is talking about here. Paul, certainly an expert in Mosaic law, frames his statement on freedom and slavery in terms of circumcision — the ultimate sign of membership in the “true faith,” excluding all others.

Paul holds up what had been — and for most new Christ followers still was — the ultimate sign of adherence to true faith, and essentially tells believers to ignore it. “For in Christ Jesus,
neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

Creed. Doctrine. Dogma. Law. They all may be useful to our journey, and if so should be honored. But they all fall subordinate to Love. The structures and expressions of our faith may be beneficial for us — and must never be made a detriment to others — but what really holds value to God is how we love and serve others, right here, right now. As Paul put it in Romans, “whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

Paul isn’t coming up with this on his own (now some of the other things attributed to Paul….?) Jesus repeatedly tells us in the Gospels to focus not on legalism and the outward trappings of religion, but on the truth we can only find on the journey within. Jesus relates this in Luke 11, after being challenged by some Pharisees for not observing Jewish ritual cleansing before coming to the table.

In this passage, from Luke 11:37-54, Jesus unleashes some of his harshest criticism in Scripture — reserved not for people of other faiths or particular sins, but for those who exploit faith for their own gain and/or to oppress or marginalize others.

“Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish,
inside you are filled with plunder and evil,” Jesus tells them. “You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?”

The outward signs of faith are not good or bad in and of themselves. Their worth is defined by the true faith of the heart — the inner faith that can be celebrated and shared, but never limited by, its exterior expression. The exterior can be beautiful, but still hide a dark and ugly inner reality — in another passage in Matthew, Jesus refers to the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs, “full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” The true substance of our faith is always found inside, regardless of how it presents itself on the outside.

How do we make sure what’s on the inside is in line with Christ’s path? A creed? A list of laws or prohibitions? The structure of a narrowly defined religion? Gatekeepers to prevent “non-believers” from coming too close? No. Christ offers none of these solutions, as desirable as they may be to the human ego. Just as in the Greatest Commandment, Jesus gives an answer with no creed or religious boundaries: “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.”

We’re absolutely told in Christian Scripture to take up our cross and follow Christ. But, every time Jesus explains how to do this, it’s in terms that are always expansive and inclusive. 

Want to follow the commandment that is the basis for — the true meaning of — all of the old law and the prophets? Love God. Love your neighbor. No labels. No fine print. No conditions apply.

Want to be a sheep of Christ’s fold? In Matthew 25 Jesus makes it clear: His sheep are those who have loved him by loving and serving the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, the prisoner. There’s no specification that this loving service has to be committed under the name of any religion or according to any creed. LOVE IS THE CREED, and it is adherence to that creed, and that creed alone, that marks us as Christ’s sheep.

Our creeds, our liturgies, sacraments and traditions — these are all beautiful, and should be a celebration of the truth of Christ as it has been revealed to us. But all these outward expressions are only meaningful to the extent they reflect and bolster our love for God, for our neighbor, for all of Creation. Love and love alone is the source of all that is, of all meaning and all true faith.

So, what does it mean to follow Christ? How do we find our fellow travelers on The Way? Creeds, denominations, labels — these will never suffice, because Love will always be bigger than any divisions we may conceive. The only indelible mark of Christ’s sheep is Love — a truth that cannot be confined.

When we find ourselves stumbling on the path, in need of help and the companionship of fellow pilgrims, we must only look for those who love. Look beyond the labels, the creeds and doctrine. Look for those who love. There, we will find the footsteps of Christ.

Leave a Reply