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The Almost Christian

Acts 26:19-29;  Matthew 22:36-40

May I begin with a few words about the Soccer World Cups?

Never in my life have I missed a final game –except last December, for that match was scheduled to begin at 10 AM – church time here! NEVER!! What an existential dilemma, my friends — stay home for the game, or here for a wonderful Advent celebration? A little bit against my will, the Holy Spirit eventually persuaded me to record the game and join you.

As I was driving home that afternoon, the phone rang. My older daughter broke the news – Argentina had defeated France, and we were the new World Cup Champions! Once home, I sat on my couch and watched the game – twice!

 Let me tell you — it was a duel of titans, exciting and electrifying, a game that the Argentinian squad almost lost just a few seconds before the final whistle when the French launched one of the most poisonous, lethal soccer attacks ever.

But this time “God was on our side” — our goalkeeper stretched himself beyond belief and deflected that final, killer shot with just the tip of the nail of his left big toe! That ball, friends, was destined to the net, and it almost got there, yet it did not, and eventually Argentina won the game by penalty kicks.

What a catastrophic loss for the French, who to this day cry like babes, “We almost won!” But they didn’t, for “almost” was not enough to win, as their coach acknowledged after the game with a pinch of resignation.

***

This word, “almost,” covers many situations in life. We could make a list as long as a soccer field with many “almost” moments in our lives – key turning points when we came this close [motion] to scoring big, or to making the very best decision we could have made, and yet we didn’t.

Marrying Mary, rather than her cousin Lily, for example. Buying a home rather than renting. Going to seminary rather than to law school or information technology. Postponing retirement until 77 rather than 67. Stopping by the church only for Christmas and Easter rather than being the church all year long — and so on.

What an important word — almost — as we explore today where we are in our own faith journey.

***

Let’s return for a moment to this extraordinary chapter 26 in the book of Acts of the Apostles. Here the apostle Paul is at the very center of the picture. He’s under arrest for preaching Christ among the Jews, and some people excited a mob against him. They falsely accused him of forsaking Moses and the prophets.

This time Paul is against the ropes, and he needs a very strong defense if he is to walk alive from that trial before Festus, the Roman governor, and King Agrippa, his puppet lieutenant in Palestine.

At some point during Paul’s speech, Agrippa begins to wonder how come Paul, up until recently so obsessed with persecuting Christians, has suddenly flipped sides to become a defender of Christians. So Paul tells Agrippa that one day he was suddenly blinded by a light of heaven and fell to the ground on the road to the city of Damascus.

And he heard Jesus saying to him: “Saul (as Paul was called before his conversion), Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Paul asked: “Who are you?”

And Jesus answered: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. But now I want you to stand up, because I’m sending you to the Gentiles [the non-Jews], to open their eyes, that they too may see the true light and be forgiven.”

Too much for King Agrippa, who may have felt Jesus was also chasing after him to give him an entirely new assignment. Yet Agrippa loved his power so much, he didn’t want to hear anything about a new assignment. So he cuts Paul’s speech short – “Enough Paul, enough, let’s change subjects, for you almost persuaded me to be a Christian!

King Agrippa was not vicious and nasty as his ancestors in the Herodian family, and in the end, he concluded that Paul was innocent of all the charges brought against him and that he should be set free, something that could not happen at the time because of a legal technicality.

After this incident Agrippa literally disappears from the record — he’s never heard of again. I can’t help but wonder how much different his life and his legacy could have been had he been persuaded by Paul and become a Christian.

***

Many centuries later — now we are in England, in the 1740s, John Wesley, the Anglican preacher who sparked the Methodist movement, preached a sermon entitled “The almost Christian.” Yes, you guessed right – Wesley was thinking of King Agrippa and his historical conversation with Paul. Wesley preached this sermon in the campus chapel of Oxford College, his alma mater.

It was his very last sermon there, for his preaching that day did not sit well with the clergy — they didn’t like Wesley’s sermon because he drew a very bold line between two kinds of Christians and then suggested that they were on the wrong side of the fence.

On one side, folks who were “average,” “decent” people, not very different from King Agrippa. Nice Christians, well behaved, polite, and kind, yet folks who had not experienced a personal, vital, transforming, encounter with Christ like the one Wesley himself had experienced a few years earlier.

For Wesley, those folks, including King Agrippa and the Oxford clergy, were kind of almost Christian.

Despite their superb theological erudition, la crème de la crème of the Church of England, his colleagues would not consider climbing down from their ivory towers to mix with the poor and destitute, to serve them on the streets, the prisons, the carbon mines, or the galleys.

Why not? Quite simple, for they had not yet met with the Christ who only cares about sharing himself with all who can’t make it by themselves.  Oxford College immediately declared Wesley persona non grata and expelled him for good, and he never again preached in that place.

***

That day Wesley told them that abstaining from drinking or smoking, attending church regularly, praying and studying the Bible, behaving, being theologically correct – no matter how significant all that may be — none of that makes a person a true Christian, an entirely, totally, 100%, altogether Christian, as Paul tells King Agrippa.

Wesley himself had done all those things, yet he did not become an altogether Christian until a very profound spiritual moment in his life during an evening Bible study, when for the first time in his life he felt he had personally met with Christ.

That evening he was literally born again, and for the very first time in his faith journey, the already accomplished theologian and preacher experienced the plenitude of God’s love, and all the joy and excitement that come with it.

Together with that love, a very intense love for his own neighbor, especially the poor one, to whom Wesley began to serve with genuine compassion to the end.

***

Wesley’s way of contrasting almost Christians and altogether Christians was too much for his colleagues that day. Yet he made a point that we should not ignore today.

No matter how nice we may be, or what we believe, unless we know WHOM we have believed, we will be missing the spark that gives us a new interest in life, an incentive for action, and above all, a booster of enthusiasm as we join God in his day-to-day ministry.

“I know whom I have believed,” says Paul, and for him that is the fundamental awareness from which everything follows, for now he knows that he too is part of God’s plan, and a partner in mission and ministry with God.

What about sharing this good news with someone you know who at this precise moment may feel like almost Christians usually feel? You don’t need to checklist with them what they believe or disbelieve — all you need to do is to share your secret with them – “I know whom I have believed! Would you like to meet him today?”

***

I began with soccer – let me conclude with something a little less profane, a story about Wesley himself.

One night, quite late, he was riding back home, singing one his favorite hymns, when someone stopped him and seized his horse’s bridle. “Your money or your life,” the man demanded.

So, Wesley emptied his pockets – just a few coins. Then he opened his saddlebacks – just a few books and Bibles.

The robber, rather disappointed, was turning away when Wesley cried, “Stop! I have something more to give you.” Bending down toward his robber, Wesley said to him: “My friend, you may live to regret this sort of life in which you have engaged. If you ever do, I beseech you to remember this: “What Jesus did on the Cross has taken care of our sins, if we just let him. Would you like to meet him?”

The robber disappeared silently into the night, and Wesley kept riding, praying in his heart for a miracle with that man.

Years later, already a very old man, Wesley was greeting his parishioners after a Sunday evening service. A stranger stepped forward and told Wesley, “I am the man who robbed you one night on the road.”

Now a well-to-do businessman, the man kissed Wesley’s hands and said with deep emotion: “To you, dear reverend, I owe it all.” Wesley replied softly, “No, no, my friend, not to me, but to Christ.”

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