You may have heard the saying, “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” That saying assumes that “almost” is not good enough. And that is true in many situations. If you are flying, you don’t want the pilot to almost make it to the runway. If you are running a race, you don’t want to almost make it to the finish line.
Sometimes, however, the word “almost” is more positive. It can spark hope and excitement. We might think of scientists who are on the brink of a new discovery. After years of research, they are almost there. Or think of a student who is almost to the point of being able to graduate. Or being on a road trip when a child asks for the 20th time, “Are we there yet?” and you can truly say, “Almost.” It can be such a good word.
This more positive take on “almost” gives us a better understanding of what it means to be an “Almost Christian.” That’s the title of John Wesley’s second sermon in his Standard Sermons. What qualifies as an “Almost Christian?”
Theologian Kenda Creasy Dean recently wrote a book with this same title, and a phrase that she uses to describe many Christians in the United States is, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This is a type of Christianity that uses the language of the faith, but focuses too much on the self. The focus is on being nice and feeling good about yourself, with a vague idea that a deity is there to help us succeed. This may be the most popular form of religion in the United States, and many churches thrive on it. To be a little more challenging, Kenda Dean says that Moral Therapeutic Deism is a watered-down version of the gospel. It is a self-centered version of the gospel that focuses on self-preservation rather than self-giving love. It misses the sense that we are called to go out there and be a light to the world, to give hope and healing, and perhaps even to suffer on behalf of others. In other words, Moral Therapeutic Deism is “Almost Christian.”
So how do we move from “almost” to “fully” Christian, or as Wesley calls it an “altogether” Christian? According to this book, here are four characteristics of what Dean calls, “consequential faith,” or a faith that truly shapes how we live. 1. Being able to articulate beliefs in a heartfelt and personal way. 2. Being a part of a community of faith where people discuss issues of faith and life. 3. Having a sense of God’s calling to live on behalf of others rather than self. 4. An understanding that we are part of something bigger than ourselves; that our lives are caught up in a larger story that is going somewhere because it is guided by God. [i]
When I read these characteristics, my first thought was the “Brag on Jesus” retreat that our mid-youth went on this past Fall. Without doing it directly, they focused on these characteristics, and at one point, while talking about how to articulate their faith, the youth were struggling with what to say. And then a couple of them, at the same time, started saying the Apostle’s Creed. In that moment, they “got it.” They had a resource, planted in their heart, to help them talk about their faith in a personal way. And they could do this, because of what happens here every week.
John Wesley, in his sermon “Almost Christian,” gives us a personal testimony of how he had once found himself in the “almost” stage. In this stage, he worked hard at being good – but it was still mostly about wanting to feel good about himself. He was highly committed to the practices of faith – worship, prayer, and service. He studied scripture and doctrine ... but it felt more like drudgery than as something life-giving. In his sermon, he sympathizes with all who might get stuck in “almost,” and he wanted them – he wants us – to know the answer to moving from “almost” to being an “altogether” Christian. The answer is “love.” (That’s Wesley’s answer to many questions of faith). This is what God wants for us. Love – Love filling our whole being – heart, soul, mind, and will. In this love, all forms of selfishness fade away. In this love, we grow in patience and kindness. We stop judging others. Our practice of faith becomes life-giving and purposeful. That’s what happens when God’s love gets in here (heart).
This love is at the heart of true religion. Now get this. True religion is not rooted in doctrine or creed or style of worship, or, as Wesley says, “anything external to the heart.” True religion is rooted in a personal relationship with the One who loves us with a love that is even able to conquer death itself. If that’s true religion, then false religion is when we get hung up on practices and doctrines and judgements and start using “religion” to divide us up and pit ourselves against one another. Doctrines, creeds, and practices are important, but they are resources for faith, not the focus of faith. When we make them our focus and believe that faith is about defending them, that’s when religion can become a destructive force.
So, you are invited to engage in your own self-examination. In a true Wesleyan spirit, we must say that nobody else can do this for you. This is between you and God. It is the job of the church to provide support and guidance, but the church can’t take the place of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can only point you to that. In our scripture lesson, we see Paul standing before a King, in chains, and he proclaims the good news. He tells the King of his conversion and his missionary journeys, and at one point King Agrippa says, “You are almost persuading me to become a Christian?” (using the translation Wesley used). Here “almost” implies that he just might come to a personal relationship with Christ, as so many have. That is Paul’s hope, but Paul can’t do this for him. Only the Holy Spirit can make this connection.
John Wesley loved questions, to help spark this connection. Here are a few questions that might help you connect to God’s work in here (heart): Do you desire to be truly happy, able to live knowing that this life is a part of something so much bigger than yourself? Can you envision the possibility of this love springing up from the depths of your soul to be shared with everyone you meet? Do you want to live in relationship with the One who shines the light that can overcome all forms of darkness and death?
Here’s the call. Don’t stop at “almost.” Don’t stop short of the high calling to which you are being called. May you experience what it means to be, not almost only, but altogether a child of God and follower of Jesus Christ, God’s son, the One who brings redemption and peace, and opens the way of life, the One who did not stop at “almost” but gave his all. [ii] Amen.
[i] Kenda Creasy Dean, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church,” (Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 12, 71-74
[ii] This sermon was inspired by John Wesley’s second sermon in his Standard Sermons. It is the second in a series entitled “More Than...” and a part of a yearlong emphasis called “True Religion” where we are using the themes of Wesley’s sermons for inspiration and guidance into faithful and fruitful living. As a part of this emphasis, devotional paraphrases of Wesley’s sermons and reflections for personal devotion and conversation can be found at truereligion.conwayfumc.org .