Jesus is clear. To be his disciples, to enter the Kingdom of God, we must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him! That’s a lot, don’t you think?
Ever since Jesus’ death nearly 2,000 years ago, there has been a steady trail of those who have given up their lives for him, or been killed for their faith in him.
The first being Stephen – for whom Stephen Ministry is named. In fact 11 of the 12 apostles were killed for proclaiming the resurrection of Christ. (John was exiled and died of natural causes.)
Fast forward 1,300 years, a full 100 years before Martin Luther set off the Reformation in Germany, a priest in Czechoslovakia (John Huss) spoke out against the church’s failings and was executed for his beliefs (1414).
Then there was William Tyndale the Bible translator of the 16th century.
And more recently Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944 while not killed for his faith, was executed in the Concentration Camp Buchenwald for participating in the failed plot to kill Hitler – which was certainly driven by his Christian convictions.
Then there was American missionary John Elliot and his four friends who were killed by the Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956. (Though their widows would return to make peace with the very people who’d killed their husbands – so great was their faith.)
And in our own century there was the night of January 7, 2010 when a group of eight Egyptian Christians were killed as they left their church after celebrating a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Tertullian (3rd C.)
These all faced – literally – not just as a Lenten exercise – but literally – giving up their lives for Jesus.
But that’s not us – and thank God for that. It could be if we happened to be born in North Korea, Somalia, Iraq or Syria.
So what does Giving Up Our Lives look like for those who are actually NOT being asked to give up our lives for Jesus?
Well, it’s a journey – and whenever you go on a journey you do three things: Say good-bye
Pack your bags
So the first thing we do is say goodbye – and we say goodbye to ourselves. “Deny yourself,” Jesus says. What this means is we no longer make ourselves the most important person in our lives – rather we put God and others first.
Choosing to deny oneself is difficult because we are hardwired for making sure our own needs are met. It’s hard not to make ourselves the center of our own universe. And you know what they say about the center of the universe? It’s a very crowded place!
Denying ourselves may mean giving up our own opinions, or at least suspending them so that there is room for someone else’s. And the “someone else” we need to make the most room for is God / Jesus / Holy Spirit.
And easy way to think of this is to think of JOY: Jesus – others – yourself.
Denying ourselves looks like the faithful husband or wife caring for their sick partner; or a parent who denies their own needs, so their children can have what they need.
When we say goodbye to our self-centered ways, our motives for doing things are not, “How will this help me?” but instead, “How will it serve Christ? How will it serve God?” And things that serve Christ are kind and generous. This is what it means to deny oneself – to say goodbye.
Then we Pack Our Bags – “Take up your cross,” Jesus says.
To be clear – OUR cross is NOT Jesus’ cross! His cross was his actual death and resurrection. You may be called to give your life for Christ – but most likely not.
For us – taking up our cross is to assume HIS cross – his death and resurrection – is more than just a label: “I’m a Christian” but rather the thing our lives point to. And if our lives are going to point to Christ, then at some point we’ll need to say that out loud.
This can be hard; but sometimes it may not be as hard as we think.
Just this week, I read an exchange on one of your facebook walls, where with humility and compassion you reminded your friend of the words of Christ and his call on our lives. It was a beautiful thing to read and I was cheering you on from my desk across the street here!
At a time when Christians of all kinds are getting more and more press – and much of it for attitudes and behaviors that are not characterized by the love of Christ – we need to speak of and point to Jesus even more.
So having said goodbye to our self-centered selves, we pack our bags with the fullness of God’s love. And then we:
Go – “Follow Me,” Jesus says.
Christ is always well beyond us in vision, but he is also beside us to help us walk with him into the new land, the Promised Land.
Christ calls us beyond our known borders. He says, “join me, follow me”
Giving our lives away in service to God – for his sake – for the sake of Christ – is where it is at. Loving others with the love of God is where it is at.
Sure it’s important to think about Jesus (deny ourselves), talk about Jesus (pick up our cross). But we also need to act Jesus out – to do something that is Christ like. And as I said, kind and generous are indicators, and a good place to start.
And you know, compared to being killed – that’s a pretty light load.
When I consider how God has sustained and strengthened those who have faced real physical persecution for believing in him, it’s easier for me to receive the same courage to make a less dramatic but still important witness.
We just welcomed 5 new member this morning; which along with baptism and confirmation is one of the times we ask people to make a public profession of faith in the form of the vows they make. And every time we do this, I hear the voice of the Sr. Pastor I served with in Acton for 10+ years before coming here. He used to remind people in those moments that they were making a profound statement of faith by saying “Yes” to those questions of faith. He’d say, “Be honest and don’t perjure yourself. Thousands of people have died for this faith that you’re saying yes to.” (Dick Olmsted)
HEAVY! But he’s right. It’s deep stuff that we’re dealing with.
The church is not where nice people go to get nicer (Will Willimon)….
It’s where hurting people go to get healed by the Great Physician,
Where despairing people go to find hope through Christ,
Where empty people go to be filled by the Holy Spirit,
And where overflowing people go to share the love of Christ.
Yes – the Christian life is a difficult journey; but it is made easier by the fact that when we say goodbye, pack our bags, and go, marvelous things begin to happen: we begin to see with the eyes of God, and we begin to experience a portion of what God has promised we will experience when we live by faith, an experience that not only includes the cross, but the resurrection as well.