An idea that I have been chewing on over the past few months is the contrast between the invitation to be part of a cause that is worth killing for versus Jesus’ radical invitation to follow him – and choose a life worth dying for. Extreme and even seemingly culturally accepted groups throughout history have sought ideals, virtues and values that they deemed worthy of killing for to protect. In fact, this is one of the basic premises of war. However, what I’m referring to are some more recent and extreme versions of this: the Nazis and ISIS. Both of these groups maintain(ed) strong principles about what a good or pure community should look like, yet their means of achieving said utopia were brute force, power, control and violence.
Nazism began as a set of ideals and a way of thinking that shaped the National Socialist party in Germany. It grew as an ideology of the ruling party and ultimately became a mass-movement. What started out as an ambitious social programme to unify a nation with a strong “people’s community” (volksgemeinschaft) and help shape a ‘master-race’ quickly became genocide; the Holocaust. Where millions of Jews were brutally murdered and gas chambers didn’t discriminate about the lives they took. ISIS, on the other hand, is a radical group that have declared themselves a Worldwide Caliphate with political, religious and military authority over all Muslims. They criticize Muslims who have strayed from what they consider to be ‘pure Islam’ and are seeking to rid the world of all infidels. ISIS is seeking to grow its version of a perfect, pure community – and are so captivated by that vision of life that they are willing to commit atrocities to bring it into fruition.
As shocking as it may be, many young people find great appeal in the battle cry of ISIS and dozens – even hundreds – of Westerners have responded to their calls of recruitment to be part of an honourable cause. Young men and women have left their jobs, their families, their ‘security’ and disappeared into ISIS controlled areas to take up the banner of cleansing the world of infidels and trying to restore a perfect and pure Islamic state. Of course, this is a self-proclaimed authority and is denounced by many Muslims.
But this brings me back to my wonderings…what is it that stirs and excites such response from young people? Is it the adventure? Is it the meaningful cause? Is it the challenge of it all? Is it the promise of making something better in the world? And how is Jesus’ invitation different? Does it even compare? Can these ideas even exist in the same train of thought?
Jesus calls his disciples to ‘come, follow me.’ He invites each of us to leave our dreams, our finances, our families, the things that keep us secure, the things that we depend on to follow him – to let him be our master. He invites us to ‘die to ourselves’; to ‘take up our cross daily’ and follow him. (Luke 9:23-24)
In this season of Lent we cannot ignore the thing that we most anticipate at Easter time – which is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, I would much rather focus on the resurrection part of this story, and in a sense that is good and right. But we must not underplay the significance and necessity of the cross. Without the cross – without Jesus’ death – there is no resurrection. And Jesus’ invitation to us is to become a people who know the way of the cross; the way of suffering. Jesus promises us that in being his disciples we will endure scorn and shame. We will suffer for his name’s sake. We will be rejected. We will have to give up some (if not all!) of our dreams, friendships, and finances. We will have to give up our own self-made identities. We will have to give up our selfish habits. We will have to give up our sin. But what does he promise in return? He promises eternal life – and abundant life! He promises life with him that lasts forever. He gives us his own name by making us HIS children and sends his very presence to comfort us and dwell in us. Jesus promises to live in us and make us able to live these unbelievably full and filled lives.
The Apostle Paul tells us: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20) and “…if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Rom. 8:11) We must die to ourselves and our way of living so that Christ can live IN US. So that the Spirit can live IN US – the very same Spirit of the one who resurrected life from death!
What are we waiting for? Let’s all sign up and sign on right now! I mean, what a great recruitment slogan: “Come follow me. All you have to do is give up everything. And die.”
So that you might live.
But still, if any of you are like me, you’re a bumbling disciple – if not a totally doubting one – and can be a bit skeptical that this could possibly be the real promise of and path to LIFE. And this is where we get to choose to believe either that God is who He says He is or that He isn’t. Either He is the God of the universe who created all living things and is currently reigning on His throne overseeing the work of redemption and reconciliation in the world to make all things new and bring about the new creation. Or He isn’t.
If He is, then He has made it clear that His way of reigning in the world is via the cross. Death precedes resurrection. We must die before we can truly live. We – as followers of Jesus – must identify as being people of the cross.
Isn’t that a bit scary and radical – extreme, even? Yes. It is. Now, I’ve never been asked to literally give up my life or denounce Jesus like so many martyrs in the Christian faith. And I pray to God that He will give me the strength and courage to remain steadfast in my faith if that day ever comes. But funnily enough, as I get small glimpses of what happens in my life when I finally let go of – choose to surrender, or die to – my dreams, my plans, my sin, my way of seeing and treating other people – and let Jesus do his work in me, I start to get the sense that it really is worth it. That God really is who He says He is. That his promise of resurrection does follow the journey to the cross and comes through death.
Please know and hear that my experience of the cross and death to self/ideas/sin pales in comparison with the majority of Christian believers throughout time and history who have had to endure far more than I have in my middle-class, fairly affluent, Western Christian experience. And so in one sense, I am completely inexperienced and unqualified to even write things like this. We would be better off reading stories of the martyrs and saints in Christian history – or about the lives and testimonies of Christians who endure harsh persecution and yet Jesus fills them with a deep sense of hope, joy, and LIFE. Or even the story of the 21 Coptic Christians who refused to denounce their faith and so were beheaded just a couple of weeks ago. Or any of Paul’s letters as he explains, encourages, exhorts, and teaches about the absolute centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the churches in Asia minor – and how it was received as a message of foolishness to so many.
But here we are. In Vancouver. Redemption Church. Almost half-way through the season of Lent. Looking towards the cross and wondering if it really is Jesus’ promise and path to life. Is Jesus’ vision of life-through-death more compelling than the call to establish a good and pure community by means of force and violence? Aren’t we encouraged to preserve our own lives at all costs? Doesn’t it seem foolish to give up our dreams, happiness, goals, comfort, and our very selves for each other?
As we journey towards the cross, let’s ask ourselves and ask God to remind us again: what is the power and the promise of the cross? Where is the radical power and the foolishness of the cross at work in the world? And what is Jesus asking us to identify - to acknowledge as sin and death in our own lives - and to confess so that the power of the cross can be real for us too?
Friends, as we approach the halfway point in Lent, let us look to the cross. Let us remember that Jesus’ way is through death. Death to sin. Death to ourselves. Death to our way of seeing and being in the world. This is the only way that God can give us his abundant life.
And so I leave you with the prayer of confession that we have praying together these Sundays of Lent as a step that we can all take towards the cross – in confessing our sin, dying to ourselves and repenting. Let us turn back to Jesus again and ask Almighty God to use his resurrection power to give us HIS life in all its fullness.
before whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
we acknowledge and confess
that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed;
we have not loved you with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength;
we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
We repent and are truly sorry for all our sins,
both the evil we have done,
and the good we have left undone.
Forgive us Lord, and cleanse our hearts,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.