Called to Deep Commitment: The Great Paradox
Jesus calls his followers to “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”, followed by the paradox that if we want to save our life we will lose it. There is a cost to discipleship, and when we make the commitment to follow Jesus, we will experience abundant life and true meaning and joy in life.
I brought some maple syrup with me today. Unfortunately I don’t have any pancakes to go with them right now, but I actually brought it as more of an object lesson, not to consume.
As you may know, maple syrup comes from putting a tap into the trunks of maple trees; it’s like the sap and it flows out into a bucket. Karen and I visited a forest of maple trees at a friend’s property in Canada several years ago and we saw firsthand how it’s done. They call a maple forest a “sugarbush”.
Did you know that there are different shades and different strengths of maple syrup depending upon the time of the season that the trees are tapped?
Lighter syrup comes out at the beginning of the harvest, and as the harvest continues, the syrup gets more of a deeper color and a more robust flavor. (show the jars) 4 pack at Trader Joe’s:
Golden color, delicate taste; Amber color, rich taste; Dark color, robust taste; Very dark color, strong taste.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter which kind of syrup you prefer—light and dark can be equally good, depending on your taste.
But in our life as a Christians , the deeper and more robust our faith, the more authentic and stronger it will be. Our Lent theme this year is “deep calls to deep”, and God invites us to go beneath the surface to deeper waters, to go deeper into the forest of faith.
Jesus calls us to a stronger commitment to follow him, which is deeper than the “Christianity light” that we often see in our society or settle for ourselves.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German church leader who part of the resistance to Adolf Hitler and the 3rd Reich, and as a result paid for it with his life. He knew firsthand that deep commitment to Jesus could be risky and costly.
Bonhoeffer wrote a book that became a classic called The Cost of Discipleship. The book was a critique of easy Christianity’ and ‘cheap grace,’ and challenged Christians to take seriously Jesus calling to follow him wherever it may lead, whatever the cost.
Bonhoeffer said in his book “When Christ calls a person, he calls him or her to come and die.” He didn’t mince any words or sugarcoat the Christian life.
Donald Kraybill is a Mennonite professor and pastor from the Lancaster, PA area. He wrote one of my favorite books on Christian discipleship called “The Upside Down Kingdom”. Kraybill says:
“Like cotton candy, Christian faith too easily evaporates into pious fluff. We’re tempted to sugarcoat Christian faith. We slice off the call to discipleship and focus on spiritual fluff, froth and fizz. We sometimes tell each other, just believe in Jesus and everything will turn out fine”.
There is a watered-down understanding of the Christian life that has found expression in what’s been called “Moral Therapeutic Deism”, or MTD for short
The phrase “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” was coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
“Moral” comes from the concern to be a generally good person.
“Therapeutic” concerns feelings and they state that the postmodern era that we currently live in is a therapeutic age, in which feelings rather than facts and reason and self-sacrifice dominate the landscape of religion, culture, and politics.
“Deism” is the idea that God made the world and then stepped away from it, and is not intimately involved in people’s lives.
According to the philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism,
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
(Source: Leroy Huizenga, St. Paul Center, 11/21/2019)
There’s a lot more that could be said about MTD, but basically it is way of understanding faith that makes God into our own image, instead of the other way around.
Instead of seeing Jesus as Lord or Master, he is seen more as a Mascot, who’s there to cheer us on and help us when we need him to help us succeed, solve our problems, or get us through a tough time.
Moral Therapeutic Deism is a far cry from what a relationship with Jesus looks like in the scripture passage we heard from the book of Mark.
What Jesus says to his disciples and also to the crowd around him is not that he is like a genie that people can use to grant their wishes, nor is it a cotton-candy faith that is full of fluff,
But it’s a call to follow his example of sacrifice and servanthood for the purposes of being a sign that the Kingdom of God has come into the world.
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat his message when he says:
“If you want to become my follower, then you will need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will need to lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake in service to my Kingdom, then you will save it. For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life?” (Mark 8:34-36)
This is a deep call to commitment, and let’s unpack it a bit:
What does it mean to deny yourself? I don’t believe that this is a call to self-loathing or self-hatred. After all, Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and if we hate ourselves, then we won’t be able to love our neighbor.
Last week I talked about receiving God’s love for us as blessed and beloved,God, and that in itself allows us to love ourselves.
What I think Jesus means when he asks us to deny ourself is that our own self-seeking agendas are not the most important thing, but rather it’s seeking first God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness, and not our own.
Denying ourselves means that living for Jesus becomes our primary loyalty, our ultimate goal, not living just for ourselves.
Now I don’t think this means that we don’t live up to our potential and that we waste what God has given us. No, I believe that God wants us to become the unique person He has created us to be, using our God-given gifts, talents, passions and resources, but not just to bring recognition to ourselves but to give glory to God.
And sometimes wisely using what we have been given will lead to success—maybe climbing up the corporate ladder, having a business that does well financially, or being a star athlete or actor. And we might achieve some popularity and prestige in the eyes of the world.
It’s easy to get caught up in all this, but these things are all temporal and can sometimes take our focus off of what’s truly important in God’s eyes, so we need to continually resist the temptation of getting too attached to them.
After Jesus says “deny yourself”, he calls his would-be followers to “Take up your cross”.
This is a call to submit ourselves to Jesus’ way of servanthood that he modeled so powerfully in his own life. To take up our cross is to commit ourselves to renounce worldly power and follow Jesus all the way to the cross, which could include being ridiculed or suffering for his sake.
And it means to follow Jesus’ lead in resisting to use violence to protect and defend ourselves, but instead showing love and kindness to our enemies.
Now sometimes when we have a burden to carry in life we say something like “this is the cross that I have to bear”. We all have our individual crosses to one degree or another, and I believe that God accompanies us when we carry these burdens.
At the same time, taking up our cross with Jesus is something that we choose voluntarily when we commit ourselves to following him. It’s specifically related to the costs and suffering that occur by living according to values that go against the grain of the predominant values in our world.
This way of the cross is the direct opposite to what’s known as Christian Nationalism, which we’ve been hearing a lot about in the news in recent years.
Christian nationalism is the belief that the United States is a Christian nation, and that American identity is inseparable from Christianity.
Christian Nationalists believe that the government should take active steps to keep it that way, seeking to pass laws and use force if necessary to make sure that Christianity and Christians enjoy privileged status in society.
It’s this worldview which enabled Christians to justify the use of slavery and segregation in order to keep white Christians in a position of superiority and power over others. And sadly, there are many Christians today who are ingrained with this mentality.
In fact, I believe that Christian Nationalism contributed to the Capitol protests that led to an insurrection on January 6. There were Christian signs in the crowd, and a Christian flag was carried into the Senate chambers when the rioters stormed the building.
I believe that Christian Nationalism is one of the biggest threats to the Church and to the way of Jesus today, and we need to commit ourselves to the way of Jesus, which keeps the Church separate from the State, which renounces any privileged status for Christians, a way which promotes equal rights for all people, and a way that seeks to serve and to live peacefully and respectfully with people of all backgrounds and all faiths.
In order to prevent being caught up in popular philosophies or current political movements that aren’t based in the gospel of Jesus,
We need to develop deep roots in our faith. Last week we talked about developing a deeper relationship with Jesus, rooted in God’s unconditional love for us, and this week the focus is on making a deeper commitment to following him in every aspect of our life.
The Lent book study that a group of us is doing has to do with developing spiritual practices that strengthen our roots and help us grow deeper in our faith, the kind of faith that led to what the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Galatians,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
After Jesus invites the crowd to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him, he says something that I think is one of the greatest paradoxes known to humankind:
Jesus says that if you gain the whole world you could actually be forfeiting your life. He says, “For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
Another great paradox Jesus says that if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, then you must learn to live as a servant of others.
These paradoxes are so countercultural, so counterintuitive, but in God’s upside down kingdom, they’re true.
Denying ourselves and taking up our cross can sound like a real downer, and can feel like a huge burden to carry through life. But it’s helpful to me to remember another paradox, that the way of the cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.
As Donald Kraybill wrote: the cross is not the last word but the middle word in the threefold sequence of the basin of service, the cross of suffering, and the tomb of resurrection. (The Upside-Down Kingdom, p. 257)
At its heart, following Jesus, being his disciple is not just saying “no” to the values and things that the world says are important, but discipleship is saying “yes” to God’s way—the Kingdom way of servanthood, compassion, peace, grace and justice.
When we say “yes” to God’s way, we are participating in the reign of God with all of its challenges and all of its blessings, all of its costs and all of its rewards.
And this is the good life, the abundant life, that Jesus promises us if we commit to trusting him and casting our lot with him.
Yes, there is a cost to discipleship. But as the late great author and faithful disciple of Jesus Dallas Willard once said, there is a cost to non-discipleship as well.
In his book “The Spirit of the Disciplines”, Willard said:
“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.
In short, non-discipleship costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.”
So committing our lives to the way of Jesus is costly, but it’s what brings us true meaning, true fulfillment, true joy in life. And because deep and lasting change in anything takes time for it to sink in, being a Christ follower is a lifelong journey.
It’s not something that we can ever arrive at completely so we can just “check off the box” and then coast the rest of our lives.
No, it involves making daily decisions to choose to live as Jesus did. As we sang earlier, we seek him in the morning, and every morning we open ourselves up to learn a little more about what it means to walk in his ways, to follow in his footsteps. And as we learn, we follow, step by step by step.
Rich Mullins wrote that song, and he wrote another one that we’re going to listen to during our stone ritual this morning. That song is called “The Maker of Noses” and it talks about a beautiful vision of God’s kingdom, and how we are invited to choose to participate in that kingdom by choosing to follow Jesus.
The song speaks of voices that say, “just follow your heart”, but and “follow your nose” “follow your dreams” but he realizes that doing these things don’t go deep enough— he needs to commit himself to following the way of Jesus, devoting our life to God who is the Father of hearts, and the giver of dreams, and the maker of noses.”
Just like we did last week, I want to invite you to write a word on a stone, a word that speaks to you where you’re at right now about your commitment to following the way of Jesus with your life. You can write the word “commitment” on the stone, or any other that is meaningful to you.
If you don’t have a stone, you can write your word down on a piece of paper.
While we’re reflecting and writing, Rich Mullins’ song “The Maker of Noses” will be playing.