Monday, September 9, 2013

Can We Just Skip this Part?

    How many of you have ever wanted to have your dessert first?  Be honest.  If you are like me, you have.  On numerous occasions.  Forget having to eat the main course.  Forget having to eat your vegetables.  Forget cleaning your plate.  Bring on the apple pie.  Bring on the ice cream.  Bring on the cookies.  Bring on everything that is sweet and sends your taste buds into ecstacy.  Let’s just skip to the good part.

    It’s kind of like watching movies when I was a teen.  I loved those action/adventure movies of the ‘80s.  Yeah, I got hooked on Rocky, Rambo, Commando and anything with Bruce Willis, Jean Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwartznegger, and Sylvester Stallone.  But invariably, there would be slow moments between all the action sequences.  More than a few times, I’d grab the remote control and fast forward through the slow stuff to get to the action sequences–the stuff I considered to be the good stuff.

    And who of us in life wouldn’t like to fast forward through all the boring, meaningless, and bad stuff in our lives so that we could just enjoy the good stuff?  Who of us wouldn’t like to skip the difficult stuff and enjoy the rewarding times?  Most of us probably would in a heart beat.  And most of us would probably like to do the same thing with our lives of faith.

    I mean, take one look at our Gospel lesson for today.  Incidentally, gospel, the literal translation of that word from the Greek is “good news.”  Let’s read this again and see just what kind of “good news” Jesus proclaims:

    25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,
(Good news #1): 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Good news #2) 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. (Good news #3) 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

    After I finish reading this little snippet, I can’t help but ask, “Can’t we just skip this part?”  I mean, can’t we just gloss over this teaching and live our lives as happily and as merrily as we can?  Can’t we skip that part about hating our family; hating life; carrying the cross; and giving up our possessions?  Can’t we just explain this stuff away and say that Jesus is simply joking or using exaggeration to make a point? 

    There are more than a few people who indeed skip past these teachings.  There are more than a few people who disregard them and explain them away.  There are even a few preachers who blatantly teach a theology which ignores these words completely.

    Yeah, in some ways, I’m taking a shot at the guy just down the road.  You know, I have a number of folks who post his sayings to their Facebook timelines.  Like the following one: “When you realize that God has put a blessing on your life, and you go out each day with the attitude that something good is going to happen to you, that’s when God can do exceedingly, abundantly, above and beyond.”  Or here’s another one, “God doesn’t take you through challenges just to leave you beaten down. No, it’s time for you to rise up and claim everything that belongs to you.” 

    And here’s what Jesus says belongs to you, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

    What an interesting contrast.  Let’s kind of put this in theological terms.  The guy down the road is representative of a thread of Christianity that likes to skip the cross–to fast forward through the crucifixion and go straight to Easter.  The resurrection is all the good of life.  The resurrection is all the greatness of God.  The resurrection is what it is all about: healing, wholeness, redemption, graciousness, eternal life, the presence of God in all its fullness.  Yeah, we love that stuff.  It’s fantastic.  It’s more than the icing on the cake–it’s the whole cake in all its deliciousness.

    But you can’t have the resurrection without the crucifixion.  You cannot have the empty tomb without the cross.  You cannot have eternal life without death.  And a lot of times, we don’t want to talk about that.  We don’t want to talk about going down those paths.  We want the sweet stuff, but we don’t want to endure the heaviness.

    Yet, we as Christians must ask the tough questions, and one of those questions is: which is closer to the Truth?  Which is closer to the reality of life?  Which is closer to the life that Jesus revealed to us and called us to live as His followers?

    Listen to this quote from Bret Blair: The mark of a great leader is the demands he makes upon his followers. The Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi offered his men only hunger and death to free Italy. Winston Churchill told the English people that he had nothing to offer them but "blood, sweat, toil, and tears" in their fight against the enemies of England. Jesus demanded that his followers carry a cross. A sign of death.

Andrew died on a cross
Simon was crucified
Bartholomew was flayed alive
James (son of Zebedee) was beheaded
The other James (son of Alphaeus) was beaten to death
Thomas was run through with a lance
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded
Matthew was slain by the sword
Peter was crucified upside down
Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows
Philip was hanged

The demands that Jesus makes upon those who would follow him are extreme. Christianity is not a Sunday morning religion.  No.  It’s much, much more.  It’s a religion that demands your entire life.  The good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly, everything.  It demands a willingness to suffer, to die, to walk away from all that is precious and dear in our lives, to give up our possessions.  There is part of our faith that doesn’t necessarily come across as “good news”–at least while we are going through it.  For carrying a cross isn’t “good news.”  The cross means death, pain, and suffering.  Christianity is not for the faint hearted.

    But it is for those who can keep the end in mind.  It is for those who believe that on the other side of the cross is the resurrection.  It is for those who willingly count the cost and say, “The Lord will never leave me or forsake me.  The Lord is my helper.  What have I to fear?”  The answer is: nothing.  When we live God’s Word daily, we know that we will bear the cross, but we do not fear such a burden because we know the end.  Amen. 

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