LOWERING OUR DEFENCES
The firewalls we create to protect one part of our life from another must be extinguished when it comes to expressing faith.
Some time ago I was talking to a young man who had just come to faith. He had been in trouble and was now making a fresh start, inspired by sense that God loved him. He was grateful to his church for the encouragement they had shown him, but when I started to ask him questions, bitterness started to creep in. He claimed that the church had told him that in committing his life to Christ he would experience joy and peace but that no-one had told him that the real battles lay ahead of him and not behind. Now this may not have been a fair reflection of what he had actually been told, but the story reminds us of a real danger in how the Christian faith is shared with others.
To experience the love of God for the first time is an amazing thing, as if the sky has opened up above you to show you a whole new world you never knew existed. The peace and acceptance people feel is palpable but it is always the start of something bigger because God only accepts us with a view to transforming us from the inside out: changes that often feel uncomfortable. In a clever use of words, the distinguished German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer once said: grace is free, but it isn’t cheap. If evangelism is done like a smarmy insurance salesman glossing over the small print, the church will soon be full of unsatisfied customers.
This is a charge you could never lay against Jesus, who went out of his way to underline the cost attached to following him. In Luke 14:25 it says that large crowds were travelling with Jesus. It might have been an occasion to celebrate how successful his ministry was proving; instead he saw it as a challenge to weed out those who merely wanted to be part of a moment rather than part of a movement – rather like some who love to attend big rock concerts but are less keen to tackle African poverty or global warming personally.
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, he says.
Those words were meant to make those following him feel uncomfortable, and they are meant this way for us too. Jesus said a number of unpopular and frankly alarming things about following him. This presents those who want to follow Jesus with the dilemma of what to do with the bits they don’t like. I don’t want to sound like the smooth media adviser to an off-message politician who is always offending people. I have no intention of trying to say he didn’t say what you think he said. However they are interpreted, these words are bold and unsettling. After all, it is in times of revolution that children learn to hate their parents because they have found a greater passion instead.
It is true that every passage of scripture needs to be measured against others dealing with the same subject, to give us the chance to find a fruitful balance on each issue and Jesus held lovingly to the commandment to honour his father and mother and expects others to also. Yet in this passage about ‘hating’ fathers and mothers we hear an uncompromising call to radical living which puts Jesus so far out in front in our priorities that others hardly get a look in.
Jesus then goes on to say that those who are thinking of following him should ponder the consequences very carefully. He cites a business venture which has not been thought through, where the building remains unfinished, forever a symbol of incompetence and failure. And then he talks about going to war. One of the first calculations of war is that you won’t prosecute it unless you think you can win. Here Jesus likens following him with lining up on the battlefront and being outnumbered two to one by the enemy – not exactly an attractive sales pitch. Both examples play on that queasy feeling you get when you realise you’re in too deep in life.
And those who follow Jesus must carry their cross when they follow him. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be known as a disciple. We are unfamiliar with the culture of capital punishment today, and lack the vivid picture of impending death which those who listened to Jesus in Roman times would have obtained. To carry a cross then meant you were a dead man – as surely dead as the so-called dead man walking in transit from the cell to the execution chamber in a U.S. prison. Those who follow Christ died with him at the crucifixion, scripture tells us. Their old way of life is irretrievably left behind and they have become new people. It is perhaps difficult to grasp the depth of this truth when you live a life which is shielded from state-sponsored violence.
Dissidents in China would understand this image of dying with Jesus implicitly. The Chinese government has a vicious trick it plays on some dissidents which is loosely translated as ‘being made to accompany to the execution ground’. The dissident is made to walk with condemned prisoners out to the execution ground, assuming he is about to die. The prisoners are shot dead, but the dissident is left alive. It is a brutal way of showing you who is boss, and one Chinese dissident has said that you live forever after with the image of a bullet lodged in your own brain. You are no longer your own: your life is changed.
Thankfully God does not use violent coercion to make people toe the line like a repressive regime, yet in a different way Christians died with Jesus on the cross and are changed forever by the experience of knowing that someone has died in their place. As St. Paul said: ‘you are not your own; you have been bought with a price’.
There is something of an air of unreality when western Christians come to these words of Jesus. There need not be any great cost to calling yourself a Christian in today’s world. Yes, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, with their polemical books ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘God is not Great’ may wish to see Christianity eradicated from public life, but their opposition is usually far removed from everyday experience and doesn’t amount to the kind of intimidation Christians routinely face in Iraq, Burma, China or North Korea. In the U.K. there are signs instead that Christianity is taking the shape of the real religion of today: consumerism. It has become another lifestyle choice, an accessory that takes its place alongside the other leisure options we pursue. Counting the cost here means no more than checking the price tag and seeing if it’s cheaper elsewhere. And as true Christianity isn’t discounted, people tend to shop around anyway.
Following Jesus can never be a mere addition to our recreation like taking a loyalty card at a department store. The devotion we owe is entire. There is a tendency today for people to compartmentalise their lives rigidly. Work is separate from family; family is separate from friends; hobby is separate from duty. In the same way faith becomes a separate part of people’s lives and a firewall is built to protect the rest of their lives from its influence. Working out what it means to be a Christian today means we must extinguish those firewalls and let the faith flood every part of our lives. The more people there are willing to do this, the more visible will be outline of a radical faith for others to imitate. But the first step is always to take up the cross, as Jesus issues the Frank Sinatra paraphrase: come die with me.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?