"If you are uncertain of which of two paths to take, choose the one on which the shadow of the cross falls" - Norman Shawchuck
This series of posts started with an exploration of the concept of truth, in the general sense. I have attempted to make the basecamp of 'objectivity' my starting point, and circle back to it at regular intervals (putting objectivity in parentheses because it is a non-existent perspective – one from which, for the most part, people no longer claim to be able to see. Even God doesn't have an 'objective' perspective. He is passionately committed to and involved with the the world He created.) Coming as I do from a thoroughly Christian perspective, I made the choice to launch this discussion from what amounts to an illusory foothold in order to build a bridge–even if it's a floating one–to people who do not share my commitments. It's not that the Christian faith is illogical or irrational. Like any of the world's faiths (or science), it is a claim about reality itself. If the Christian worldview is accurate, then irrespective of how incompatible with the logic of our world Christianity may seem, it is, in fact, the most rational belief system in the world – the only rational belief system, for that matter.
However, a few centuries of of the Western world being held captive to the false, either/or choice between Bible or science, faith or reason, belief or facts, have left Christians in a place of having to build these bridges in order to have any meaningful communication with people who choose not to believe. Non-belief, by the way, is, in general, another mythical position – everyone believes something. Some people just don't recognize that their unacknowledged assumptions about where the world came from, why we might be here, and where everything is headed are religious assumptions. This is a serious lapse of reason. Thoughts about our origin, purpose, and final destination are three categories that form some of the foundation stones of a religion.
Oddly enough, we now live in a time when it is not only non-Christians, but also vast numbers of people who consider themselves believers who need to have Christianity explained to them, as if for the first time. For many, faithful church attendance passes for authentic Christianity. Others take it a step further and serve in one of the church's ministries, or participate in a small group. Commitment to Christ has been reduced to a confession of faith, a one-time acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, or little less than a kinder, gentler version of the old you (i.e., you don't smoke or drink, swear, or watch pornography.) This Americanized version of Christianity is far more American that it is Christian (which goes a long way in explaining why so many people operate as though being a Christian also means belonging to one political party or the other.) Bottom line: what you will find in the average church on Sunday is an emaciated caricature of the Church of Jesus Christ.
In case you think I'm gearing up for some kind of triumphalist rant, au contraire. According to Martin Luther, the four marks of the creedal confession's authentic church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) leave out the ultimate criterion: the marks of the crucifixion. Paul warned Timothy, "Anyone who wants to live a godly life can expect to suffer persecution" (2 Tim 3:12). "Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you," Peter wrote to the Jewish believers scattered throughout the Eastern Roman provinces (1 Pet 4:12). Paul reminded the Thessalonians: "You know that we are destined for such troubles. Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know (1 Thess 3:b-4). These examples represent only a few of the echoes of many similar guarantees from Jesus Himself; "You will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. A brother will betray his brother to death, a father will betray his own child, and children will rebel against their parents and cause them to be killed. And all nations will hate you because you are my followers (Matt 10:17-18; 21-22). (Just read over the first half of 2 Corinthians in the event that you're interested in finding out what persecution looked like in the life of Paul.)
I didn't set out to present following Jesus as the gloomiest of all possible destines. But the difference between the church in America and what the Scriptures clearly forecast should raise the question: Is there a disconnect here? As I said to my church yesterday: When you are so on the side of God that the world is threatened by you, when people can't handle your selflessness, and they feel the need to get rid of you because of how uncomfortable you make them, THEN you have found a person who is a Christ-ian – someone who is like their Messiah.
This is perhaps one of the most neglected aspects of the Christian faith. The Bible doesn't say "If you pass through floodwaters," or "if you walk through the fire," but "when" (Isa 43:2). In the passage known as the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10), Jesus names the people in this world who are truly blessed: those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and those who are persecuted for doing right. In other words, people who are and who live like Jesus. When He died on a Roman cross, He gave us a graphic illustration of what this teaching looks like when it's lived, incarnated.
For the most part Christians prefer to focus on the one-time, unrepeatable aspect of the crucifixion – the part that involves God, in Jesus, "reconciling all things to Himself, making peace with them through Christ's blood, shed on the cross" (Col 1:19). The aspect of the cross that we'd prefer to forget, is the part where Jesus makes it a mandatory requirement for anyone who would be His disciple (Matt 16:24). This is so central to the continued success of Jesus' mission as He hands if off to His disciples, that the four Gospels include 5 references to it. This is not an add-on to following Jesus that is reserved for 'radical' Christians. This is simply what it means to be Christian.
There is a passage in the letter to the Philippians that spells this out more clearly, perhaps, than anywhere else in the Bible. Paul writes, "I want to know Him (Christ)." His next words make plain to us exactly how Paul thinks one gets to know Jesus: by "sharing with Him in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death" (Phil 3:10). On a practical level, this should come as no surprise. The foundation of every relationship is shared experience. The more deeply you have shared in the experiences of someone else, the more you know them – the more likely you are to be able to know what they would do in any given situation, the more often you will be able to finish their sentences. People who have suffered from the same kind of pain, shared in the same types of losses are uniquely capable of forming intimate bonds with each other. How else would #metoo have become a culture-impacting phenomenon virtually overnight? But we American Christians seem to have gone to the greatest possible lengths to insulate ourselves from suffering (and, tragically, from those who suffer*). And to that end, we have created a Gospel that promises an end to it – not a future end to suffering (what Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 4:17 as a glory that our light and momentary troubles are in no way worthy of being compared to), but an end to suffering in this life. The American Gospel, in essence, is the promise that Jesus will make everything better.
Jesus does make everything better. Better yet – He makes all things new (Rev 21:5). But the path to the newness that Jesus offers is none other than the path that He Himself walked. The power of the resurrection that Paul wants to experience can only be accessed by means of sharing in Jesus' suffering and death. In 2 Corinthians he writes that he and his traveling companions "live in a state of a continuous death like Jesus' in order that the life of Jesus might be put on display through their lives" (4:10). Again, this is no optional feature for an otherwise costless, crossless Christianity. This is the standard package. Try to leave the cross behind and you're about as likely to have a successful walk with Jesus as your ride would be if you tried to leave the tires behind as you drove your new car off the lot.
There is a lot more going on here than a quibble over some peripheral details about a religion. The difference between between holding to orthodox Christian beliefs and following the Jesus who calls "Follow me" to us from the pages of the New Testament is as wide as the sea. If we believe the Scriptures are the Word of God, His inspired Words to us, then the fact that suffering appears to be intrinsic to the vocation of the Church is something we cannot choose to ignore. “Unless the... church makes a determined effort to recapture the man Jesus through a total identification with the suffering…, that Church will become exactly what Christ is not" (James Cone). If knowing Him who is the Way means obeying Him, if knowing Him who is the Truth means becoming like Him (in his suffering and death), if knowing Him who is the Life is eternal life, then what is at stake here is nothing short of salvation – nothing short of the Truth.
As Jesus replied to the man who shouted out, "Blessed are those who get to eat at the banquet in heaven, when God's Kingdom arrives;" No, actually. "Blessed are those who hear My commands and keep them" (Luke 11:28). If you meditate for a few moments on the man's misperception and Jesus' correction, the message is clear. Jesus is saying: Blessed are those who become like Me, who imitate My life (and suffering and death); they shall be comforted; they shall be shown mercy; they shall inherit the New Heavens and the New Earth; they shall be called sons and daughters of God; they shall see God; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
*This was first pointed out to me by my friend Matt Hyatt, for whom the intensity of his family’s suffering was magnified by his sense of feeling like the church was nowhere to be found in the midst of their struggle with his wife’s horrifically painful and long-term illness.