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What brings that to mind this morning is the passage we just read which speaks of sacrifice, of self-denial, of losing one's life to save it...almost a call for Christian Kamikazes, if we might push the envelope a bit, who are willing to do ANYTHING, even at the price of life, to follow Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, himself a martyr to the faith, said, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." On this Labor Day weekend, that is the ultimate labor of love.
To be honest, these words of Jesus about self-denial, taking up the cross, and losing life to save it have never been my favorites. If I had my druthers, I would focus on texts like "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..." or "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." I would prefer a warm, fuzzy kind of discipleship that only required a child-like faith in God's supreme goodness and the promise of eternity in the glories of paradise. Wouldn't anyone? But the message of scripture is clear: the Lord has work for us to do...a labor of love, yes, but labor nonetheless.
Costly too. In some societies, Christian discipleship may well involve death - 2/3 of the Christians in the world live in places that are actively hostile to the faith. In our society, we may not face martyrdom, but the costs are there regardless. One obvious cost is financial - you come to church and are expected to give of what God has entrusted to your care. And not just a dollar or two. God's people are expected to tithe - ten percent. That is God's standard, not the church's. And on top of that are all the other worthy causes which deserve our help. Discipleship can get expensive.
You are expected to give time. Public worship, and on Sunday, too - the one day each week that we might count as belonging to just us - and EVERY WEEK has a Sunday. Wow! Jesus talked about visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and doing it as if we were doing it for him. That takes time, often time we might rather be spending in other pursuits.
Our talents are on call as well. Can you teach? Then your Sunday School needs you and ought to have you. Can you sing? Then your church choir needs you and ought to have you. Can you dream dreams in the name of Jesus and catch a vision of creative ministries for the church of the future? Then your church leadership needs you and ought to have you. This list could be endless. Whatever your God-given talent might be, it is not yours to hold on to - it has been entrusted to you to share, even though that might be hard work and might well involve personal sacrifice.
I admit, I still wish discipleship did not have to be quite so demanding. In the words of one old Texan, "The problem with the Christian life is that it's so daily."(2) Indeed. But perhaps this is all by divine design. Perhaps this work is simply preparation for the glory that awaits us. There is a remarkable lesson in a true story about a butterfly:
A family brought in two cocoons that were about to hatch. They watched as the first one began to open and the butterfly inside squeezed very slowly and painfully through a tiny hole that it chewed in one end of the cocoon. After lying exhausted for about ten minutes following its agonizing emergence, the butterfly finally flew out the open window on its beautiful new wings.
The family decided to help the second butterfly so that it would not have to go through such an excruciating ordeal. So, as it began to emerge, they carefully sliced open the cocoon with a razor blade, doing the equivalent of a Caesarean section. The second butterfly never did sprout wings, and in about ten minutes, instead of flying away, it quietly died.
The family asked a biologist friend to explain what had happened. The scientist said that the difficult struggle to emerge from the small hole actually pushes liquids from deep inside the butterfly's body cavity into tiny capillaries in the wings where they hardened to complete the healthy and beautiful adult butterfly. The lesson? WITHOUT THE STRUGGLE, THERE ARE NO WINGS.(3) Hmm.
For what it is worth, we ALL go about the "wing-development process" incorrectly sometimes. As you may have noted when we read our scripture lesson, we covered a good deal more material than just this part about sacrifice and self-denial. As Matthew lays it out for us, first we have this conversation between Jesus and the Twelve concerning the divine identity - Peter pipes up, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Then Jesus offers a wonderful compliment: "Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah." He calls him a ROCK, a solid foundation for the church. Ta Da! Then we read of Jesus letting the disciples in on what was about to take place, Peter saying, "Never, Lord!" and the Master responding, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a STUMBLING BLOCK." Woops. Peter goes from rock to block from one paragraph to the next. I personally find that comforting, because I know I do the same thing myself. You too?
One more thing. If taking up our cross does not have a sense of purpose and joy, then we ARE doing it wrong. The Lord is NOT calling for pious masochists. As one commentator has it,
Self-denial is not part of our culture's image of the 'good life.' But neither is...Jesus' call for denying oneself to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus' call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one's life that is not focused on self at all...(4)
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.(5)
The glory of our faith is this: we have not been left alone to struggle with our feeble attempts at discipleship, even though it may be a labor of love. We have help...the help of the one who promises to be with us, even when we try and try and try but never seem to get it right, even when our best efforts come to naught, even in the valley of darkest shadows. He said, "I am with you always." And now he invites us to come and be nourished for the journey.
1. Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
2. Our Daily Bread, February 12, 1997
3. Steve Souther, Winfield, KS via PresbyNet, SERMONSHOP 1996 08 11, #74, 8/9/96
4. Eugene Boring, "Matthew," New Interpreter's Bible, CD-ROM edition, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002)
5. Helen H. Lemmel, 1922