1072) Faithful Unto Death (b)

Mark 8:34-36  —  Then (Jesus) called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

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     (…continued)  What does this radical call to discipleship mean for those who are not persecuted for their faith?  What does it mean for us to “take up our cross and follow Christ?”  Is going to church once a week enough for believers who live in less dangerous times?

     Well, going to church is where it begins.  The weekly worship service has been at the center of the Christian life in every time and place from the very beginning.  Yes, God’s love and gifts are freely given, but the Bible warns against refusing those gifts– and so it is dangerous to refuse to pay attention to God in the one hour a week that is provided, and that He so specifically commands in one of His ten commandments: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.  Certainly, this is the easy part.  Jesus spoke of being willing to give up our very lives, if necessary, to follow him.  Giving up one hour a week, by comparison, seems like nothing at all.  That one hour is not all it takes to be a Christian, but this is where it must begin.

     The weekly worship is also the center of the life of every congregation.  Every congregation has other things going on from which members may pick and choose for their involvement.  But the bottom line is that they must gather for worship.  The strength of a congregation is determined by the portion of its members that worship together every week.  When members are in worship, everything else necessary in that congregation will follow.  When worship is not attended, nothing else will happen.  No church will survive without it.  Therefore, each person’s attendance at worship each week strengthens the congregation, just as each absence weakens it.  Again, this is the easy part.

     The hard part is the other 167 hours a week.  One can be a good Christian without spending any more time in church than Sunday morning, but all of life is lived in the presence of God; and God has something to say about every aspect of life.  We all know the rules:  be honest, tell the truth, don’t steal, be grateful, love your enemy, forgive others as you would want God to forgive you, keep your promises, keep your thoughts and actions pure and honorable, and so forth.  

     Some of these things are required by law.  For example, if you steal a car, the police will look for you, and you may go to prison.  But in other areas, it is just between you and God.  For example, there is no law requiring you to forgive your neighbor.  Outward acts of revenge, like slashing his tires, could get you in trouble.  But forgiveness is a matter of the heart, and required only by God.  That’s where the hard part comes in.  If you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to worry about it.  But if you are a Christian and holding a grudge, you are going to cringe when you pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask God to forgive your sins in the same way as you have forgiven those who have sinned against you.  

     There is also no law against complaining about everything under the sun.  But if you are a Christian, you ought to remember to be thankful and keep things in a Biblical perspective, and the Bible tells you that your life and everything in it is an undeserved gift of God.  For one more example, the law of the land guarantees free speech, but the Christian is bound by a higher law; so God’s Word commands us to watch out tongues, and use our words for good and not evil.

     Going to church is easy.  The hard part comes in the rest of the week.  It isn’t enough to just obey the law and stay out of jail.  God expects much more of us, and the blessing is that as we live life by that higher standard, we are living life as God intended it to be, and that makes a better world for everyone.  God’s law is given to teach us how to live in the goodness he created us for.  Even though obedience is at times difficult and can be a burden, we do like it when other people live by that same higher standard– and your friends don’t talk behind your back, and the guy selling you the used car tells you the honest truth about the transmission that is about to go out, and your next door neighbor doesn’t hold a grudge for the stupid remark you said to him in anger two years ago, and your brother-in-law gives you the benefit of the doubt and chooses not to take your lame joke as the mean-spirited ridicule it sounded like, and the guy at work still is friendly to you even though you beat him out a promotion that should have been his– and so on. There is something in us that is quick to overlook our own wrongdoing, foolishness, and bad judgment.  But we do always appreciate goodness in other people.  There is a good purpose in every one of God’s commands.  Even if we find obedience and the call to goodness at times annoying, we can always see the reasons for the rules when they are applied to others.

     Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him.  That will mean something different for everyone.  But his use of the image of the cross does imply that obedience will not always be easy.  We should not expect it to be so.  While we are grateful for his offer of forgiveness, we should also take serious his serious call to obedience.

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Lord, I am willing to appear to all the world to have lost my life, if only I may have made it good in your sight.

–William Henry Temple Gairdner, British missionary to Egypt  (1873-1928)