As a follower of Jesus, I am challenged by what the Bible says. I mean extraordinarily challenged, to the core of who I think I am as a Western Christian man. The challenges are wonderful. Holy. Exciting. It isn’t a stretch to call them life threatening. A line from the song, Jeremiah, by Sarah Groves, comes to mind:
“At the slightest invitation, You came with total detonation. Now, that’s a fire.”
The “You” in that line refers to the Lord.
Have you ever had the Lord do that in your life? Lately, in my ongoing experience with the Lord, it is becoming more and more apparent that the Lord God, the Creator and Sustainer of everything that exists, is now choosing to blow up—in a spiritual way, of course—our casual Western Christian belief system and its attending organizational structures.
What’s funny about it—or tragically sad, depending on one’s point of view—is that the detonating scriptures we’ll be discussing have been there in the plain sight all along.
Let’s look at this one from Luke 14:25-33.
“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple’” (ESV).
Apparently, according to this scripture, I cannot be a disciple of Jesus unless I am willing to turn away from my own family to follow Him, to love Jesus more than I love my family. I cannot be a disciple of Jesus unless I pick up my cross and follow Jesus, which means literally to be willing to give up my life and die, perhaps, a very torturous death. Finally, I cannot be a disciple of Jesus unless I renounce all that I possess.
When we read this, we all nod our heads in agreement. Yep, that’s what it takes. We might even want to sing, “The world behind me, the cross before me.”
However, Jesus didn’t end His teaching about the cost of discipleship there. He went on to say, in a most uncomfortable way, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:34-35 ESV).
Jesus is saying, basically, that if we don’t meet these requirements for discipleship, we have lost our saltiness. And therefore—hey, Jesus said this, not me—we’re not even good for the manure pile. This is something like saying that unless we gave up absolutely everything to follow Jesus we would then be good for nothing at all. Euphemistically—rather, in a roundabout way—Jesus tells us that we’re good-for-nothings unless we love Him more than, well, everything, including our own lives. Slackers. Lazy louts. Deadbeats. But it’s really much worse than that. We might be willing to accept the tag, “slacker.” But not good enough for a manure pile? I’m just glad that Jesus loves us when He says these things.
But somehow, we have the idea that these are the requirements for discipleship:
Going to church on the weekend.
Having a strong devotional life.
Joining a small group.
Serving during the church service.
And for the most committed among us, giving above our tithe and serving in our communities or perhaps somewhere outside the borders of our native land.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with these six things in and of themselves. But they don’t require us to live on the radical precipice the way Jesus tells us to, where we daily entertain the possibility that the loose rocks on that precipice might actually give way; where we rejoice in a life lived on that rock face, because we are living the way Jesus did, the way the apostles and prophets did—people who are, according to Paul, the foundation of the Church:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:19-21 ESV).
We know what kind of lives the prophets lived. To varying degrees, they were ignored, scorned or persecuted. And the apostles? Church tradition tells us that all of them, except John, who died in Ephesus, died violent deaths.
Here’s a list:
Matthew was killed by the sword in Ethiopia.
Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead.
Luke was hanged in Greece. .
Peter was crucified upside down on an x-shaped cross.
James was thrown over a hundred feet down from the southeast pinnacle of the Temple when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. When they discovered that he survived the fall, his enemies beat him to death with a club.
James, the son of Zebedee, was beheaded at Jerusalem (Acts 12:2).
Bartholomew was flayed to death by a whip in Armenia.
Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross in Patras, Greece.
Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India.
Jude was killed with arrows when he refused to deny his faith in Christ.
Matthias, the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, was stoned and then beheaded.
Paul was tortured and then beheaded by the Emperor Nero at Rome in A.D. 67.
These men are the foundation of the Church. Jesus is the cornerstone. If the lives of these men and of our Savior were exemplified by sacrifice, what makes us think that ours shouldn’t be?
In my opinion, we have taken six very laudable activities that I listed above and made them external indicators of one’s life in Christ. (I might point out that these six things have become a kind of religious legalism for us in the evangelical world—but we’ll let that point rest for now.) My controversy with this paradigm is that these actions aren’t in Jesus’s definition of discipleship. They require a degree of sacrifice, to be sure, but they don’t require life-giving sacrifice. It is this sacrifice that Jesus will inevitably draw us toward as we draw near to Him, because that is part of His nature, part of His model, part of His example for us. Peter wrote:
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 ESV).
Anything less will not fulfill us.
However, this is not what the Western Church offers its adherents. We offer them Nice Church. Should we be surprised that the young people of our culture try to find ways to live extreme “sacrificial” lives in very physical ways? Should we be surprised that two of the most common criticisms of the American church—“All they talk about is money” and “They’re hypocritical”—stem from our lack of sacrificial living?
These things concern me. There was a time, early in this discovery process, that I was critical. However, this criticism has faded, thankfully, by God’s grace. Criticism has been replaced by an ongoing burden. So I suppose you could say that one of the purposes of this blog is to burden you—to burden you with the knowledge that the beloved church of Jesus Christ in the West is in danger of ignoring the very Scripture to which she claims such undying adherence.