Monday, May 26, 2008

“The Cost of Discipleship”

Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-11[1]

It seems that from time immemorial people have believed that doing what is right means that God will bless you with prosperity and happiness, and doing wrong means you will suffer. Whole chapters of Deuteronomy are devoted to this. If the children of Israel would obey God, they would be blessed at home and blessed in the field and blessed in the country, etc., etc. But if they disobeyed God, they would be cursed at home and cursed in the field, etc., etc, etc. That principle had a profound influence on a large chunk of the Old Testament, especially the books of history. In fact, 1 and 2 Kings adopt it as the central organizing principle for their chronicle of the kings of Israel and Judah.

That’s why Job’s three friends insisted that the only reason he was suffering was because he must have done something terribly wrong! It had been ingrained in them from childhood that when you do what is right you’re blessed, and when you suffer, you must have done something to deserve it. (Un)Fortunately, that doesn’t quite fit the facts of life. In fact, bad things often do happen to good people! What that means is that it is entirely possible for you to do everything right, to obey God completely, and still have to undergo some kind of suffering![2]

One of the ways that Jesus the Christ overturned the traditional ways of thinking about God was to provide a prime example of a person who did everything right, who completely obeyed God, and who in fact suffered because of it. The world in which we live is one that does not tolerate those who want to obey God.[3] It is a world where those who push their way around do in fact get where they want to go. Those who step on others do in fact climb to the top. Might does make right in our world, and money does far more than talk!

In that kind of system, what happens to the person who insists not only on not stepping on others, but also who insists on making the case that people are not meant to be stepped on?[4] What happens is that the system resists change; it exerts subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on them to “get back in line.” And if someone has the temerity to persist in not “playing by the rules” of this world—perhaps someone like Jesus of Nazareth—those who defend the system may become hostile, and they may even attack. That’s what happened to Jesus. As Peter reminds us (1 Peter 2:23), Jesus was insulted but he remained committed to the way of God’s kingdom. And he suffered for it but he did not strike back at his tormenters.

Perhaps the most difficult thing Peter says about all this is that we who claim to follow Jesus have been called to this kind of life! In fact, Peter says that Jesus suffered in this way to “leave you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21, NIV). Jesus’ death on the cross was the final negation of the age-old assumption that doing what is right in God’s sight means we will prosper. As a matter of fact, doing what is right in God’s sight in the world in which we live means that we can expect to suffer. And that is our calling as Christians.

How could it be different for those of us who follow a Savior who was executed in a most de-humanizing way? Jesus himself told his disciples that his path, the path of obedience to God’s will, the path of seeking God’s kingdom and God’s justice, was going to lead him to death. And he warned them that if they followed him, they would have to be prepared to suffer the losses that would entail.[5]

So if this really is the “cost of discipleship,” why would anyone in their right mind actually choose to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord? One reason is because it is when we are “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” that we experience the presence of God most powerfully. As we follow Christ in suffering for the kingdom of God and God’s justice, we become more assured of God’s love for us than ever before.[6] Another reason is because we know that suffering love has the power to overturn evil and redeem it.[7] As we follow Christ in suffering for God’s purpose in this world, we join in the work of making all things new.[8]

Peter reminds us of a third reason: the cross was not the final chapter of Jesus’ career. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead reveals God’s ultimate endorsement of Jesus’ life. It also shows us that following Jesus’ example of suffering is the “path of rightness” that leads to the refreshing still waters and the green pastures that restore our very souls. As Jesus said, “If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will find true life” (Mark 8:35, NLT).[9]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached on 4/13/08 by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

[2] In fact, a rabbi named Harold Kushner wrote a book with that very title: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When faced with the reality of suffering in this world, Rabbi Kushner concludes that bad things happen to good people because that’s just the way it is and God cannot do anything about it. Kushner and his wife endured the painful suffering of losing their young son to a degenerative disease. In the face of such intense suffering, he concluded that he must either give up God’s benevolence or God’s omnipotence. He chose the latter, believing that God loves us and wants the best for us but is basically powerless to do anything about it. While he has been criticized for his theory, no one would criticize his own personal experience of suffering.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “Joy in the Revolution of God,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 119, describes it this way: “that inhuman world in which not God but mammon, not love but anxiety, not freedom but law, not the Son of Man but power and fighting for riches reigns.”

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “Liberation through Reconciliation,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 82: “Wherever man leaves his humanity and makes for himself proud and doubtful gods of himself and his neighbors, he is inhuman, … . He can no longer love. And, loving only himself, he misuses his experiences, his possessions, and his neighbors … .”

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97: “The whole church lives from Christ’s self-giving and in self-giving for the reconciliation of the world.” See also ibid., 284: “The way of life of the messianic era is stamped by messianic suffering.”

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 77; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God, 7-9, where he talks about his own experience of desolation as a prisoner of war as an experience that led him to faith.

[7] Moltmann, “Love and Sorrow,” 74-75; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 284.

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, “The Transformation of Life,” in The Power of the Powerless, 69-70. He says (p. 69), “Now, no night is so dark that the light of transfiguration does not fall on the person who takes up his cross and seeks the will of God along the path of Jesus.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 355: “When believers take up their cross, the kingdom of God is manifested to the world.” See further Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 204: “Anyone who participates in ‘Christ’s sufferings’” becomes a witness “to the coming truth against the ruling lie, to coming justice and righteousness against the prevailing injustice, and to coming life against the tyranny of death.”

[9] Moltmann, “Transformation,” 70: when we choose the path of self-surrender and obedience, there “the will of God is fulfilled in us and for us and through us” and “there life is transfigured; even in the face of tears and pain and disappointment.”

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