Friday, April 02, 2010


Isa 50:4-9; Ps 31; Phil 2:5-11[1]
No discussion of the steps of Christian faith would be complete without acknowledging that it is essentially a decision to follow a man who was ridiculed and executed. It is one of the difficult aspects of our faith, mainly because that man called all who would be his followers to live a life that consists of “dying” for others. Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27). This is such a prominent feature in the call to discipleship that Jesus gives us that I am astonished that there are people who think that if we follow him our lives will somehow be exempt from suffering.
But suffering is unavoidable for those of us who determine to follow Christ. This is true above all because we live in a world where the principles by which people operate are in direct contradiction to the principles of God’s kingdom. Among the many I could quote are:
• There’s only so much to go around; I’ve got mine and you have to get yours
• I have the right to defend my property even by violence
• Winning is the only thing, nothing else matters
Let’s look at those “standard operating procedures” of our world. The first is the one that says with Roger Waters of “Pink Floyd,” “I’ve got mine, Jack, keep your hands off my stack.”[2] We hear it in different versions these days, like “I’m not responsible for those who can’t stand on their own feet.”[3] But essentially it is the principle that “I’ve got mine, you have to get yours.” But Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33).
The second principle of our world is the one that says, “You can take my gun away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” It is the notion that violence is “legitimate” if I’m defending myself.[4] But Jesus condemns the death and destruction violence spreads when he says, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
The third principle is the one that elevates competition and success above everything else. It is the idea that “There are only winners and losers; if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.” Again, in direct contradiction to the way things work in our world, Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
We live in a world where following Christ—really following Christ and not just “playing” at discipleship—means that we must inevitably experience the “contradiction” of the world in which we live.[5] We should expect ridicule and humiliation, opposition and anger, in response to the principles Jesus articulated. We should expect that if we determine to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice (Matt. 6:33),[6] which flies in the face of the vested interests who hold the money and the power and the influence in our world,[7] those who belong to the vested interests will call us things like “fascist” and “communist,” and even worse.
In contrast to the success mentality and prosperity orientation of our world, the Bible speaks of the “servant of the Lord” as one who essentially suffers. If this flies in the face of the standards of this world, it is only another indication of how far the standards of this world miss the mark. In contrast, the God who pours out love in this world, who lavishes us all with the compassion that transforms us into something new, must experience that self-giving as suffering. And so God’s servants are called to suffer because it is the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes in a world of suffering and injustice.[8] Those who truly seek to follow Christ, who truly seek to serve God’s purposes and to promote God’s kingdom, and who truly seek to align their lives with God’s new creation will inevitably suffer as well.
In our lesson from Isaiah, the way that the servant suffers is by the experience of shame. The servant speaks of being humiliated in his own day and time because he has listened carefully to the message of God’s peace and God’s justice restoring this world, and has sought to teach that message to those around him. And the response of the vested interests of his day was no different from the way the vested interests of our day respond. They attacked him and humiliated him.
I’m not so sure that the humiliation factor is that significant to us. I almost think that discouragement is more of a concern in our experience of suffering for our faith. It is discouraging to continually face the contradiction between our faith and the way the majority of people in our society live. It can be exhausting to swim upstream continually, day after day. I think we can get weary from going against the grain all the time. And exhaustion leads to discouragement—to the cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I think one of the most significant temptations for Christians in this culture is to just give up and go with the majority. It’s hard maintaining the effort of marching to a different tune while everyone around you looks at you like you’re stupid or crazy.
There is a very real sense in which we live our lives in our own “Good Friday” of following Jesus by “carrying the cross” (Luke 14:27). It can be dark and discouraging on Good Friday, but Easter morning is coming, and with it the joy of our “mourning turned into dancing” (Ps. 30:11)! Although it may feel like we are alone when we endure the contradiction of this world, we are not alone—we have the empowering presence of God as well as the support of a community. We really need no other vindication than the knowledge that it is God’s new creation that we are struggling for, and God will win the victory in the end. Therefore we can be confident that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).[9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/28/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Lyrics to “Money” from the Album The Dark Side of the Moon (Harvest/Capitol: 1973).
[3]Cf. Darrell Jodock, “Standing with the victims,” The Christian Century, March 22, 1995: one of the implications of following the Christ who was a victim of the “powers” of his day is that “The task of Christians is to keep our attention firmly fixed on those ‘falling through the cracks’ so that there is someone present to watch out for their interests.”
[4] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 42-43, where he describes the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” as “the dominant religion in our society today”! cf. also p. 48-56, where he demonstrates how “Redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself” through Media like TV and film (p. 56). He concludes, “violence can never stop violence” because its very success only breeds more violence (p. 134); on the other hand resisting evil through nonviolent means “never fails, because every nonviolent act is a revelation of God’s new order breaking into the world” (p. 135).
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21: "Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it."
[6] For this translation of the well-known verse that usually reads, “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness,” see the Revised English Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, among others.
[7] Cf. Wink, The Powers that Be, 39: he calls this “The Domination System” which he says “is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
[8] Cf. Wink, The Powers That Be, 124, 134-35.
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 103-4: “hope for an alternative future brings us into contradiction with the existing present. ...If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should come to terms with things as they simply are ... . The fact that we don't come to terms with them ... is the unquenchable spark of hope for the fullness of life, for righteousness and justice on the new earth, and for the kingdom of God. That keeps us unreconciled, restless and open for God's great day.”

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