Monday, 19 March 2018

A death so that you can truly live- John 12

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. The cross is so normal to us that we don’t usually grasp how strange it is. It was offensive and grotesque. It was a shameful and horrifying way to die. It was considered so awful that no Roman citizen was allowed to be executed that way. For Christians to claim that Jesus died on the cross was scandalous. The disconnect is particularly obvious when we buy jewelry made into a cross. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we had little gold guillotines, nooses, and electric chairs hanging around our necks.

The cross is sometimes a difficult aspect to explain for missionaries in foreign cultures. Good people aren’t supposed to die that way. The universe doesn’t make sense if they do. In the 16th century, a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci arrived in China. He was a brilliant renaissance man who quickly mastered Chinese language and culture. In the style of Paul in Acts, Ricci attempted to find the truth in Chinese culture and use those truths to teach Christianity. … A difficult aspect of Christianity for Ricci to teach was the cross. Many philosophical and moral teachings of Christianity had their compliment in Chinese values. Ricci taught that Christianity was a perfecting of those already existing truths. , Jesus’ crucifixion, h
owever, was not easy to communicate. It did not make sense in that ideology, especially in a culture where authority was highly respected. Jesus’ condemnation by the highest religious court of the day was an offence to Chinese values. For this reason he didn’t present the cross right away. One day, however, a servant of the Chinese court happened to come across a realistic statue of Jesus on the cross among Matteo Ricci’s belongings. The shocked servant confronted Ricci, screaming at him, believing that he was practicing black magic in some attempt to kill the Chinese ruler. It was a horrifying image, so he thought it must have some horrifying purpose. Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings were acceptable, but the cross was an offense.

We have become so used to the cross that we hardly see the horror of it anymore. The cross, when we really see it, is brutal. … It is unavoidable, though. At the heart of Christianity is self-sacrificial love. It is a love that expresses itself by willing to go to through the very worst for the beloved. Jesus explains that his sacrifice will bring incredible benefit. 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
 The sacrificial system, that was a part of almost every society, that offered animals and sometimes human beings to a divinity ended with Jesus offering himself up. His sacrifice convinced people of God’s love for humanity. Previously, sacrifice was always something humanity did to please the gods. Now, in Jesus, God offers sacrifice to bless humanity. Jesus holds nothing back to show us his love for us. That is the central claim of Christianity.

This is also a truth for the followers of Jesus. We have sometimes considered being a Christian as being something other than being a disciple. They are really supposed to be one and the same. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, 
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship) (Sorry about the non-inclusive language. I'm sure he wants women to be as discomforted as men by the call of Christ).
 Bonhoeffer spoke about churches that offer “cheap grace”. It is an easy Christianity where we are never challenged. He says, 
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without … discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).
 Bonhoeffer recognized that you can’t chose to be a Christian without being a disciple. And being a disciple requires picking up your cross and following Christ.

When Jesus said, 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24)
 he was surely referring to his own death. However, he also called his followers into a way of life that was marked by self-sacrificial love. Jesus said, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26).
 If we want to be with Jesus then the way to walk with him is by means of self-sacrificial love. There is courage required here because it is a frightening thing to be challenged with.

For many in the early church this meant literal death at the hands of those persecuting Christians. This is true for many modern Christians as well. I have heard it said that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. Christians dying for refusing to deny Jesus is not just an ancient historical reality- it is a present reality. Tertullian (160-220ad), perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words in our gospel reading, once said, 
“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”.
 This certainly seemed to be that case for the Roman Empire as it went from persecuting Christianity to embracing it. The few grains of wheat that died seemed to produce a crop.

Hopefully this will not be asked of us. We can pray for that. However, the same self-sacrificial love is required of us, and it will require a kind of death. This call of Jesus confronts our desire for a comfortable life. Growth almost always requires discomfort and change.

The “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer talks about is a Christianity that doesn’t expect anything of us. Cheap grace tells me I can live however I want and still call myself a Christian. Cheap grace tells me I am guaranteed an afterlife in paradise as a human right. Cheap grace gives me comfort and forgiveness, but never expects anything from me. … But, cheap grace doesn’t lead us into the change we need. It is a consumerist fast-food Jesus who gives me what I want and never offends me, and never puts me in a place where I might suffer.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. He says, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. ...” (Jn 12:25-26).
 Jesus doesn’t literally mean “hate your life”. He is exaggerating to make a point. He is saying that our priorities should be such that our commitment to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus makes our desire to maintain our status quo lives look like hate in comparison.

What does it look like to die to our false selves in a culture where we are being socialized to have our every desire appeased? To deny a desire is almost seen as cruel, or as an injustice. I think it is really interesting that most cultures have practiced fasting from food, even western culture until recently. Now, when we have so much, we consider fasting from food for a day or three to be extreme or even dangerous. Self-denial is a kind of death. We don’t deny ourselves for no reason, though. Jesus is pretty clear that the death we are called to is one that will glorify God. Denial of food to worship some ideal of beauty is not what fasting is about. Fasting is about entering into deeper prayer to glorify God.

There are a number of ways we can die to our false self. And this is asked of all disciples. It’s not a matter of if Jesus is calling you to die- he is. The question is what kind of death is he calling you to in order to glorify God? … We might die to our false self as we refuse to take our anger out on others. We might refuse to allow our desire to have our own way control our relationships. We might refuse to allow fear to control our behavior. We might be being called to die to a set of intellectual ideas so that we can embrace a new way of seeing the world. We might be called to die to ourselves as parents or grandparents, or partners, as we put our desires aside to serve God in others. We might have to die to a status quo in the church, or in our society. The civil rights movement led by people like Martin Luther King Jr. in the southern United States was a kind of death to a status quo. We are called to die to our false self, so that we can embrace our true self in following Christ to glorify God.

There is a cost to being a disciple. But, we should never forget that there is also a cost to not being a disciple. Jesus says the cost of not being a disciple is losing our life. It is missing out on the life God has created us to have. There is a death needed for our false self, so that the true self can live. Jesus wants our joy to be full (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants nothing less than a full life for us. But, that life cannot be a reality until the false self dies.

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