Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Deserted, But Not Deserted


As a disciple of Jesus, know that Jesus will never desert you.  But know also that as a disciple of Jesus, should Jesus gift and call you as a prophet, Jesus will always desert you.

Not everyone is deserted.  Just prophets.

You can be a disciple even after you have forsaken, abandoned, deserted Jesus.  There is always forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation available to you.  And Jesus will never forsake, abandon, or desert you.

But prophets… prophets must always be deserted.  Not deserted.  But desert-ed.  Not everyone has to go into the desert.  But prophets always do. 

Paul.  Jesus.  John the Baptist.  The desert mothers and fathers.  Elijah.  Elisha.  Moses.
Being desert-ed is not about discipline for a sinful way of life.  The entire company of Israel was disobedient and unbelieving, and they wandered in the desert for 40 years because of it.  But they were not all prophets, of that I can assure you!  But Moses was a prophet.  And he too had to experience the desert, yet for different reasons.  It is not that Moses was sinless, of course.  He, too, fell from time to time.  But as a prophet, consecrated to God and made holy, this is not what characterized his life.  Rather, what characterized his life was the experience of being desert-ed. 

For it was there, in that experience of desert-ion, that he became who he needed to be in order to best fulfill God’s desires for God’s people.  It was never just about Moses and what Moses needed.  It was about the people of God, the Least of These, and what they all needed, collectively, together.  The irony is that prophets are called into the desert alone in order to be shaped and formed into vessels that carry the burdens of many.

Paul instructs the ecclesia to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).  And what is the law of Christ?  Jesus says it is to love God, yourself, and others with everything you are and everything you have (Luke 10:27-28).  Love comes first, and though love requires everything, love is all that is required.

Jesus gives different gifts to each disciple. God gives us the grace needed to live out these gifts according to the measure of grace needed to do so.  Whatever amount of grace we need, God gives, and it is always ‘just enough.’  For some, gifted and called to be prophets, the grace needed, and the grace that is supplied by God, is ‘just enough’ to endure the experience of being desert-ed.  But thanks be to God, we are never deserted.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Walls and Bridges and Doors...Oh My...

Recently I have seen quite a bit of talk about how we need to “build bridges, not walls.” I don’t know the exact origin of this quote or line of thinking but it seems to go back in history much longer than those who are currently fond of using it may imagine.

I do know Pope Francis has been using the imagery of walls and bridges for a while now, in various contexts. I happen to like Pope Francis…very much. Plus, he’s the Pope. So there’s that. But just to be clear, the Pope doesn’t always use this imagery in the “either/or” fashion that many people do.

For example, in February when discussing the USAmerican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, Pope Francis said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” I couldn’t agree more. Trump responded with something about the Vatican having an “awfully big wall” itself, to which some Catholic priests replied that “Vatican city also has an awfully big door” (for more, see this article at CNN).  

Ah…the third element that we always seem to miss…if you are going to have a place to call home, you necessarily have to have walls…but you also necessarily have to have doors…preferably lots of them, and preferably really big ones…or else you cannot welcome anyone else in…nor can you go out to welcome people, yourself. You are trapped, and others are marginalized. That’s a lose-lose scenario.

Of course, Pope Francis hasn’t just said these things in a political context, and I am not intending for this to be a political post. Nearly three years ago Pope Francis, commenting on the Apostle Paul in Athens, put it this way: "He doesn't say: 'Idolaters, go to hell! This is the attitude of Paul in Athens: Build a bridge to their heart, in order then to take another step and announce Jesus Christ.” Again, I very much agree.

But then Pope Francis said something else that sheds additional light on the idea of “building bridges”:

"When the church loses this apostolic courage, it becomes a stalled church, a tidy church, nice, very nice, but without fertility, because it has lost the courage to go to the peripheries, where there are so many victims of idolatry, of worldliness, of weak thinking” (emphasis mine).

“Build bridges, not walls” – it’s not a bad metaphor – but the trouble is when people do talk about building bridges, it typically involves building a one-way bridge designed to bring the proverbial “them” to the proverbial “us”. Which isn’t bad (it is better than a ‘wall only’ with no bridges…or doors…at all). But it’s not missional. It’s not a “go and be” posture. It has the appearance of it – we build a bridge “into” other people’s lives – but then we stand at “our” end of the bridge and shout across the gap, “come on over!” This is still not the fullness of what Jesus calls us to do – the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us to do as the first disciples did, to leave everything and follow him (Mark 10:28, Luke 5:11, etc).

“Leaving” is part and parcel of “following.” How can you follow where Jesus is going if you stay put where you are? If you build a one-way bridge that only comes to you but doesn't go to others?

There is a “classic” illustration that has been used in Western-American Christianity of the cross being a “bridge” over a “gap” so that people can cross over the gap, on the bridge of the cross, to get to Jesus. I’m just going to say it: That illustration gets it wrong. We don’t have to “get to Jesus.” Jesus comes to us. And he doesn’t use a one-way bridge to do it. God becomes incarnate in and through Jesus, both coming to us and returning to the Father…and then coming to us again. It’s a two-way bridge that, when both ways are fully embraced, creates a third way of being – not either/or, but both/and.

The two-way bridge, the life of Christ, shows us that we need to go to the least of these. Not just as visitors, but to become one of the least of these, ourselves – to become incarnate as the least of these the way Jesus became incarnate as one of us, as human, as the least of these. And perhaps to our surprise (though it shouldn’t be), when we do go to the other side, to the margins, to the edges, to the periphery, and we quite literally extend our home to those places – we find something spectacular:

God is there, too.

I want to be where God is. Home is where Jesus is. And if that is everywhere, with the least of these…then I need to go and be everywhere, at home, with the least of these, as one of them…

There is a third way – one of two-way bridges, really big doors, and even some necessary walls - if we dare to leave everything and follow Jesus, making our home with him, with the least of these.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Church, for Losers

It's #tbt time!  Today I am not going to argue with my past self, as I have sometimes been known to do.  In this case, although I do admit to a very tiny amount of editing for clarity, I think I was spot on.  Not only so, but I find this topic very timely for today - for a wide and varied number of reasons.  In a culture and often a church that is obsessed with 'winning,' this paper, written six years ago, has much to say.

While today I tend towards a heavy use of 'ekklesia' rather than 'church,' what I have written still applies, and I didn't change this both because of the subject matter and because it may be easier to imagine what I am talking about in terms of the 'church' that so often does not reflect the meaning of 'ekklesia.' 

My only warning here is that this is an academic paper, and styled as such.  It is also long.  However, for those who care about the future - and the present - of both the Church and our culture, I think it is well worth the read (If I may say so, it did receive an A+ for content and an A overall).  And again, I think it is highly applicable today.  And with that...here you go!  Questions, comments, challenges, and dialogue are always welcome!





Church, For Losers

   

“Loser.”  There is a word for it, at least for its meaning, in any language, and there always will be.  Although the world is diverse and certainly not a monoculture, nevertheless the culture of the world today is becoming a globalized culture more and more so each day with the rapidly increasing pace of interconnectedness that human societies and individuals share. Embedded in that culture is that some people will be “winners” while others will be “losers”; the former are praised, lauded, and looked to as cult heroes, while the latter are dismissed as the unworthy, ‘un-valuable,’ and unnecessary ‘dregs’ of the world that are despised, even by their own selves.  Everything in this culture is based on achieving more, on becoming great, on appearing to be “number one.”  The last label that anyone would want to have applied to themselves is “loser.”

Yet into such a culture thunder the shocking words of Jesus: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35, NIV).  And suddenly the word “loser” doesn’t have the same meaning anymore.  Yet these words of Christ have seemingly not penetrated, at least in this generation, to the heart of Christ’s Church.  The Church in its cultural context also lusts after the self-respectable title of being “winners”; and so it equates salvation with winning.  To be saved is to ‘win;’ to achieve the best this world has to offer.  Very often the Church is equally as shocked as the culture to hear Jesus say that in order to save one has to lose.  To become who Christ is calling the Church to be, it must lay down its life rather than grab for power; take up its cross rather than reach for worldly respectability; serve “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, NIV) rather than serve itself.  In short, to become “losers.” On purpose.  If the Church wants to save its life and the lives of those to whom it ministers, then it must lose it.  The Church must become the “Church, for losers.” 



How does this happen?  Are there not too many cultural, historical, and even religious barriers to overcome?  Yes, it is wise to be forewarned:  These ideas may not sit well with church growth strategists, denominational leadership, or the culture at large.  But if the Church is to be about the business of Jesus - the transformation of people, culture, and the whole of creation - then it must pursue this upside-down Kingdom principle:  In order to save, you have to lose.  In exploring this idea more fully, the context of Mark 8:35 will be considered, the cost of discipleship dwelt upon, and the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus as it relates to the ongoing work of the Church reflected upon.



To better understand what Jesus means by “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” the context of the passage of Mark must be looked at.  Jesus is teaching His disciples privately during this scene and ends up having a confrontation with Peter, after which he calls everyone to Himself in order to teach all those who would choose to follow Jesus some truths about just precisely what that means:

 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels" (Mark 8:31-38, NIV).





In this passage the word “save” in Greek is transliterated “sozo.”  It has many uses but primarily includes ‘save,’ ‘healed,’ or ‘bring safely’ (Goodrick and Kohlenberger, 1795).  Vine says it is used here in the same way as “soteria,” or salvation, from which we get the discipline of soteriology, and that it is used of “deliverance from danger, suffering, etc” (Vine, 1984, 547).  So when Jesus speaks here of saving one’s life, in the context of denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Him, He is speaking of salvation.  This is not about some sort of unusual call that a chosen few must take up for the sake of the many; this is what Jesus does by becoming the one sacrifice for sin for all.  This is made clear by how Jesus gathers around all those who had been following Him: “The reference to ‘the crowd’ is admittedly surprising. Its significance seems to be that the teaching is not just for the Twelve but for all who would follow Jesus” (Brooks, 1992).   Jesus calls all His followers to respond to this teaching; “this is not a special formula for the elite, but an essential element in discipleship (France, 2002).  For anyone who wants to follow Jesus, they must find salvation through Him; a salvation that necessarily means saving one’s life by losing it.



But the word “lose” here must be understood as well.  It is transliterated ‘apollymi’ and has uses of ‘lose,’ ‘destroy,’ ‘perish,’ ‘kill,’ and ‘bring to end’ (Goodrick and Kohlenberger, 1686).    However, Jesus goes on to say, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36, NIV).  The word ‘forfeit’ can also be translated ‘lose’ but is the word ‘zemioo’ and is used as ‘to damage’ and can mean ‘to suffer loss, forfeit, lose’ (Vine, 1984, 380).  In Luke’s account of this teaching, these two words are combined in Jesus’ statement: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25, NIV)  So the word lose in Jesus’ use here may be best understood as ‘to suffer loss’ or ‘to be damaged’ or to ‘be brought to an end’ rather than being literally killed or destroyed.  And which is actually more difficult…to have our lives utterly destroyed and to cease to exist, or, to still fully exist yet all the while be damaged and suffering?  What would most people choose, if given the choice:  To go on suffering, or to die?  Jesus’ way is not a way of escape from pain, but a way that goes through it.  In Jesus’ way, His followers must be ‘brought to an end’ in order that He might ‘bring them safely’ into salvation.



This is an upside down Kingdom of God view of things, which humanity finds itself quite unacquainted with in its ‘natural’ (fallen) state.  Paul outlines this complete reversal of understanding of what it means to save, which is to save-by-losing, when he too uses ‘zemioo’ when  he says he has “lost all things” in Philippians 3:7-8:  “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (NIV).  Paul goes on to write that as a follower of Jesus he wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).  Attaining to that resurrection is the full measure of salvation, and it is found by becoming a “loser” in this world through sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. 



This is “the cost of discipleship” as Bonhoeffer says.  As “losers” it “brings us to an end,” and goes beyond what France calls “the inadequacy of a view of discipleship as merely the imitation of Jesus” (2002), beyond only suffering as Jesus suffered to being completely rejected by this world.  Bonhoeffer put it this way:  “[There is] a distinction...between suffering and rejection.  Had he only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah.  All the sympathy and admiration of the world might have been focused on his passion.  It could have been viewed as a tragedy with its own intrinsic value, dignity and honour.  But in the passion Jesus is a rejected Messiah” (Bonhoeffer, 1995, 87).



“Reject.”  Interestingly, that is another word commonly tossed around in the culture as a synonym for “loser.”  Jesus, the suffering Messiah, is considered by religious and non-religious authority alike as “loser.”  If the Church is to identify with Jesus at all, it must identify not only with Jesus’ sufferings but with Jesus’ rejection.  It must understand “loserdom.”  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t fully identify with Jesus Himself.



Bonhoeffer again says that “to die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men.  Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples” (Bonhoeffer, 1995, 87).  This is why Jesus says to Peter “get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33, NIV) when Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for saying that He would suffer, be rejected, and die.  Does the Church today view suffering and rejection not just as something it may have to taste and endure from time to time in the rarest of circumstances, or as a divine necessity, a requirement of its existence and a measurement of its faithfulness to the call of Jesus Christ?  For “just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion” (Bonhoefffer, 1995, 87).



Can the Church find an ability to look at itself and ask, “Are we suffering?  Are we being rejected?  Are we considered “losers”?  And do we welcome in the name of Jesus all who are experiencing the same?  And, if we are not and do not, why not?  And what can we do to transform our existence to more fully identify with the Lord Jesus Christ?”  Or will the Church attempt to avoid this kind of suffering and rejection, to eschew “loserdom,” and so become a tool of the devil rather than an instrument of Christ?



In order to do the former, the Church must identify with Jesus by living in what Ray Stedman has called “the way of the cross” (Stedman, 2010).  Stedman says that the call of Mark 8:34 to take up one’s cross “is our Lord's outline of the process of discipleship. Here, in his own words, we look at what it means to be a disciple” (Stedman, 2010).



The very definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be the Church changes dramatically based on to what degree the Christ-follower and the Church accept this teaching of Jesus.  Many have struggled with this, for “it raises the question that many ask: Can you be a Christian and not be a disciple? -- Is discipleship a second stage of Christianity? -- Are there many Christians, but only a relatively few disciples? -- Can you be a Christian and not be a disciple?” (Stedman, 2010)  It is important here to look again at what Jesus says to introduce his pronouncement of losing-to-save: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, NIV).



Stedman says that “the word ‘deny’ means to ‘disavow any connection with something, to state that you are not connected in any way with whatever is in view’ (2010).  Jesus uses this not to say that His followers are to deny themselves from any particular thing, but that they are to literally deny themselves.  According to Brooks, “to deny oneself is not to do without something or even many things. It is not asceticism, not self-rejection or self-hatred, nor is it even the disowning of particular sins. It is to renounce the self as the dominant element in life. It is to replace the self with God-in-Christ as the object of affections. It is to place the divine will before self-will...it is a willingness to suffer for Jesus and for others. Such a concept of discipleship is so radical that many contemporary Christians in the West have difficulty relating to it (1992).” 



Talk about changing the commonly accepted definition of what it means to be the Church!  Self-denial runs counter to the world, counter to the culture, and very often counter to the culturally-assimilated Church.  Almost instinctively we draw back from these words.  We are much more comfortable with words like ‘self-fulfillment’ and ‘self-actualization’ than we are with the thought of ‘self-denial’” (Foster, 2000, 113).   The Church has often failed to understand Jesus’ teaching that the way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial.  To save the life is to lose it.

Yet becoming “losers” in this way is the essence of what Jesus says is means to follow Him:  To take up one’s cross.  And isn’t Jesus’ definition of following the one that really matters?  Stedman says that quite simply “there can be no discipleship apart from it” (2010).



To be the Church then is a costly thing, for it involves the Church taking up its cross to follow, as “losers,” every day.  It cannot be overemphasized that this is more difficult and costly than most want to imagine:  The metaphor of taking up one’s own cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently...what Jesus calls for here is thus a radical abandonment of one’s own identity and self-determination...‘it is not the denial of something to the self, but the denial of the self itself’” (France, 2002).  How does the Church reorient itself to the suffering of Jesus and His sacrifice as it relates to the ongoing work of the Church?  What happens when taking up the cross, losing-to-save, becomes the definition of what it means to follow Christ?



There are a number of constructive ways the Church can reorient itself as “Church, for losers” in light of Jesus’ depiction of what it means to be His follower.  The Church must first make the eschatological connection between losing now to save for later and saving now to lose for later.  The hope that the Church has in Christ is a future hope that has already begun through the coming of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed and then brought about through His life, death and resurrection. There can no longer be a disconnect between the activity of the Church and of Christ-followers within this world and the future hope that is anticipated, because the anticipation has already started: “In the fate of Jesus the end of history has taken place beforehand as an anticipation” (Moltmann, 1993, 172).  The Church at present has to be anticipatory of the future hope by being participatory in the past sufferings of Jesus.  Moltmann states that “without this eschatological consciousness of time, all the things that the Christian church claims and proclaims as being present:  the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation and discipleship in love, are fundamentally impossible” (Moltmann, 1993, 171).  The Church becomes not much more than a hypocritical assembly of lofty but unfulfilled good intentions if it does not presently suffer with Jesus.



In order to suffer with Jesus, the Church must embrace the abandonment of Jesus by God on the cross.  Paul writes “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).  If the Church is to be crucified with Christ it will mean experiencing abandonment in its suffering. The conscious choice will always be there:  To do what is comfortable and intuitive or to do what is scandalous and upside-down.  The moments will come when the Church must do what it seems it cannot do, and consciously choose against its own interests and well-being in order to serve the interests and well-being of others.  The Church will abandon the Church for the sake of those who are not the Church, losing its own life in order to save them in the same way God abandoned God for the sake of the creation, losing God’s own life in order to save it.  Embracing that abandonment is the way of the cross.



To embrace abandonment will require submission of the Church to God and submission as well to the other members of the body of Christ.  The Church at times may take for granted that it is in submission to God.  Or, it may not see how submission to God is connected to submission to the members of the body.  But scripture has clear instructions that Christ followers are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21, NIV).  Doing so does not come by human nature, which easily twists and manipulates the idea of submission into something altogether different than what Jesus did by submitting to the cross:  “Most of us have been exposed to such a mutilated form of biblical submission that either we have embraced the deformity or we have rejected the discipline altogether.  To do the former leads to self-hatred; to do the latter leads to self-glorification” (Foster, 1978, 113).  To submit to Jesus, and as Jesus did, leads to neither of the former ‘selfs’ but instead to the self-denial of Mark 8:34.  This submission is costly to the Church, for it must lose ‘it-self.’  But scripture is again clear:  “‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’  Submit yourselves, then, to God” (James 4:6-7, NIV).



That particular scripture shows the vehicle through which the Church can practice submission:  Humility, which is another of the means by which the Church must reorient itself.  “Humble people will willingly submit to those whom God has put in authority over them in every arena of life” (Wagner, 2002, 79) (provided such people are not abusing their authority and oppressing the humble).  The Church must look to the One who has authority over itself:  God.  To be authentic followers of Jesus the Church must submit to God and to each other, or risk becoming something other than what the Church was meant to be.  True humility from the Church would mean that it no longer makes “looking” good a priority and instead concentrates on “being” good - “goodness” being one of the fruits of the Spirit that Christ followers and the Church must display if they are authentically Christian.  Not being humble again leads to the aforementioned “hypocritical assembly,” as John Stott has said:  “Humility is not pretending to be other than what we are, but acknowledging the truth about what we are” (Wagner, 2002, 86).  The Church must humbly acknowledge the truth about what it is and seek to submit to God and each other in order to continue in the process of authentically becoming all that God intends it to be.  Jesus says that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, NIV).  This is quite similar to “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35, NIV), and for good reason:  It takes humility to submit to God, embrace abandonment, and suffer with Jesus in the present while living now in the future hope that has begun to be revealed.  All of these means of reorientation to a “Church, for losers” lead the Church back to the first and key ingredient to following Christ:  Obedience (which is submission to Christ, flowing out of love). 



The lead in to the lose-to-save statement of Jesus has been explored in terms of the first part, self-denial, and the second part, taking up one’s cross by embracing suffering, abandonment, submission and humility.  But there is one more step to be taken, and it is the step in which Jesus calls anyone who wants to follow him in precisely the same way, just as He did with His first disciples:  “Follow me.”  The Church that does not follow Jesus in the way that Jesus calls is not obedient to Jesus.  And a Church not obedient to Jesus is something different altogether from the Church.  Stedman writes, “the third step is, ‘Follow me.’ This really means, ‘Obey me.’ Is it not remarkable that it takes us so long to understand that if disobedience is the name of the game before we are Christians, then certainly obedience is the name of the game after we become Christians. It must be” (Stedman, 2010). 



An untenable dichotomy has been reached in much of Western/American Christianity, one in which the Church and the Christ followers within claim to be able to live as they please under the guise of the grace of God covering their actions.  Self-interest and a drive to be number one are seen as perfectly well within the scope of being a “good Christian” as long as these things do not get “too far out of control” and Christians continue to pay lip service to the Kingdom by attending a church building or perhaps praying a blessing before they eat.  Again, Stedman relates how “I am amazed at people who say that they are Christians, but then blatantly, and even pridefully, acknowledge that they do not follow the Lord, do not do what he says” (Stedman, 2010).  He goes on to say that “Christianity is all about...following Jesus, doing what he says -- like, ‘Love your enemy,’ (Matthew 5:44). ‘Pray for those who hurt you,’ (Matthew 5:44). ‘Forgive those who offend you,’ (Matthew 6:14-15). Those are not merely wise and helpful words; they represent a way of life our Lord is setting out before us” (Stedman, 2010).  The Church must live out the kind of life that Jesus not just recommended, but commanded, both as individual Christ-followers and corporately as the Church.  The Church is good at talking about praying and “doing God’s will”; but many churches seem not to look very much like Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the least of these.  This cannot be anything other than a lack of obedience to the kind of calling Jesus has issued His Church. 

This is the calling where the “losers” are embraced and loved and accepted unconditionally, and in fact the Church is called to become the same as those they are to love.  For it is in fact that they are, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NIV).  All are losers, all are “the least of these.”  And obedience will always lead to serving the least.



But how does the Church move forward as losers-in-obedience?  Joseph Stowell points out the many things that can keep people from becoming “losers” by comparing those things to the “nets” that Peter and Andrew left in order to follow Christ’s call: “A net is anything that inhibits or prohibits our non-negotiated commitment to follow Christ” (Stowell, 1996, 136).  If the Church is going to reorient itself as a “Church, for losers” it may be that it has to let go of many of the earthly comforts it has come to depend upon, at least in the west.  There cannot be a set of underwritten assumptions that certain material possessions or ways of living are “non-negotiable”; it is the cross that is non-negotiable, and to take it up is to be open to any direction that Jesus might lead, even and especially those that seems completely counter to the world, the culture, and perhaps the Church’s existence itself.  Stowell notes that “followers go all the way.  They go wherever Christ leads them- and it’s the ‘wherever’ that is so challenging” (Stowell, 1996, 139).  It is a challenge, but one that each new generation of Christ followers and Churches must take up.  The Church must live in the way of the cross, at any cost:  “Our willingness to pay the price of a cross is the pivotal issue of being a fully devoted follower.  If I refuse crosses, then I cannot be a follower; if I follow, then crosses are inevitable.  The cost is measured in some of the more prized currency in our lives- comfort, convenience, health, wealth, fulfillment, and self-protection” (Stowell, 1996, 197).  It is this “prized currency” that the Church must seek to pass on to others for their betterment, not hoard for itself, in order to live out obedience that not only leads to serving the least, but is most clearly seen through it because it is the embodiment of what it means to lose one’s life in order to save it.



Dorothy Day writes of her work at a Detroit “hospitality house” that it was a “long loneliness”, for “over and over again in our work, many young men and women who come as volunteers have not been able to endure it and have gone away...many left the work because they could see no use in this gesture of feeding the poor, and because of their own shame.  But enduring this shame is part of our penance” (Foster & Griffin, 2000, 212-213).  In caring for the “least of these” she found that she lost her own life in order to serve others...but that few were able to accomplish this.  Her story is not dissimilar to what John described in his gospel:

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you...on hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"...[Jesus] went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:53, 60, 65-66, NIV).

There will be many who will turn back from the way of the cross.  There will be plenty who will reject the notion of a “Church, for losers.”  But the Church that follows the call of Jesus to the very end is the Church that in that end is obedient to Christ, losing their life in order to save it, saving their life by losing it.  Obedience is still culturally looked upon with some degree of admiration, but only in certain contexts.  Obedience that is obedient to the very end, authentically so and not just artificially constructed, is considered the realm of ‘radicals’ who may in fact even be ‘dangerous.’  To be crucified with Christ, to lose-to-save, is usually considered in this manner.  But Moltmann writes that “crucifixion with Jesus...[is practiced] in the new obedience which is no longer conformed to this world (Rom. 12:2)” (Moltmann, 1993, 56).  The new obedience is not conformed but is instead transformed as Paul writes.  Such a complete transformation is precisely what the Church needs to become the “Church, for losers” - saving its life by losing it, losing its life in order to save it.  The only question is, will the Church take that call seriously?  Will it trust in itself, or trust in the words of Jesus?

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Mark 8:34-37, MSG).



May the Church not trade its soul to be number one in kingdoms of this world, but instead give its very self to be saved in the Kingdom of God.  May it be upside down, living in that Kingdom, in anticipation of its fullness that has already begun to be revealed through Jesus Christ.  Amen.



Works Cited



Barker, Kenneth, Ed.  Reflecting God Study Bible (NIV).  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000.



Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  Touchstone:  New York, NY, 1995.



Brooks, James A.  The New American Commentary, Volume 23: Mark.  Broadman & Holman: Nashville, TN, 1992.


Foster, Richard J.  Celebration of Discipline:  The Path to Spiritual Growth.  HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2000.


Foster, Richard J. and Griffin, Emilie, Eds.  Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines.  HarperCollins Publishers:  New York, NY, 2000.


France, R.T.  The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary On The Greek Text.  Wm. B. Eeerdmans Publishing Co.:  Grand Rapids, MI, 2002.


Goodrick, Edward W. and Kohlenberger, John R. III., Eds.  The NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 1990.



Moltmann, Jurgen.  The Crucified God.  Fortress Press:  Minneapolis, MN, 1993.



Peterson, Eugene H.  The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.  Colorado Springs, CO:  Navpress, 2002.


Stedman, Ray C.  The Way of the Cross. 

http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/mark/the-way-of-the-cross.  Accessed 24 April, 2010.


Stowell, Joseph M.  Following Christ:  Experiencing Life the Way it Was Meant To Be. Zondervan:  Grand Rapids, MI, 1996.



Wagner, C. Peter.  Humility.  Regal Books:  Ventura, CA, 2002.