From the day I announced my intention to be ordained, my father would always use his image of Jesus against me whenever he felt I was being uncharitable. His image of Christ was the same one many of us hold near and dear in our hearts. It is the one synonymous with the image of the Good Shepherd, that mild, milk toast savior which is always there to comfort us when we feel afraid or troubled. Often I would argue with him that his understanding of Jesus was incomplete and denied the full complexity of the Christ we worship today.
Needless to say, my arguments mostly fell on deaf ears. That was until the winter my Dad attended a Bible study focused on the Gospels. I will always remember the phone call and him stating,”Boy Craig, you were right, Jesus wasn’t as nice as I thought he was. My father’s words are memorable for two reasons. First, because he had never attended Bible study before. And second, I think this was the only time he ever admitted I was right on something and he was actually wrong.
You know, there is a little bit of my father in all of us. We all hold to the soft image of Jesus, the image that comforts us without challenging us. The image that assures us we are okay just the way we are but fails to encourage us to grow. This is what makes the Gospels of the last few weeks so hard to preach because they don’t reflect the Jesus we want to know.
Instead, these passages challenge who we are as a Christian people, they force us to question our level of righteousness. Last week, at the dinner table of the Pharisee we couldn’t avoid asking if we were so filled with pride and hubris that we were the ones who believed we were entitled to sit to the right hand of God. Or if we were willing to offer hospitality to the stranger and the poor, not just here on Friday afternoons at the Community Market, but in our homes as well.
This week Jesus tells us if we are to follow him not only must we be willing to hate mother, father,brother and sister, we must also be willing pick up and carry our cross. These are hard words to hear from the one we continually seek comfort from. It tells us there is a price to being a follower that few of us want to think about.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, wrote that the problem with modern Christians is that we seek cheep grace. In essence, we want the benefits of the cross without paying the price.
Knowing that Bonhoeffer wrote prior to World War II, I wonder what he would say today? Sacrifice is no longer part of the American ethos. We now live in a culture which seems predicated on personal gratification. We have little patience for waiting, and the “I” more often than not tends to take precedent over the “we.” And we betray how little we are willing to sacrifice for Christ almost every week. For instance, how many of us,including myself, found it too difficult to make time for church during the summer while on vacation or when family and friends were staying with us? How many of us, and again, I include myself in this picture, balk every time stewardship comes up or the concept of tithing being 10% giving.
If we find giving up an hour of vacation time or of family time each week too much to sacrifice for Christ, or giving up 10% of the abundance of what God has given us, imagine how hard it would be if we were truly called to pick up and carry our cross. This is what Bonhoeffer was reacting to. As a young man he came to understand the cost of his faith. At the start of World War II, Bonhoeffer was becoming one of the world’s most renowned theologians. When war broke out in Europe, Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to live safely here in the United States. Instead, Bonhoeffer opted to return to Germany believing if he wished to be part of reconstruction, he had to be part of the resistance. Just before the end of the war, Bonhoeffer lost his life before a Nazi firing squad. Being part of the resistance was his cross and his life was what he was willing to lose on behalf of Christ.
Are any of us willing to do the same. In recent days, pro football player Collin Kaepernick has made media attention for his refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem. He has chosen to do this as a way to keep attention on the issue of racism in America. Whether we agree with his stand or not, Kaepernick is willing to endure the criticism of the American people, the possible loss of his career and Koepernick to fight what he feels is a grave area of injustice in the United States. Koepernick stands with other historic black athletes like Mohamed Ali and Kareem Abdul Jaber, who have risked the criticism of the American people for bringing attention to racism in their day. All have been willing to sacrifice career and family, all have been passionate for justice. All have been willing to be reviled for righteousness sake
Are we willing to make the same sacrifices on behalf of Christ? At Baptism we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. In a world now predicated on disrespect and injustice this often means standing alone to advocate for what we feel is right. It often means being willing to work against the status quo in order to make clear a path for the Reign of God.
When preparing families for Baptism, I no longer just speak about Baptism as the pathway to salvation, but also as an act of enlisting in God’s army. If we believe this world can be a better place, and desire the benefits of the Kingdom of God, then we must offer up ourselves as part of the force that prepares the way through love and justice.
I believe being part of God”s army is akin to J. K. Rowling’s Dumbledore’s Army as discussed in the later part of the Harry Potter series. Think about it, the Potter series is simply about good overcoming evil. Through out the series, those who refuse to become part of the Voldemort’s force do so at great risk and peril. In the case of the young people who become part of Dumbledore’s Army, they do so at great risk, not just at the risk of being expelled but at risk of the torture the headmistress can conjure up. But the risk is worth it,for they, like their parents, were willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to bring down the forces of Voldemort.
It is this same level of commitment and sacrifice we may need to have some day if we are to see the defeat of evil in this world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this, Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul Jaber were willing to do what it took. The question is, are we willing to take the risk as well by picking up our cross and fight on behalf of the Reign of God?