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What Are You Willing to Lose?

There are a lot of things that Jesus taught that most of us tend to ignore. We may like abstract ideas about love, self-sacrifice, and a society of peace and justice. But Jesus wasn’t simply an advocate of a new social program that can be slotted into our world the way it is. The brokenness of our world isn’t a matter of a few faulty pieces that must be replaced. On the contrary, an honest reading of Jesus’ ministry demonstrates not a gentle reform, not an arc of history that bends toward justice, but a basic break with history, a frank rejection of the world as it is.

Jesus Christ is a one-man apocalypse. Everything he said and did pointed towards a coming cataclysm. He offered his disciples an opportunity to part ways definitively with the system of death that was bound for the bottom of the abyss just as surely as the Titanic. But he dismissed out of hand any talk of re-arranging the deck chairs. Jesus left his family, publicly rejected them, and encouraged his followers to the same. He denounced the corrupt economic system and imperial power structures. Yet when he stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, and the local petty dictator, Herod, Jesus stood mute. He wasn’t there to change them. His was another kingdom altogether.

What a contrast with the kind of faith that I, and most of the Christian church, live most of the time! We tend to assume that the gospel is ultimately a plan for social reform, a path that should gradually yield progress as the system is convinced to change. Because change is slow, obedience to social conventions and family obligations take precedence over the urgent call of Jesus.

One of the greatest betrayals in history is the church’s stubborn refusal to take Jesus at his word when he says that we must surrender everything to follow him. For millennia, institutional Christianity has insisted that discipleship can be reconciled to the world as it is. What’s more, we’ve been taught that our obligations to family, the state, the economy, and all sorts of other abstractions, absolves us from the radical, all-forsaking demands of Jesus. Tragically, almost all of us have allowed ourselves to be fooled.

We need to be reminded that the human religion of cathedrals and popes, presidents and nation-states, socialism and capitalism, must not be confused with the radical gospel of Jesus. It is easy to choose the religions of this world. They allow us to put safety, comfort, and conformity first – and there’s no shortage of religious leaders who will support us in our compromise. But let there be no doubt, this has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He is the one who has told us that the way to life – real life – is narrow. Most of us pass it by, sure that there must be some easier path to the life of joy and power that the gospel promises us. But deep down we know that’s not true. We know that compromise with this dirty, rotten system we live in can’t bring true peace. We settle for less because we can’t bear the cataclysmic price we must pay if we follow the way of renunciation, the way of the cross of Jesus.

I know it scares me half out of my wits sometimes just to think about it. Living fully as a disciple of Jesus, without shame and without fear, seems impossible. But Jesus has promised his Holy Spirit to give us the strength to do anything he commands us.

The first step is to confess that we’re not really living the life of discipleship Jesus calls us to. No matter what the political, economic, and religious leaders of our society tell us, we’ve got to know that something is deeply wrong, and it can’t be addressed without a total reordering of our society. The arc of the universe bends towards slavery, until and unless we are prepared to radically break with history altogether. The Spirit gives us that power.

My grandfather used to say, “You can have anything you want; but you can’t have everything you want.” We can have the life of boldness and freedom that Jesus promises us – but that life has consequences. What are you willing to lose?

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  • Paul Slifer

    This is what my conscience wrestles with daily. I have a family, a job to support us….we’re very much living in ‘the world’ and are consumers and slaves to all its trappings.
    I can’t bring myself to calling myself a Christian for all the reasons that you stated in your post. I read the gospels and find Jesus’s way overwhelming. Totally inspiring but overwhelming.

    • Thanks, Paul. That’s real.

      One thing I would say is that I don’t think we were intended to be disciples on our own. Where are the communities of discipleship where we can find support and encouragement as we take greater risks in the gospel?

  • HI Micah,

    It occurs to me that this radical break is much on your mind. I agree that the world cries out for a break with a history of violence, oppression and triumphalism, and that it begins with the body of Christ. I also agree with Paul, that it is hard, because we all have families to support and bills to pay, and often it feels like a deep blessing just to be able to earn the money to pay the bills. Unfortunately, too, the church, for lack of a better term, seems so often lost and so conformed to the world’s ideas. Community is a help, and so is confessing that we are not engaged in true discipleship, but what is the next –or first–concrete step? Do you have an idea of where you are being led? What you would do if you could take the first step?

    • Hi Diane,

      I do believe that those next steps begin with a real understanding and faith that God provides for us, and we don’t need to worry ourselves about tomorrow’s problems. This is hard to fathom for a generation that is so steeped in consumer capitalism.

      I think the next steps for me involve living fearlessly with regard to money and work, trusting that I don’t have to earn it, but that God will provide. It’s true that, as Jesus says, where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.

  • Michael Sherman says money is the easiest thing for God to provide and I have found that true, if one’s needs are attuned to needs and not desires. Ramona Buck, talking about war tax resisters, says somebody else always has to pay (for their act of conscience.) She’s right too. I never forget that my decisions are never just about me. I think many of us have gotten beyond addiction to consumer culture, which leads, in my experience, to a deeper appreciation of the value of non addictive consumption, hard as that might be to believe. Shedding capitalist consumer culture can be done and many of us are on that path. That kind of grand statement doesn’t say much about day to day living, which is done in the material world within a gospel that celebrates creation and a right ordered material world. But that is an aside. I think we do always have to work. Adam and Eve worked in the Garden. But what work we do and how much and how we live in a Shalom relationship to material goods becomes an area of discernment, led day by day. What becomes the nitty gritty beyond rejecting “consumer capitalism?” How do we get beyond the big statement or the cliche? I ask that rhetorically, but this movement toward shalom does happen in “doing this” and “not that,” step by step, at least in my experience. I find what people are doing step by step far more compelling than big statements I have heard a thousand times. I don’t mean this to sound harsh, but to try to get behind the rhetoric, because I believe it is not empty, that there is something back there.