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?