He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Let me share with you one of the more surprising things I experienced during my sabbatical. I discovered a hesitancy to tell people what I do for a living. I found myself being just a little bit embarrassed about it.
When I began to hear people’s perspective of the church, what they assume, what they believe, what their personal experiences have been, I found myself not wanting to be associated with the church institution they were describing. Both from people outside of the church and people inside the church.
For instance, Frank in Birmingham, AL, was the grandson of a pastor who served there in the 1960s. I loved the church, he told me. We helped people. We made a difference. I remember the marches, I remember the acts of violence against us. What we did then mattered. We changed people’s lives. But since then, he has found it to be too judgmental for him. People within his own congregation shunned him when he lost his job and eventually his home. He lives in a park and says the church doesn’t matter to him. He’s not bitter or angry about it. He just accepts that as the way things are. Why would he expect anything different from the church? It was as if he was talking about General Motors or Universal Studios or something. Helping him, a homeless black man, isn’t what they’re about.
Or the couple we met during a cooking class in Florence, Italy who were devout and proud members of their church. And the husband who, without even being aware of it, was speaking offensively about race and women. In the same sentences with his church membership. And the rest of the people in the cooking class kind of backed away and tried to change the subject. And so they looked at me and asked, “What do you do, Rob?”
Over and over, time and again, whenever church came up, which, honestly wasn’t that often, I noticed a couple things about it. 1) normally church didn’t much matter—both to members and non-members. It was not a big deal for them. Or, 2) to a few, it mattered greatly. And that was always (hear me!), always in a way that was opposed to my understanding of the gospel. Church was about power (making other people conform to my perspective), about justification (they are less than me unless they do conform). Church was about how they, as church members, could improve their own circumstances. In the language of this gospel text, how they could save their own lives. Church was a way to serve themselves. Every. Single. Time.
There was a universal acceptance of a disconnect between the church and the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, the powerless, the abused, the oppressed, the hopeless. There was no thought that the church exists for the very people Jesus lifts up, holds, comforts, heals, forgives, and hangs out with. The very people Jesus equipped his disciples to go to, to serve, and give themselves away for. In the language of this gospel text, to lose their life for. It was embarrassing that this is the view of the church.
But I needed to hear it. It crystallized some things I’ve been struggling with for a while now. What I was hearing from people about the church was almost completely opposite of the things I was hearing from God about the church. And I’ve got an idea as to how we can move more fully into God’s view of the church. You’ll be hearing more in the days and weeks to come.
The church has some serious work to do, and we need serious disciples to do it. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The church has some serious work to do, and we need serious disciples to do it. In my estimation, we simply don’t have time to waste. This congregation exists so that each of us can give ourselves away for the benefit of those around us.
Each of us who bears the name of Christ has already been equipped in the waters of that baptismal font to be Christ for the world. To exhibit forgiveness, to live compassion, to serve the poor, to stand with those whose power is taken away, to speak up for those whose voices go unheard. And to speak and live this gospel truth in the very midst of our culture and especially to those with power.
And this is not easy. And this isn’t automatic. And this will require serious discipleship and serious sacrifice. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The church has some serious work to do, and we need serious disciples to do it. That means we don’t have time to squabble among ourselves over things that don’t matter to the gospel of Christ in the world. We don’t have time to use our own personal preferences to draw a line in the sand. We don’t have time to detour from Christ’s work in our neighborhood to deal with threats because someone isn’t getting their way.
The church has some serious work to do, and we need serious disciples to do it. I hope you’re with me. I hope you too are willing to give up some things in your own life in order to gain life following Jesus. As we increase our service to those Christ calls us to serve, not only do we find real life, but we find real life for this church. The presence of this church can mean something that matters. Something worth giving our time, our money, our very selves away for. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The church has some serious work to do, and we need serious disciples to do it. It’s worth everything. Let’s get to it.