Monday, March 13, 2017

2nd Sunday of Lent 2017: Dying to Live

Genesis 12:1-5
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

“When Christ calls us, He bids us to come and die.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not one to mince words, but telling us we must die in order to live fully in Christ is a little hard to take.  It is hard because we have all but brushed aside the notion that the life of a disciple requires sacrifice as a defining point – sacrifice as much for our enemies and strangers as for those we love.  Yet demanding or getting our own way becomes a distraction to living fully in Christ as THE Way. 

It was Bonhoeffer who challenged the spiritual depth of the Western church during what was arguably the worst period in human history (Nazi era); that the Church cannot have Christ – or even really be The Church - if the “wide gate” is our true desire, a much easier path more focused on personal safety and consumer demand than on service and faithfulness (Matthew 7:14). 

But being “born again” is a very tricky business as a measure of the death we must endure to self because we do not often know what it actually looks like.  A skin magazine publisher was “born again”.  An actor and still known skirt-chaser, drunk, and drug-addict was also “born again”.  There are many other prominent and high-profile “born agains” who spout some of the vilest and most hateful language ever perpetrated in the name of Jesus.

And the reason is simple: we all like the idea of being “saved”, but we have never really understood being “saved” as being “called”.  “Called” not only from the depth and degradation of our past sins but also “called” into a whole new life that requires the death of our former selves.  It is the surest mark and measure of repentance.  It is as I have said so many times before; repentance is not merely an apology.  It is a resolve and a determination.

Those persons I specifically mention may not be “bad” men as the culture defines them.  It is often said the actor is generous to a fault, and we all know – or should know – drugs are bad business and can turn the best of us inside out.  Continuing to publish a skin magazine, however, is a more willful act that turns physical intimacy as a sacred act within the marriage covenant into a contact sport, and exploits women for financial gain.  There is nothing “liberating” about it.

This perverted notion of being “born again” without actually turning away from our former life falls in line with Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace”, a reality present in his own time, but also a reality we seem determined to double down on even today: “Cheap grace means the justification of sin … Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the [ugly reality of the] cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”  The Cost of Discipleship

Cheap grace is not radical, but the reality of true Christianity measured against human culture is nothing if not radical – a radical departure from what is and toward what can be.  It is not at all about being a “good Christian” which, in itself, is highly subjective and often culturally determined.  Christianity is entirely about becoming more and more Christ-like. 

Striving for Christ-like perfection but retaining a sense of humility to know we cannot make it on our own, certainly not as ourselves.  Christ-like perfection can only be accomplished as we deliberately die to self (that is, get over ourselves) and learn to live more intentionally not only like Christ but as Christ in the life of the Church and in the lives of others.  It is the sanctified life the Baptizer spoke of: “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). 

“I must decrease”, John said, not because he was speaking of his impending execution but because his role had been superseded.  “I have been sent before Him”, John said; and now that He is here, you need to know less about “me” and more about Him.  This statement does not in any way diminish the sacred value of John’s life.  Rather, it testifies to the reality that we all have a role in “increasing” Christ in the public witness of the Church and must stop worrying so much about our coveted “spots” or “seats” or other privileged positions and places where it is entirely about “me”.

Discipleship is all theoretical, however, if there is no intentionality or effort on our part.  For it was also Bonhoeffer who said, “Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; He waited until one of them turned to him.”  In other words, we have likely – with the complicity of the Church - tried to force or otherwise compel others to believe what we think they should believe (thus making it more about ourselves and our beliefs) rather than teach, lead by example, and disciple others to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus. 

Or worse, still … we don’t try at all.  And our lack of effort, our lack of commitment, our lack of determination only attempts to prove Jesus a liar; that there is no such thing as being “born again” as a matter of putting aside self, putting aside personal agendas, putting aside predetermined notions and concepts we are unwilling to examine more closely, putting aside “discipleship” and “discipline” (the order and the age-old doctrines of the Church).  This is how too many churches take on the persona of club house than that of Christ Jesus Himself.

No, we have found it much easier to get baptized rather than to be baptized.  It is much easier to get confirmed than it is to be confirmed.  It is much easier to get saved than it is to be called.  To speak more plainly, we want the simplicity of the event than the risk of the new life into which we are called – when it stops being about “me”.  The process of regeneration which begins with rebirth, however, requires much more than a single “event”.

There is no other way to understand what Jesus means when He insists we must be born again – more specifically, “born from above” – if we desire to “see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). 

Here’s the thing we must always bear in mind.  Jesus cannot simply be talking about the day of our physical death as the only point at which we may “see the Kingdom of God”!  In the Wesleyan theology of “present and future salvation” in the light of Jesus’ proclamation that “the Kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15), what the promise of this rebirth is offering is that we can “see the Kingdom of God” right here, right now!  I know I have repeated myself these past few weeks, but it is worth saying as often as necessary until we get it - that the Promise of our Holy Father is “fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), as Jesus proclaimed in a synagogue.

Discipleship in a world strictly opposed is like a very bad and very frustrating game of golf.  On most of the eighteen holes, we do so badly that there is not a word or phrase for our score – like “triple bogie”.  Yet there is almost always that one hole we par, that one hole when all our shots hit the mark.  It is that hole, that perfect shot which keeps us coming back for more.  I may walk away from eighteen holes with a score of 125 (which is really bad!), but that one hole or even just that one shot where everything came together is what will bring me back with the hope that my game will get better if I just stay after it.  It is that one hole or even just that one shot I will remember.

Life in Christ in a world filled with darkness is entirely like that.  Things do not always go the way we think they ought to go.  Things do not always work out the way we wish.  Yet when we focus on and hungrily pursue that one thing we have long sought after – that glimpse of Glory, that glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven – we will find it if we persevere; for it is our Father’s good will that we should.  He knows it is what keeps us coming back for more, a constant reminder that He is with us.

But first things first.  First, we must be willing to make room.  First, we must be willing to clear out the former self and its desires that do not mesh with the mission of the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven to “make disciples”.  First, we must “die” so we may find and embrace and live the Life to which we are called – not just as spouses and parents but as disciples, as sojourners, as faithful members of a community not merely waiting until this life is over but living fully into the Life to which we are beckoned. 

Then will the reality of the Kingdom come fully near.  Then will the reality of the Kingdom be revealed in all its glory.  Then will our lives finally begin to come together.  Then will our lives in the life of the Church begin to make sense … to us and to Him.  Only then can we begin to really live.  For the Father.  In The Word.  By the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

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