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What radical abandonment to Jesus really means
Twenty leaders from different churches in the area sat on the floor with their Bibles open. They had gathered in secret and intentionally arrived at different times to not draw attention to their meeting. They lived in a country in Asia where it is illegal for them to gather like this. If caught, they could lose their land, their jobs, their families or their lives.
"Some of the people in my church have been pulled away by a cult," said one man sitting in a corner. The cult he referred to is known for kidnapping and torturing believers. Brothers and sisters having their tongues cut out of their mouths is not uncommon. As he shared about the dangers his church members were facing, tears welled up in his eyes. "I am hurting," he said, "and I need God's grace to lead my church through these attacks."
A woman on the other side of the room spoke up next: "Some of the members in my church were recently confronted by government officials. They threatened their families, saying that if they did not stop gathering to study the Bible, they were going to lose everything they had." She asked for prayer, saying, "I need to know how to lead my church to follow Christ even when it costs them everything."
As I looked around the room, I saw that everyone was now in tears. The struggles expressed by this brother and sister weren't isolated.
They went to their knees, and with their faces on the ground, began to cry out to God not with grandiose theological language but heartfelt praise and pleading: "O God, thank You for loving us." "O God, we need You." "Jesus, we give our lives to You and for You." "Jesus, we trust in You."
They audibly wept before God as one leader after another prayed. After an hour, the room drew to a silence, and they rose from the floor, leaving behind puddles of tears in a circle around the room.
A Different Scene
Three weeks after my third trip to underground house churches in Asia, I began my first Sunday as the pastor of a megachurch in America. The scene was much different. Dimly lit rooms were now replaced by an auditorium with theater-style lights. Instead of traveling for miles by foot or bike to gather for worship, we'd arrived in millions of dollars' worth of vehicles. Dressed in our fine clothes, we sat down in our cushioned chairs.
To be honest, there wasn't much at stake. Many had come out of normal routine. Some had come simply to check out the new pastor. But none had come at the risk of their lives.
Please don't misunderstand this scene. It was filled with wonderful Christians who wanted to welcome me and enjoy one another. People like you and me, who simply desire community, who want to be involved in church and who believe God is important in their lives. But as a new pastor comparing the images around me that day with the pictures still fresh in my mind of brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, I couldn't help but think that somewhere along the way we'd missed what is radical about our faith and replaced it with what is comfortable. We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.
Don't Follow Me Unless ...
Luke 9 tells the story of three men who approached Jesus, eager to follow Him. Yet in surprising fashion, Jesus seems to have tried to talk them out of doing so. The first guy said, "I will follow You wherever You go."
Jesus responded, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head." In other words, Jesus told this man that he could expect homelessness on the journey ahead.
The second man told Jesus that his father had just died. The man wanted to go back, bury his father and then follow Jesus. "Let the dead bury their own dead," Jesus said, "but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Having lost my own father unexpectedly, I can't imagine hearing Jesus say the words: "Don't even go to your dad's funeral. There are more important things to do."
A third man approached Jesus and told Him that he wanted to follow Him, but before he did, he wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus wouldn't let him: "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God." Plainly put, a relationship with Jesus requires total, superior and exclusive devotion. Become homeless. Let someone else bury your dad. Don't even say goodbye to your family. Is it any surprise that, from all we can tell in Luke 9, Jesus persuaded these men not to follow Him?
What About Us?
What if you were the man whom Jesus told to not even say goodbye to his family? What if we were told to hate our families and give up everything we had in order to follow Jesus?
This is where we come face to face with a dangerous reality. We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love Him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that He will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.
But we don't want to believe it. We're afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize these passages away. "Jesus wouldn't really tell us not to bury our father or say goodbye to our family. Jesus didn't literally mean to sell all we have and give it to the poor. What Jesus really meant was ..."
And this is where we need to pause. Because we're starting to redefine Christianity. We're taking the Jesus of the Bible and molding Him into our image—a nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn't mind materialism and who'd never call us to give away all we have.
A Jesus who wouldn't expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that He receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that doesn't infringe on our comforts, because, after all, He loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.
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