I had a conversation last Tuesday with a colleague of mine about the state of the Christian church these days. Now, this is not an unusual conversation. When we get together, we tend to speak about such things. We try to step back a little and see the bigger picture of what is happening in churches in our country and how we ought to respond to it. As we discussed what appears to be the beginning of the end of this pandemic, we talked about what has changed for the average fellowship of believers, and he made a very insightful observation. He said that perhaps one of the biggest challenges is how all of this has encouraged the rampant individualism and consumerism which grips our culture to take a firmer position, even in churches. His point was the pandemic forced many churches to move their content and presence into arenas dominated by consumerism and shaped by individual preferences. As the churches sought to compete there for the attention of their members they began to cater to their needs, wants, and desires. In so doing the practice of the church was not being formed by the Word but by personal preference and convenience.
As an example, I know of a church that has really gone the extra mile to try and cater to everyone’s needs. They were a typical church before the pandemic, two services on a Sunday morning, one more traditional in style one more contemporary. Decent attendance percentages, a children’s program, you know, the usual. As of right now on a Sunday morning they still have the two services, but things are laid out a bit different. You can go to church, sit in the pews just like old times. There are not any mask mandates or roped off pews or anything. Everyone can simply worship as they feel comfortable. Then there is an outdoor option available. They have big screens set up outside where you can come to church without gathering inside, which makes some feel more comfortable. Then there is a whole different room where the service is broadcast and everyone there is wearing a mask and properly spaced apart. Then, of course, there is the live stream of the service for those who want to participate from their homes. Now, we like to think this catering to all the different needs will make the church stronger, but what my friend was pondering is, perhaps all it did was fracture the church, splitting the fellowship into unrecognizable parts.
The thing is, we like things our way. We like to have our needs catered to. We do not just do it with our preferred mode and method of worship, we do it with the living of our lives. You are all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, but each of you has a different understanding and a different emphasis on just what that discipleship looks like. You do discipleship your way and that is the only way that matters. For some discipleship is about fulfilling a role. You know, doing the right things at the right time and making sure everyone else knows you are doing it for Jesus. For others discipleship is about a quest of knowledge, searching for the right answers. Yet for others it is prayer and regular devotions. In fact, it can be almost anything for any one of you.
But today all of this comes crashing into something which does not bend to our wants and desires. For today we encounter the unbending reality who is our Lord Jesus Christ. “Who do people say that I am?” He asks His disciples. And they told Him, “Some say John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and others one of the prophets.” “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” And good old Peter makes the great confession of the faith, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Jesus of Nazareth, the One they are all following, is the Christ. He is the anointed One, the Messiah, the Redeemer. It makes sense. It is what we all want it to be.
And then Jesus begins to tell them what it means, what it actually looks like to be the Christ. Not to be the Christ of their wants and desires and wish dreams but to be the actual Christ, the real thing. He begins to teach them the Son of Man must suffer many things. He will be rejected by all the religious leaders of the people, rejected by the chief priest, the elders, and the scribes. To be the Christ is to then be killed and after three days rise again from the dead. To be the Christ, is to go to the Cross. But this is not what Peter wants. This is not how he thinks it ought to be done. We want Jesus to be the Christ, but he wants his to be the Christ on his terms, how he sees it playing out. He is so certain of his own understanding of things he takes our Lord aside and begins to rebuke Him. He wants Jesus to align with his vision of things. Now, that may seem bold, but are we all that much different ourselves? Do you not have your own demands of how the Church ought to look, how the Gifts ought to be given? Of course, you do.
Jesus shocks all of us out of our own desires just as He shocks Peter out of his. He says, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:33). You are not setting you mind on what God has done and is doing through His Son, you are thinking of your desires, your expectations, and you are allowing those to drive your understanding. Jesus does not pull any punches here. To demand He meet our expectations, to demand Him to come as we want Him to be is Satanic. It is to stand over our Lord and force Him into our own ideals and desires and dreams. But Jesus is not yours to mold how you see fit. He is not a product to be sold to the masses. He is the Lord God Almighty and He will not be deterred from His great work.
But this is not just about how you receive your Lord; it is about how you follow Him. It is about your discipleship. To set your mind on the things of God is to receive Jesus as He comes to you which means your individual desires and dreams are not the driving factor. Which means you lose some control. This is precisely what your discipleship is. It is to lose your life in your Lord, to go where He leads, to be what He has called you to be. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
The life of a disciple is cross-shaped. Just as our Lord’s life is marked by a cross so too is your life. Now what does this mean? In its most basic sense, it means the Christian life, your life of discipleship, will be marked by suffering and pain. To follow Jesus is to be in submission to Him and in doing that you will make powerful enemies. For the world which rejected Him will reject you. It will be uncomfortable. It is not about what you want. It is not about getting your felt needs met. Jesus asks, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” To have it your way, to get what you can while the getting is good, is to gain the world but what you will lose is so much more.
For the cross-shaped life is a life marked by death and resurrection. It is a life that goes where our Lord has gone. A cross-shaped life is to be disjointed form the rest of the world. It is to live in the promise of a life beyond this age. A cross-shaped life is to not always be in control but to be under the care of the One who already defeated death and the grave. A cross-shaped life can be scary and confusing, but it is embraced by the living Word of God. So, in the midst of it all there is peace. It is a peace which surpasses all understanding for it is fueled by His love, by His clear Word that says, “I forgive you.”