I like having my family gathered together around the table, eating together, just being together. I like the puns that banter to and fro, the laughter and groans that ensue. I like the spontaneous singing that erupts, or the complex table rhythms that generate from one person’s tap-tap-tippety-tap. I like the conversations about life and learning and love.
I like having good food to eat, clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, comfortable clothes to wear. I like having a spacious home, and I like most of the stuff in it: gizmos and gadgets that cook and bake and clean and entertain and inform and communicate. And books, lots of books.
I like being able to live my life relatively free of fear of violence or destitution. I like being able to meet with whomever I want, to do pretty much whatever we want, including worshiping the God we believe in in the way that we want. I like being able to think and speak freely without thinking someone might harm me or my family (well, I guess there were those two times).
In other words, I like my rights and freedoms. I like my safety and security. I like my comforts. And I’m pretty sure most of us white middle-class Christians in North America feel the same way.
But there’s a problem with this: it keeps us from truly hearing and living out the radical message of Jesus, the radical message of the gospel.
Here’s Jesus, giving the “altar call” of his gospel proclamation:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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? (Mark 8:34-36)
This is no altar call like we might be used to. This is no “pray the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved,” no “read your Bible and go to church and you’ll get rid of those nasty habits”—but otherwise carry on with your lives, business (and pleasure) as usual.
Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew what it meant to “deny oneself.” They heard it every year in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Denying oneself” was equivalent to “fasting” and related to “Sabbath-keeping.” It meant voluntarily giving up your work and your food, giving up the basic necessities and comforts of life and the means by which those are attained, in devotion to God.
And every Jew—indeed, every conquered people in the Roman Empire—knew what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” They saw it with inhuman frequency outside the major cities on the edges of Empire. “Taking up one’s cross” meant carrying a cross-beam to the outskirts of the city, where one would then be suspended from that beam on a post or tree until one died. It meant condemnation and execution. It meant shameful, painful, and certain death.
And “following Jesus”? It soon became clear what that meant, for not too long after Jesus said these words he himself “denied himself”—gave up his rights and privileges in devotion to God—and “took up his cross”—was executed in condemnation and shame and excruciating pain.
This is Jesus’ “altar call.” This is Jesus’ call for response to the gospel of God’s kingdom.
And it is gospel, it is “good news.” I know, it might not sound like it, not to our modern western ears. But Jesus says that if we do this—if we “lose our lives” in this way—we will in fact gain life. And if we don’t do this—if we instead seek to “preserve our lives,” our lives of comfort and security—we will in fact lose our lives in the end.
It’s a paradox, right at the heart of the gospel. Here’s how I understand this.
We naturally and rightly desire justice, peace, health, security, comfort—flourishing life—for ourselves and those close to us. But fulfilling those desires for ourselves often means impeding others from fulfilling those same basic human desires: our peace and security come at the expense of others’ welfare, our comfortable lives are made possible by others’ lives of hardship, and so on.
In our day, these “others” are often outside our immediate vision. They can even be on the other side of the world. Faceless. Nameless. Poor. Not-white. They suffer so that we might have all the comforts of home.
In the long run this system cannot be sustained. Whether on a personal level or a global scale, in the end the comfortable and well-fed will lose their lives of relative abundance. It’s inevitable. And then the scales will tip, the down will move up, the up will move down, and it starts all over again.
Into this never-ending cycle of inequity, even injustice and oppression, Jesus speaks these words: “Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me. Only if you lose your life in this way will you save it.” It is only if we give up our privileges and comforts for the good of others, only if we let go of our claim to our own rights and freedoms for the good of all, that we can experience the true life God desires for us.
In other words, if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet, the only way forward is to follow the self-denying, self-giving way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.
If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, then, we would hold our possessions loosely, living simply. We might even sell all we have and give the money to the poor.
If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would also hold our rights and privileges loosely, living free of expectation and entitlement. We might even stand up for the rights of others at great cost to ourselves.
If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would seek out society’s cast-offs, those clinging to the bottom rung, and lift them up alongside us. We might even, if necessary, switch places with them.
If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would forgive, forgive, and forgive again. We might even walk the extra mile and do good things for those who hate us, even our outright enemies.
I’ll be honest: I don’t think I can do this. We all—myself included—are pretty good at justifying our comfortable existence. And we all—myself included—are pretty well attached to our life of relative ease.
I like my coffee, my housecoat, my family gathered around, my home and clothes and food and drink and health and safety and security and freedom.
Yet Jesus’ gospel call always stands before me. It calls me perpetually to repentance, my self-justified selfishness laid bare. It summons me always, over and over again, to a better way, a better way to be human in the world. It beckons me onward to a life of devoted faith in God, selfless love for others, and enduring hope for justice and peace and abundant life for all.