FAITH AND VALUES: To follow Jesus in discipleship includes both life and death
Do you remember how, some years ago, “values clarification” became the new emphasis in our schools, and how the church also got in on the act? People attended seminars where participants were given special workbooks with exercises that were designed to help you identify and prioritize the values that centered your life. This emphasis was a way of replacing the moral principles of great religion that had been discharged as having no basis in science or logic, as being anachronistic in an enlightened technological age.
Instead of basing our values on religious commitment, divine moral imperatives, and the concept of sin and righteousness, we were encouraged to determine our own set of values that promoted self-improvement, self-actualization (or self-indulgence, in many cases), a respectable and comfortable life style, and a decent society.
A friend observes, “I remember one time we used the values clarification workbook as the basis for a weekend church retreat… One woman dutifully did the entire weekend worth of exercises, and, with giggling happiness, clarified that ‘improving her (tennis) backhand was her supreme value.’”
In contrast to such narcissistic values are the ringing words of the apostle Paul who sang, “I count everything else as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I did, in fact, lose everything. But I count everything as offscourings, as so much garbage (the Greek word means literally ‘dung’) for the sake of gaining Christ and being ‘overtaken’ by him… All I want is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Thus does Paul declare that if we want a purpose for life, a supreme value that is fit for living, fit for dying, and fit for a destiny beyond both, it lies in knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, it lies in giving ourselves totally to Christ, it means yielding ourselves to God’s love in him and walking with Jesus, and discovering not the burden but the joy of discipleship.
Among young adults today, there is a popular expression that is used to articulate desire, endorsement, and valuation: “To die for.” So someone will announce to their circle of friends, “The latte at the new coffee bar on Laurens Street is ‘to die for.’” Or, “To get accepted into that graduate school is ‘to die for.’” Or, “To climb that mountain is ‘to die for.’”
Now such passionate sentiment is most of the time just that – sentiment – but the metaphor of “dying for” intrigues me, for that has always been the final test of commitment to Christ, as Paul’s words reveal. In the early church, those who claimed Christ as Savior and Lord realized that their commitment might well mean “to die for him”, and unnumbered believers did die for their faith.
Through the centuries since and in our own time, people who follow Jesus, who have witnessed for moral righteousness and justice, have risked and lost their lives. In many parts of the world on this World Communion Sunday, when Christians gather around the Lord’s Table, they do so knowing that, at best, life is marginal for them. According to some reports, in Africa, where 20,000 persons become new Christians every day, in China, where every day 28,000 persons accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and in South America, where every 24 hours 10,000 more persons become new Christians, to follow Christ and to claim God’s salvation promise in him are both figuratively and literally “to die for.”
Is our own commitment to God serious enough that we would be ready to take that same risk? Is our relationship to Jesus passionate enough that it feels like both “birth” and “death” at the same time? Do we in discipleship take up our cross daily and follow Jesus? Or have we disconnected our faith in God from the realities and values of our life, from the way we think and decide, from the way we spend our time and money, from the way we treat people, and from those absolutes without which we believe our lives would go to pieces?
When fawning fans used to approach the famous golfer, Gary Player, and would say to him, “I’d give anything – absolutely anything – if I could hit a golf ball like you,” he would say, “No, you wouldn’t.” And he would add, “Do you know what you have to do to hit a golf ball like I do? You’ve got to get up at 5:00 every morning, go out on the golf course and hit a thousand golf balls. Your hands start bleeding and you have to walk to the clubhouse and wash the blood off your hands, slap a bandage on them, and go out and hit another thousand golf balls. That is what it takes to hit a golf ball like me.”
Ah yes. To claim Jesus as our Lord and Savior and to follow him in discipleship includes both life and death. To take up our cross is to die to some things in order to be alive to others, so that we may know the power of Christ’s resurrection with alleluia joy.