The public ministry of Jesus followed a familiar trajectory. He burst on the scene with a big splash, and at first, everyone – everyone, including the leaders of every Jewish faction – came out to see what he was about. Huge crowds thronged his appearances.
But after a while, when the leadership – political and religious – discovered that, whatever agenda Jesus had, it wasn’t their agenda, they backed off him. They started telling rumors about him, they stirred up opposition against him. Jesus was mobbed a couple of times, even threatened with stoning.
Crowds still came out to see him, but people were choosing up sides – the merely curious, the broad-minded, the middle class, the movers and shakers stayed away – only the poor and the desperate continued to seek him out. And he was safe enough, so long as he stuck to Galilee, but Jerusalem and its environs were not safe for him. So when he announced that he was going to Judea – to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, his disciples were aghast. But when Jesus reiterated his commitment to going, they followed – particularly after Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Were they in despair? Were they not thinking straight? That sounds so odd to us – I mean, what good would it do to go along and be killed? Yet, there was a time, not so long ago, when it was a commonplace to believe that there were things that were worth dying for – friendship and family – honor and oaths – country – God.
One of the most hotly debated hymns in Christian worship is the one we call The Battle Hymn of the Republic. One line in particular stands out. Julia Ward Howe wrote,
“as he died to make men holy,That line is often emended in modern hymnals to the more upbeat,
let us die to make men free”
“as he died to make men holy,
let us live to make men free”
Supposedly, this shows that the more important sacrifice is to live a whole life dedicated to freedom – and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it also suggests, subtly, that there’s nothing so terribly precious that it’s worth dying for. After all, what good does my dying for others do? I have to live to do them any good – so, before all else, I have to make sure I go on living before I worry about doing others any good – even if it means I do them no good at all.
Some years ago, a vicious killer walked into a classroom at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and ordered all the men out of the room. They meekly obeyed, whereupon the killer began to kill the women while the men stood outside, helpless. But, after all, what could they do?
Compare that with the case of Liviu Librescu – a 76-year-old professor at Virginia Tech, who was teaching a class on the day of the Virginia Tech massacre. He heard gunshots in the hallway, and reacted immediately.
Professor Librescu was a survivor of the Holocaust and of the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe – he was from a former age, and his impulses were, shall we say, “pre-modern.” He blocked the door with his body and told the students to climb out of the windows; he held the door as long as he could, and was shot dead when the killer finally broke through. Professor Librescu believed there were things worth dying for, while the young Canadian men did not – who do think is more typical of our day? And who would you like to be at your side when things get hairy?
All throughout my lifetime, the idea has been advancing that there is nothing worth dying for – which has slowly grown in people’s minds to the point that many believe there is nothing worth risking economic ruin for – nothing worth losing a job for – nothing worth enduring social embarrassment for – nothing worth inconveniencing oneself for, in any way. We are becoming like Daffy Duck, who said (after deserting his friend Bugs to the Abominable Snowman), “Well, it was him or me – and goodness knows, it couldn’t be ME – I’m not like other people: pain hurts me.”
Getting back to Thomas and the disciples: if your best friend – and more than your best friend – is determined to go into danger, then most people have believed, throughout history, that to go with him into danger is at least understandable – for there are some things that are worth that risk. And being true to one’s allegiance to Jesus Christ has usually been considered one of those things.
I’m going to some length to make this case, even though I know that the actual chance of someone here having to die for one’s faith in Christ is way remote – but even if dying for one’s faith is sort of “out there,” suffering for one’s faith is not – and there are many degrees of suffering – dying is only the end point on the scale. And the plain fact of the matter is, if you are a follower of Jesus, you are going to encounter hostility to your faith – sometime, somewhere.
The World, the Flesh, and the Devil are not reconciled to Christ, and will not leave his followers in peace – and to pretend otherwise does nobody any favors. The opposition you encounter might range from mild teasing (“Man, you sure go to church a lot”) to more aggressive mockery (“Think your God’s going to do something about that?”) to loss of status or friends.
Sometimes, even total strangers will unload on you. My daughter was a sophomore at Ball State, sitting outside the Campus Christian Fellowship playing cards one day, when a new student came looking for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance office, which was right next to the Campus Christian Fellowship. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance office was locked at the moment, the staffers out to lunch – and when the new student asked where they were, Anna told her where they’d gone and when they’d be back.
Her friendliness caused the new student to strike up a conversation with Anna – and when she asked what clubs Anna was in the Union for, she said she was hanging out with the people from the Campus Christian Fellowship – whereupon the new girl reacted visibly and said, “I can’t talk to YOU – you’re one of those intolerant Christians!”
Less drastic, but still awkward, was the reaction I used to get when I would meet people who played fantasy role-playing games – you know, with painted miniatures of monsters and warriors, funny dice and huge rulebooks – for once upon a time, I was a nationally known writer on FRPGs, and people who knew that would strike up a terrific conversation, and we’d just be getting along famously, and then they’d ask, “What do you do?” And I would say, “I’m an ordained minister.” Lemme tell ya, there’s just nothing that brings a conversation to a screeching halt quite like that, sometimes.
Now, America is one of the most religious nations on earth, and to be a practicing Christian here is not unusual – but even in more comfortable environments, one gets these odd little jabs from others. (“You’re a Christian? Cool – but – you’re not one of THOSE Christians, are you?” And what kind would THOSE be? “You know – THOSE Christians.”)
You can try to avoid this sort of unpleasantness in one of two ways. First, you can construct a life completely within the circle of fellow believers – not necessarily all from one’s own church – so that one need never be confronted by anyone who views your faith or practice negatively. Still, you gotta go out into the rest of the world sometimes. Which is why some people go for the second strategy, which is to completely privatize their religious beliefs and experiences and never to share them beyond a very safe inner circle. “We don’t talk about religion here,” someone says, and everybody nods in sympathy. In other words, it’s okay to be religious, so long as nobody else sees you doing it, or has to hear you talking about it.
In this way, Freedom of Religion leads to the creation of social zones where Freedom From Religion is what is actually valued. The problem with this is that the person who locks away one’s foundational commitments in a safe deposit box inside one’s heart or one’s head, eventually makes them unreal, even to oneself. Faith has to be shared in order to be strengthened, and grow – we need to show who we are, and share who we are, in order to maintain a healthy relationship with God and each other.
It is unhealthy to hide your relationship with Christ – or to feel you have to apologize for it, or censor yourself when people are talking religion. It is a betrayal of yourself – and of Christ, who said that those confessed him before others, he would confess before the angels of God, while those who were ashamed of him, he would be ashamed of.
And even if you manage to do one of these – to either live in a little religious ghetto, where nobody ever objects to your being who you are – or if you lock away your faith so nobody ever has to bothered by it – that doesn’t mean you will manage to escape the hostility of those who have a beef with God or church-goers or whoever. The problem with saying to the World, the Flesh, and the Devil that you’ll concede them this much, but you want the rest for yourself, is that evil won’t stay on its side – no matter how much you concede to the forces of Unbelief, and no matter how small you make yourself, the day will come when somebody says, “Oh – you aren’t one of THEM are you?” Or, “Everybody else has signed onto the plan – you aren’t going to make waves, are you?” Or, “Do you ALWAYS have to put God first?” Or, “Sure, going to church is alright, but when you go putting your personal religious beliefs before your duty to the company – or the country – or the cause – or our friendship – then that’s just selfish.”
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
I understand the disciples’ dilemma: I’d like to live a peaceable life – I hate conflict – I don’t handle awkward social situations well – I like to be liked. But I also know that there are some things that are worth dying for – worth being rejected for – worth losing out on promotions for – worth being hurt for. Because to flinch from doing the right thing, to refuse to follow Jesus when it means paying a price for doing so, would mean that I would risk losing the two things that I value before all else: I would risk losing my faith in Christ – and I would risk losing myself – and what would I be, then?
To die to self, to take up one’s cross and follow Christ, is not just something we talk about during Lent – it’s something we all have to learn how to do in order to handle what life throws at us. We have to get our foundational commitments settled – like, our faith in Christ as Savior, and our obedience to him as Lord – and our commitment to being part of his Church. We have to figure out who we are and who God wants us to be – and we have to remind ourselves and each other of this, often.
And then we can go out and follow Jesus wherever he leads – and when we get the occasional hostile question, or are faced with a big decision, we’ll already have thought through what our answer, our choice should be – and he will give us the strength to make the right one, the one we’ll be glad we made afterwards, no matter how things turn out. Amen.