Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” –Luke 9:25

This question (also found in Matthew 16:26 and Mark 8:36) has been constantly in the back of my mind over the past several years. I believe it is one of the most powerful questions of self-reflection we’ve ever had, and it’s taken on even more importance recently. It’s time we ask it of ourselves.

One of the clichés of history is that it repeats itself, but we see it every day. If we read the gospels, we see an era when the people of God were desperate for a savior. And they knew what their savior looked like: a political hero. Their idea of a Godly kingdom was very worldly-focused.

When Jesus showed up on the scene, he dismissed all efforts to politicize his message. At least, he refused to apply his message to worldly politics. His message is actually incredibly political.

His followers wanted him to overthrow Rome and restore Israel to its former glory. They wanted him to Make Israel Great Again, so to speak. But here’s the irony of such a suggestion: if we read through the history of Israel, it’s hard to find a time when it was truly great in the way God called it to be. The times when the people were following God’s call on their lives were very few and short-lived. Greatness in the eyes of God is radically different from greatness in the eyes of the world.

Instead, Jesus stepped into a world where the Jews felt persecuted. They were the minority, and the Romans around them engaged in lifestyle choices and belief systems that the Jews couldn’t possibly support. They were threatened.

Thank God, Jesus showed up. He was the promised savior, ready to restore Israel’s greatness! And if you’re a follower of Jesus, you believe that’s exactly what he did. In fact, you believe he did something far more than that: he fulfilled the old covenant and created an entirely new one that wasn’t exclusive to Israel. This new structure allowed anyone to be part of this Kingdom of God. He didn’t Make Israel Great Again, he Made the World Great (Again?).

And what did this greatness look like? Actual persecution. Followers of Jesus having to meet in homes in hiding to avoid being found out and arrested or executed. Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound like greatness.

But remarkably with that constant threat, the message spread like wildfire throughout that section of the world. You see, it was exactly that persecution that forced the early followers to scatter and spread the word. And the life-changing message was so powerful that people couldn’t help but join, despite the threats to their lives. The gospel was so infectious, the level of love for one another and the sharing of the hope of Christ.

If such tremendous faith is possible in a world where persecution is great, how immense and world-changing would it be in a place where we have the freedom to worship? Unfortunately, not so immense. Unfortunately, we’ve found ourselves falling into the same old traps of the old covenant followers: assigning so many rules and bogging down the message that people are disinterested.

Well, no problem. Jesus gave us such a powerful message: love God, and that manifests itself in unconditional and sacrificial love for everyone around us. Surely, we just follow that playbook (literally two commandments, which are really one commandment and a follow-up direction on how to do it), and the wildfire of love will again spread. And it will spread even more without the resistance of a persecuting government!

But that hasn’t been the result, has it? American Christians are trying to figure out how people are finding their message of Christ so, well, resistible. But instead of self-evaluation to see where our message is falling short, we fall into the trap of blaming everyone else: it’s the academics! It’s the liberal elites! It’s the democrats! It’s the Muslims! It’s the government placing restrictions on us!

Quick question: what restrictions is the government placing on us? I’ve heard this threat numerous times that if democrats are in control, Christians will lose their rights. But what rights are we talking about? The right to freedom to worship? That’s right there in the First Amendment, which explicitly prohibits the federal government from respecting (or disrespecting) one religion compared to any other. The only people I hear trying to undermine that are those who are trying to prevent people from entering our country simply because they are Muslim. Or preventing Muslims from building their places of worship in certain areas. Or preventing Muslims from adhering to their dress codes or worship schedules.

It seems that if we take a step outside our cells of self-proclaimed persecution, we’ll see that it’s not the rights of Christians that are being undermined. It’s the rights of people the Christians don’t like.

A couple “hypothetical” examples from our own recent history: as a Christian business owner, I don’t want to have to provide basic female health care to my workers, because I believe everyone should be forced to follow my own moral structure or deal with the consequences. Or I want to be able to refuse service to a couple because I disagree with their lifestyle choices, but if someone refused to serve me because of my lifestyle choice to follow Christ, that would be a violation of my rights.

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

There have been various points of time in the world where Christian groups have held large amounts of power. Those times have led to events like the Crusades and Inquisition, among others. Within our own country, large percentages of Christians opposed abolition, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement. Today, large percentages of Christians oppose government assistance for those in poverty, universal access to health care, assisting immigrants pleading asylum to flee actual violence and persecution in their own country, women’s access to reproductive care and resources, and so much more.

Our issue isn’t that Christians don’t have enough power in this world. Our issue may very well be the opposite. We’ve gained so much power that we’ve forfeited our very self.

A simple look at the 2016 election shows that Christians might have never had as much power in America as they did in that moment: white Evangelical Christians elected Donald Trump as president. History will remember that. When Jews wanted a savior but had no power to choose their own, they received Jesus. God Incarnate. Love personified.

When Christian Americans wanted a savior and had the power to choose their own, they placed all their chips in the basket of a man who quite literally embodies the exact opposite of Jesus’ life and message. Just like when Moses climbed the mountain to hear from God and the people cried out for their own idolatrous god to worship. Just like when the crowd screamed at Pilate to give them Barabbas instead of Jesus.

Now unfortunately, we didn’t have the option between Jesus and Trump in 2016, and the alternative candidate had all kinds of issues. And I will by no means vouch for the quality of the other candidate. But if you actually read Jesus’ words and apply them to today’s political issues, it’s quite clear that group still would’ve chosen Trump if the direct choice was between him and the Jesus of the Gospels. And it’s only gotten worse the several years since as we’ve witnessed an abandonment of virtually all ethics and values and still see approval ratings among white Evangelical Christians barely budge. And the Republican party stands behind the man that the base supports.

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

We’re seeing it in the world around us. As we cling to power in such a rigid and exclusionary manner, we sacrifice literally everything we were called to stand for. And then outsiders see it and are disgusted by the sight. It chases away any possibility of evangelism. So that makes us even more bitter, claim even more persecution because we don’t like how people talk about us. Although people are just being honest about what they see, and they’re not seeing Jesus.

The message of Jesus, the experience of the early church, shows the power of love and the growth potential of the Kingdom of God. It thrives despite all worldly opposition. Today we have the opposite. We have a message drowned out by worldly power, a love that is withering and a faith no outsider sees and wants to follow.

Gaining the whole world is an exercise in building castles in the sand. It might be bigger, better, and more beautiful than anything we’ve ever seen. But it’s temporary. And it will come crashing down.

Jesus did not seek political gain. He sought to change the world through a message of love lived out. He knew that message would far outlast any nation or political environment. He succeeded. He told us to go and do likewise, not focus on gaining worldly power but to love and serve and spread his message to the masses.

History repeats itself. I hope we don’t need to actually reach a point of legitimate persecution for the Church, the body of Christ, to rediscover its soul. But maybe we do. Maybe just as we lose ourselves from gaining the world, we can only find ourselves again once we lose the world.

If that’s what it takes, I hope it happens soon. That love that spreads like wildfire sounds amazing.

2 thoughts on “Lose yourself to gain the world?

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