Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Luke 9

Part of my closer look at Luke project has been seeking out snippets and sections that I have overlooked previously and/or that I feel like have been overlooked by “Christian” culture at large in our country. Another part, one that will be the driving force behind today’s post, is taking seriously some of the things that have been repeated so much as to become cliché and to have lost their meaning within that same “Christian” culture.

The key message at the heart of this chapter is one that has been commonly repeated, but I believe it has been robbed of its meaning:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (23-25)

The last piece of that is something I’ve clung to over the last several years and, to be honest, something that helped spark a transformation in my own thinking and faith. But while it tidily sums up so much of Jesus’ heart, everything around it both in this short quote and in the rest of the chapter support and confirm this truth.

Our current pandemic has led to a conversation about “living in fear” that I believe is a partisan high-jacking of a message of trusting God in an effort to undermine concern for a disease that has taken the lives of more than 80,000 Americans, a number that is still growing and obviously only counts those in this country. While that “living in fear” mantra has been used to defy guidelines to social distance and wear masks, the stories of this chapter in Luke showcase just how radical the concept of trusting God and not living in fear really is – and just how much the current rallying cries to do so contradict the rest of our “Christian” culture’s priorities.

At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus sends out his closest followers to care for the sick and teach about the kingdom of God. He instructs them to essentially take nothing and rely on the provision of God through the generosity of the people they encounter (3). The next story focuses on Jesus feeding thousands of people with a mere five loaves of bread and two fish; the Twelve (whom we often refer to simply as the disciples) suggested sending people to fend for themselves, but Jesus told them to rely on the provision of God through the generosity of giving everything they had available to them.

Later, the disciples argue about who will be greatest, and Jesus tells them that “he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (48). Further, when a Samaritan village doesn’t welcome Jesus (due to serious cultural clashes between Jews and Samaritans), James and John ask if they should destroy the city in the name of God and Jesus rebukes them, respecting the lives of those who rejected him (54-56). Finally, the chapter concludes with a section about the cost of following Jesus, where he informs people to literally leave behind everything to follow him, saying “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (62).

These are all examples of people living fear-based lives: people wanting to know where their next meal will come from, where they will rank in the hierarchy, whether they should destroy people with whom they disagree, people who want to hold anything back. Jesus calls them all to something revolutionary and new: a life of faith and trust.

But notice the end result of this life of faith and trust: extreme self-sacrifice and a life devoted entirely to service. First, he sent people out to minister without taking any steps to provide for themselves. Next, he asks the disciples to gather their own food to give all of it away to feed a crowd. In the argument over who is greatest, Jesus tells them to seek to become the least. When they face Samaritan opposition, Jesus tells them to not consider their own self-interest but to allow their enemies to live. Finally, Jesus says to never look back, letting go of everything, to follow him.

This does not align in any way with the mission of American “Christian” culture, which is almost exclusively self-seeking. The goal in politics is to pass laws and appoint judges who will support laws that will benefit that one specific culture to the exclusion of others. “Religious liberty” is not sought to protect Muslims from persecution in our country; it’s sought so “Christians” can refuse to serve gay people at a bakery or so billionaire business owners can provide inferior health coverage to their minimum-wage workers.

American “Christian” culture seeks a narrative that, regardless of whether or not it is true (which is up for debate), that placed it under extreme persecution and in need of protection in an effort to justify these priorities. But even if that is all true, such a response does not align with Jesus, whose people experienced persecution at the hands of the Romans and who himself experienced persecution among his own people from the religious leaders. He did not seek to empower himself and his followers. He instead set an example through his life and spoke the words I quoted above as the heart of this passage. Here they are again:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (23-25)

Those are the words of a man who does not live by fear and does not live for himself. Everything he does is to the benefit of others. He sees persecution and sets an example of servitude and sacrifice. There is no political campaign to change laws. His concern is not the kingdom of Rome but the kingdom of God.

I’ve heard those verses countless times in my life, telling us we must take up our cross daily. But we’ve made them cliché and robbed them of their meaning. We’ve created a narrative that says taking up our cross daily means standing up for ourselves at the expense of others in our culture and proclaiming Jesus’ name while doing so. But that fundamentally goes against this entire premise because it’s all about self-preservation. That ignores the next sentence: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it” (24). Self-preservation is a life lived in fear, a life seeking material protection at the expense of your very self.

Jesus reaffirms this when his disciples argue about who is best and he points to a child: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (48).

If our approach places ourselves higher than any other person, we are not following Jesus. If we see others sick or in need, and we focus on protecting ourselves from them by refusing to care for them, building border walls and condemning them to certain death, we are not following Jesus. We are living a fear-focused life that desires to maintain our worldly life.

Alternatively, in the midst of a pandemic, defying logic and medical advice to make a public statement about your faith dishonors Jesus. It cares more about appearance than substance, which again is placing ourselves at the center of the priority: trying to make ourselves appear pious and faithful with phony public statements like continuing to hold large in-person church gatherings and refusing to wear a mask.

First of all, wearing a mask protects others from you far more than protecting you from others. So wearing one is not an act of fear but an act of selfless love. Conversely, not wearing one is an act of selfishness.

Second, each interaction we have with another person creates the possibility for the disease to spread further. That may not harm you (and you may not fear it), but with each person it touches there is a chance for another life lost or permanently altered. Seeking to prevent that is not living in fear, and defiantly contributing to the potential spread is not an act of faith.

It’s an act of selfishness. It is the opposite of Jesus. It is placing ourselves at the front of the line, saying we are more important and what we want to say and do (in this case, make a phony public statement that we won’t live in fear) above the concerns of others.

The entire heart of Jesus’ message, as exemplified in the famous words about gaining the world and losing your very self, is that others are the priority. Always. That simply does not align – and in fact completely contradicts – the mission and message of American “Christianity” and its culture.

But there is hope. Jesus continues to beckon, as he did to the man in verse 59, “Follow me.” That option is still available to us.

One thought on “A closer look at Luke (Part 8): What not living in fear really means

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