Do you see the irony in the picture above? Take a close look. Do you see it?
I’m referring to the irony of a person sitting under a comfy blanket sipping a hot mug of tea, while reading about Stephen who was killed for his faith in Jesus. Now do you see the irony?
Here’s what I bring this up, Christians: Paul’s words should be the anthem of our lives. What words? The words of Acts 21:13 and Philippians 1:21, that he, like Stephen, would give his life to die for Jesus. But how should that be the anthem of our lives? What might it look like for Christians in 2020 to live that way, especially when most of us are not being persecuted for our faith? Wait a minute…Are you saying, Joel, that the person in the picture is wrong for reading their Bible? Are you saying that Christian faith is only true faith if a Christian is being persecuted? Not at all. Instead, I’m asking us to evaluate our faith, and specifically to answer the question if we would give our lives for Christ. And I am asking us to question, what would that look like for us?
I am reminded of Brother Lawrence, the 1600s-era monk who worked in his monastery’s kitchen, and had a continual conversation with God all day long, even as he washed dishes. The other monks would observe him many times breaking into joyful expressions of love for Christ, to the point where they were weirded out by it, like “Why does he have to act like that? Show-off.” Brother Lawrence talks about how he had to learn to contain himself so that he didn’t offend the other monks, but sometimes his emotion would spill out anyway. There’s a guy who loved the Lord.
But is that kind of emotional closeness what Paul meant? Is that how Christians should express their faith in Jesus? Maybe. It certainly isn’t wrong to have that kind of emotion about the Lord. Even if you or I are not very emotional people, as some of us are more stoic, we can learn from Paul and Brother Lawrence. We could ask ourselves, “Am I too cold about Jesus? Am I spiritually dry? Am I apathetic? Am I too intellectual in my faith?” I know that when I don’t spend time with Jesus, my impression of my feelings about the relationship is that of fading. Distance. What I give time to is most often what I feel strongest about. When it comes to Jesus, in my role as pastor, I have the advantage of spending time with him pretty much as my job. Whether that is preparing sermons, lessons, Bible studies, it all helps me connect with Jesus. I wonder, though, how intentional I would be about spending time with Jesus if it wasn’t my job?
Do you intentionally make space and time for building a relationship with Jesus? How much? What do you do with that space and time? How it is going? Do you sense a movement of getting closer to him, knowing him more?
Paul had tapped into the incredible joy and blessing of having a close connection with Jesus. He would say that there is nothing better. And that’s where I think many of us American Christians have a battle. Is spending time with Jesus truly better than the many other ways we could spend our time and energy? It often doesn’t feel like it, does it?
Can’t we have it all? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Can’t we have vacations and hobbies and sports and shopping and restaurants and cell phones and TV and Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, Apple+, HBO, Peacock, CBS All Acces…the list of streaming services is getting long, isn’t it? In other words, can’t we partake of many entertainments and comforts of American culture and have a close relationship with Jesus? We sure have tried to make both American culture and the life of Jesus mix together in our lives at the same time, haven’t we?
I will admit to you that I don’t know if we can mix the two. Jesus once taught, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
I don’t know where to draw the line for myself, let alone try to draw the line for you. Thankfully Jesus and the apostles taught very clearly against the legalistic tendencies of the Jewish leaders. That’s, in large part, what got Paul in trouble in Jerusalem, as we learned about in the first post on Acts 21.
So I’m not going to try to draw a line for you. Instead, I ask you to evaluate, is it really your passion to be disciples of Jesus? Is it really your passion to be changed by the Holy Spirit, so that his life is flowing out of your life? Is it really your passion to make disciples of Jesus? Is it really your passion to make his mission your mission, a mission of justice for the oppressed?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who confronted the Nazis and was sent to a concentration camp where they killed him, once said, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Somehow or another we American Christians need to find a way to make sure that our lives are clearly, clearly demonstrating that. Bonhoeffer didn’t just make that up. Paul said it here in Acts 21:13. Paul didn’t make it up though. Jesus himself said that is the standard for his disciples. Remember his famous phrase, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must die to himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Die? That sounds horrible. Who would want to do that? Wouldn’t you rather sit in a sofa watching Netflix while scrolling through Instagram on your phone as you eat a bowl of ice cream? I would. And yet, we are called to live a life that is different from our culture. Jesus called it the abundant life, and thus we allow Jesus to be our guide about how to live that life.
Paul clearly got it. So with this post, I simply raise the questions, and I invite you to consider how you will answer them.