One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is ‘true’ but because it is ‘good’. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if it is true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.
– C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (1946)
We often talk about blessings from God, or what the gospel can bring us. We mention being happier, or having peace, or the answers to vital questions.
These are, to be sure, great advantages, and we should humbly acknowledge them.
The risk, however, is that we can too easily come to trust the gift more than the Giver. Do we value our peace more than the Prince of Peace?
This is one of the many Christian paradoxes. Jesus assures us that his yoke is easy, and his burden light. But, he also warns us that to be his disciple, we must take up our cross daily, and risk having those of our own household hate us. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub,” we warns with characteristic irony, “how much more shall they call them of his household?” (Matthew 10:25)
I’ve often wondered what a 2nd or 3rd century sociologist would find about Christians–I wonder if they would point out that being a Christian made it far more likely to have family strife over religious matters (something virtually unheard of among pagans, who could always welcome one more god at the altar), and far more likely to end up in a lion’s stomach than the general pagan-in-the-street. Not, perhaps, a ringing endorsement.
But we do not–indeed, we cannot–ultimately follow Christ because of what doing so brings us. We follow him simply because what he taught is true, and we ought to value the truth, wherever it takes us.
We have, I fear, too surrounded the Passion with rocco art and Renaissance frescos. Our knowledge of Easter and two thousand years of Christian civilization (however imperfect) disguises the deep shame and offense that was the cross on ‘Good’ Friday (more of that Christian irony).
Dietrich Bonhoffer noted this shameful and outrageous death ought to awaken us to the demands of discipleship immediately upon meeting Christ:
The cross is laid on every Christian….Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god–fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die––death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call….In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.
– The Cost of Discipleship (Whitstable, Kent, Great Britain: Latimer Trend & Co. Ltd., 1959), 79–80.
And, argues Bonhoffer, the Christian is also called to an imitation of Christ due to the scorn and violence–be it physical, rhetorical, or social–that inevitably follows the disciples.
But there is [a] kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them.
To forgive is as much a gift of grace as to be forgiven–perhaps more so. To humble ourselves when confronted by our own sin is painful, but at times becomes almost inevitable. We will be humbled or worse; we are overjoyed that the experience can end. But, to suffer injustice, to suffer for others’ sins, to watch those who use us ill parade and proclaim both their victory and their uprightness–to bear that with good grace and meet it with forgiving grace is no small matter.
It is hard to be a scapegoat. But, what did the worshipers of a crucified God expect?
He did, after all, warn us up front.