April 7, 2019
Union University Church
One of the most popular game shows in the history of T.V. is the show, “Who wants to be a millionaire?”
Apparently from the ratings it has received, the answer to the question “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” is, “A whole lot of people.” The show first aired in 1999 and has run continuously since, occasionally changing networks or hosts and adding new rules to keep the format fresh, but it has remained at heart a trivia quiz show in which contestants try to win a million dollars by successfully answering 14 multiple choice questions. Over the 20 years it has been on, this format has spawned numerous clones such as “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” “It’s Your Chance of a Lifetime” and one short-lived game show which at least had the virtue of being bluntly honest in its name: it was called simply, “Greed.”
While we may mock these shows as pandering to our baser desires, we can’t entirely blame the networks because the fact is, these shows wouldn’t be on the air if people weren’t watching them; the networkers know what brings in viewers. Just imagine for a moment that a programmer, in a moment of conscience, decides to try to appeal to people’s better instincts and the programmer goes to the network executives and says, “I am tired of bringing out the worst in people and so I have created a game that will draw out worthy human values like self-sacrifice, courage, and fidelity. I call this new game show, ‘Who wants to be a martyr?’” As the network executives sit in stunned disbelief, the programmer goes on to explain that in the game, just as before, the contestant will have to answer a series of more and more challenging questions but if the contestant is successful, instead of getting to be a millionaire, the contestant gets to make a noble sacrifice. Maybe he or she gets to be burned at the stake while delivering a heart-stirring speech or maybe they get to be eaten by lions. Or if the contestant doesn’t make it all the way to the final answer, he or she could still win a smaller amount of suffering: a few days in a damp prison cell, or the chance to be taunted and ridiculed by the studio audience. How do you think this program idea would be received by the network heads? The programmer would probably be kicked out of the room because, while lots of people want to be millionaires, none of us is beating down any doors to be a martyr. Unfortunately, history tells us that such a show would probably yield very high ratings because watching people being burned at the stake has been at times a very popular form of entertainment among the public, but getting contestants who want to be on the show would be really tough. Lots of people want the chance to be millionaires but the chance to be a martyr? That’s a much tougher sell.
Yet here we are in the church trying to sell people a gospel that has as its central message, “If you want to be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s no wonder that many churches soft pedal this part of the gospel advertising instead their tremendous music program or their coffee bars. Try running a new members class for the church by promising candidates for membership that when they join this fellowship, they are signing on for great amounts of suffering, and I’m not talking just about the committee meetings. Or try telling teenagers in a discipleship class that making a commitment to Christ means that they are making a commitment to suffer, to endure hardship, pain, ridicule, rejection, and even death. How many of them are going to leap into that baptismal pool, joyously shouting, “Yes, take me Jesus and bring on the suffering?” It’s a hard sell!
It’s not that we don’t respect people who endure pain for the sake of Christ — on the contrary, we admire them and hold them up as exemplary people.
Christianity is full of stories of men and women who did endure derision, imprisonment, pain, and even death for their faith, and we tell the stories to remind ourselves of the noble character of people who drank the cup that Jesus drank — Stephen bludgeoned to death with stones for speaking the name of Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr. shot for continuing the battle for civil rights, Oscar Romero killed in his own church for seeking justice for the people of Central America. We respect martyrs. We are moved by their stories, but none of us really wants to be one, because the problem with being a martyr is you don’t get to sit around afterward and feel good about what you’ve done because, you know, you’re dead.
Jesus’ message that discipleship may lead to the cross is not an easy one to sell to any normal human being who has a natural instinct to avoid pain and death, but his message is even more difficult to sell in modern day America.
During the first century when the church was just beginning, many people undoubtedly became Christians for the same reasons that we become Christians: they found that Jesus’ teachings made sense of their world and helped them to live better lives. They found comfort for their wounded hearts, healing in prayer, and support in the shared fellowship of good people. They wanted a place where their children could develop strength of character. They wanted a place to belong. In the first century, however, in order to receive those benefits, Christians knew that they also had to accept the risk that came with pledging allegiance to Christ. Persecution and martyrdom were real possibilities in the everyday life of everyday Christians back then, and so they had to weigh the risks and the benefits of their faith.
That is not true, however, for us in modern-day America. No one is going to send you to the gallows for going to church on Sunday. Here in the state of New York in 2019, you can get all of the benefits of the church without any of the risks. You can get up on Sunday morning and go to church without the police taking any notice. You can tell your employer that you are a member of the Union University Church and they cannot legally dock your pay. Here in Alfred, you can put up a creche in your front yard at Christmas and no one is going to break your windows or spray paint your garage, mocking you because of your faith. There are still places in the world where men and women have to weigh the benefits of Christianity against the costs, just as there are places in America where Jews and Muslims have to make those same choices but for you and me right here and right now, professing that we are a Christian is absolutely safe and will cost us nothing. You don’t even need to put any money in the offering plate and we will not turn you away. Think of what a tremendous gift that is and what a unique situation that is in the history of our faith, and yet, the question then becomes, what does that do to our commitment? What does discipleship mean if there is no obvious cross to bear?
The answer to that question depends very much on how we understand Jesus’ own death on the cross and whether we believe that Jesus went to Jerusalem in order to die on the cross, or whether Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing that he might die on the cross?” Did he go in order to suffer, or did he go knowing that he might suffer but was willing to take the risk for our sake?
For much of Christian history, church theologians answered that question by saying that Jesus went to Jerusalem because he had to die in order to pay for our sins. Those ancient theologians imagined God as a feudal Lord, authoritarian and demanding, requiring restitution for our sins, but in an act of benevolent grace, God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice as a substitution on our behalf. Those who wished to follow Christ, then, felt that they too must find ways of emulating that suffering in order to prove their fidelity to God, the stern taskmaster who demanded absolute loyalty. Not everyone, however, agreed with this theology, feeling that it placed the blame for the cross on God instead of where it belonged — on the failure of human beings to love. For the academically minded among you, google, “Doctrine of Moral Atonement” proposed as early as the 1100s, an alternative way of understanding Jesus’s death on the cross, explained in contemporary terms by the author, Barbara Brown Taylor:
“From the very beginning,” she writes, “God has shared power with us giving us power to name, to create, to choose, to act. We have done wonderful things with that privilege. We have also abused it. The dark side of our power is our power to resist God, to say no to God’s yes and to thwart the divine will…. It is entirely possible that God’s will for Jesus was long life and success, and that his early death was not the fulfillment of God’s will but the frustration of it — the world’s no to God’s yes — a divine defeat. In this light, Jesus did not die to pay our bills. He died because he would not stop being who he was and who he was, was very upsetting. He turned everything upside down. He allied himself with the wrong people and insulted the right ones. He disobeyed the law. He challenged the authorities, who warned him to stop. The government officials warned him to stop. The religious leaders warned him to stop. And when he would not stop, they had him killed, because he would not stop being who he was.”
In this understanding of the cross, suffering is not a requirement by God for our salvation. A person could in fact, be a committed follower of Christ and a dedicated disciple and never have to endure suffering at all. You might live your entire life as a good and faithful Christian and never be called upon to make a choice that will cause you pain, or cause others to mock you or disturb you. You might live out your three score and ten in peace with your neighbors, happiness and joy, and harmony with all.
It is possible to do so; in fact, it is just about as possible to live a faithful Christian life without ever suffering as it is to win the lottery! because while God does not require us as God’s disciples to suffer, if we are sincere in our discipleship, the world will do its best to make our lives hard. In modern day America, perhaps it feels like there is no cost to being a Christian but if you live out your faith in every way and in every day, it is extremely likely that one day the cost will show its face. One day you will have to make a choice between preserving your own peace or standing up on behalf of justice. One day you will have to make a choice between fitting in or taking a controversial stand on behalf of the oppressed. One day you will have to make a choice between staying at home to watch TV or volunteering at the food pantry; or between buying a fancy car or giving that money to hurricane relief victims; or between staying safely within your own homogeneous community or crossing racial lines to extend a hand to those different from yourself. And when that day comes, a true disciple will stay the course, even if the cross is the result. Jesus was crucified because he knew completely who he was and what he was about, and he refused to let anything, even the threat of the cross, change that. He was devoted to God’s love, to God’s inclusion of the outcast, to God’s forgiveness and mercy, and when the authorities told him to stop, he would not because he couldn’t not be who he was. Jesus says that such a day may come for us as well, and he asks, “Will you be ready to take us your cross and follow me?”
This is the meaning of discipleship: to follow Christ is to work constantly to strengthen our hearts, test our resolve, and prepare ourselves to meet any challenge not because we seek suffering but so that if suffering does comes, we will be ready to stay the course.
“For which of you,” Jesus said, “intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
Let us during this Lenten season, work to test our resolve, strengthen our hearts, and lay a foundation that will last.