I think I was blessed to suffer early in life. Sexual abuse as a child, spiritual warfare and depression as a 20-something, followed by self-harm, anxiety attacks, insomnia—the pain of being a human being with a broken body in a broken world.
The struggles still come without warning. Marriage breakdown and renewal, chronic sleep disorder, weight gain, minor addictive tendencies; it can be tough to be a human trying to follow Jesus in today’s day in age.
Every person has different and unique weaknesses. But whether it’s physical or mental suffering or the sins of our hearts, we all share the same reality: we are all human. And as human we are all prone to sin and extremely averse to suffering.
Prone to sin
At this point, many of you are probably getting ready for a sermon on morality and holiness in the Christian life; about how we need to guard ourselves from temptation and “dig deep” to keep ourselves pure in this immoral and godless world. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not where this is going. It’s not that pursuing purity and holiness in the Christian life isn’t important, but I think it is secondary to what I’m calling the (capital S) “Sin” of some North American expressions of evangelicalism. But this Sin isn’t new to our generation, and God has been warning about it since the time of Moses. I’m talking about the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). If Jesus is God, the exhaustive Word of God, the concrete image of the invisible God—if God looks and acts like Jesus—then I’m sorry to say, many Evangelicals in North America have broken this commandment by abandoning Jesus-centered theology and witness in the world.
If Jesus isn’t the center of our churches, we have replaced Him with something else: foreign and false gods. If Jesus isn’t the center of our churches, we have broken God’s most important commandment. This is the Sin I’m talking about here.
Abandoning Jesus as THE Sin of all sins
We see it reflected in movements like the prosperity gospel, where a genie-god has replaced Jesus—the crucified God of hope—as the center and focus of our theology and witness in the world.
We see it in dispensational rapture theology where Jesus, “the concrete executor of God’s love” (Bonhoeffer), is maligned and replaced with a violent End Times warrior—a wrathful genocidal destroyer—that looks and acts nothing like the New Testament Jesus we have come to know, love and follow.
We see it in the fundamentalist movements that have replaced Jesus—the living, superlative and exhaustive Word of God—with a rabid and rigid biblical literalism. This has led millions to believe that God commanded genocide in the conquest narratives and will return as a bloodthirsty warrior in the End Times. This God can suspend ethics and slaughter infants because He is defined by a ‘holy’ self-determination that seeks to destroy ‘evil humanity,’ rather than act in vulnerable self-giving love. Nope. Not Jesus.
We see it in the large swaths of Evangelicals, though not all, who have replaced cross-shaped discipleship with political partisanship and hate for their enemies.
Finally, we see it in how celebrity culture has invaded North American evangelicalism where pastors are turned into god-like figures of fame and fortune to be worshiped. This has caused the fabric of Christian community, which is supposed to be held together by Christ-like service towards one another, to be replaced by a culture that praises the exceptional and distinguished rather than serving and honoring the weak and oppressed among us.
How has this all happened? Enter Satan.
In order to triumph over Satan and redeem humanity and the earth, Jesus had to suffer and be rejected. The suffering of the Messiah was God’s plan from the start and nothing could get in the way of that. Hear me. It was the only way. In accordance with the the Law and the Prophets, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” It was a must. “It was divine necessity that Jesus had to suffer and be rejected,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Costly Discipleship. “Any attempt to hinder what is necessary is satanic” (All Bonhoeffer quotes are from this book).
Bonhoeffer gives the example of Peter when he rebukes Jesus for predicting His death. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me’ […]”(Matt. 16:22-23).
In Peter’s attempt to stand between Jesus and the cross, “it intends to prevent Christ from being Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. It reveals the spiritual assaults the Church has experienced from the beginning in accepting the necessity of the cross – both as an event and as a reality of discipleship. He continues:
The fact that it is Peter, the rock of the church, who makes himself guilty doing this just after he has confessed Jesus to be the Christ and has been commissioned by Christ, shows that from its very beginning the church has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It does not want that kind of Lord, and as Christ’s church it does not want to be forced to accept the law of suffering from its Lord. Peter’s objection is his aversion to submit himself to suffering. That is a way for Satan to enter the church. Satan is trying to pull the church away from the cross of its Lord.
But he can’t and will not. Jesus is the victor. It is impossible to tear the Church away from the crucified God of hope because Jesus has welded His entire being to her at the cross. But Satan tries, nonetheless. We see it in the movements mentioned earlier that have abandoned Jesus-centered Christianity for other gods. The god of wealth. The god of destruction. The god of celebritism. The god of literalism. The god of superiorism. The god of religious tribalism. The god of political partisanship. Must I say more?
These gods are not the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus as the crucified God of concrete love and hope. And it is these gods that threaten to replace Jesus from our churches, and in turn, threaten to derail cross-shaped discipleship and Jesus-driven ethics in the world.
Cross-shaped discipleship and ethical action
When we Christians place Jesus at the center of our theology and ethics, we will learn cross-shaped discipleship in a world bent out of shape. A world and Church that places their hope in demogogues and celebrity pastors, human privilege and economic power. Christian ethics, and thus discipleship, isn’t so much about warring against “godless” culture, nor is it about peddling a narrative to sinners that God is coming to destroy them or to make them rich. Rather, it’s about voluntarily suffering with struggling and weak humanity because we believe God is deeply and daringly merciful in Jesus; it’s about offering hope to human beings as disciples who are being formed into the crucified God of resurrection hope.
Our greatest calling as the Church is to cruciform discipleship and resurrection hope. “Discipleship is a bond with the suffering Christ,” says Bonhoeffer. It proclaims to a Church prone to abandoning the cross of Jesus and a threatened world that God is not a Force of destruction, but a compassionate Sufferer who offers concrete hope to a suffering world.
When we see discipleship as such, we will be driven into the world by Jesus instead of trying to escape it. Cross-shaped discipleship acknowledges that “God is revealed in the world precisely in those places that the world is most prone to ignore: in suffering, rejection, and scorn,” says David H. Jensen in Religionless Christianity and Vulnerable Discipleship: The Interfaith Promise of Bonhoeffer’s Theology. “The God of Jesus Christ takes these anathemas, makes them God’s own, and invites all disciples to participate in them.”
Yes. The Church and world is bent out of shape. So be cross-shaped.