I’m plagued by the drastic difference between the relatively comfortable lives we live for Christ today compared to the extreme sacrifices that were almost standard in the church 2,000 years ago. The call of sacrifice for Christ, the call to bear a cross, has been largely replaced by a toned-down version called generosity. In my own life, when have I ever given to the point that it actually cost me something of great worth? When have I ever bore something for the sake of God that was so painful, so humiliating and so costly that it could genuinely be referred to as a cross? And yet a cross is what we have been called to bear.
What does it mean to take up a cross and follow Jesus? The standards of discipleship in the early church were composed of great sacrificial demands. Many were called to do things such as sell all their possessions and give the profits to the poor, or to give up their occupations, or to leave their family to travel and minister, or live in community. All disciples felt the discomfort of ministry, due to the fact that the non-ministering Christian was non-existent in the early Christian church. Over the decades, these lifestyle characteristics have become more and more deluded until finally we have been left with churches and Christians fully neglect of the supernatural and radical. Out of comfort and tradition, Church bodies have closed in on themselves. The early church stayed connected with other churches, unlike many churches today that rarely fellowship with other congregations. The early congregations were comprised of Christians of all economic, racial and political backgrounds. Most churches today are primarily homogenous (same economic background, same race, by and large the same political beliefs), antagonizing and worthy of the statement that, "Sunday mornings are the most segregated time of the week." Today, with these and other factors, it can be difficult to feel we are fulfilling our role as the body of Christ.
An observation can be made about many of Jesus’ statements to illustrate the weight and demands behind the lifestyle of Christian discipleship. Jesus said such things as, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword … I have come to turn a man against his father … a man’s enemies will be that of his own household." When a disciple asked to leave and bury his deceased father, Jesus replied, "Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead." I hope one day to come to a fuller understanding of these disturbing passages, but for now they serve in helping me to realize how serious the call to discipleship was to be taken. If people chose to follow Jesus, they needed to prepare for sacrifice and be aware that they would carry a cross. Each individual who began following Christ experienced a complete shift and change in lifestyle. There are many things we constitute as relevant and practical only to the early church because of the difference in culture. In reality though, we often write off the extreme lifestyles of the early church not because of cultural differences, but because of our own fears of living an extreme life ourselves. Jesus continues to call us to live lives and make decisions that seem impractical and radical.
To answer the call of Jesus is to answer the call to suffer; to be willing to suffer in relatively every aspect of life, agreeing to risk social shunning, agreeing to risk the way we use our money, agreeing to risk the use of personal talent, agreeing to risk personal time. Often, it is to answer the call to suffer in a less overt way. In his book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, "In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial." With the exception of inner-peace, we are not guaranteed that comfort will find any resting place in a life of true discipleship. That’s not to say we are destined to live tragic, miserable lives. It is to say the value of a purposeful, fulfilling, serving life is far greater than that of a comfortable one. If an attempt is made to have equal portions of both kinds, then the others-focused, serving characteristic has already been compromised.
We as Christians, more than anyone else, need to be helping others. We need to be known for our reliability and sacrificial generosity. We need to be valuing and investing in people that are typically considered to be "different." We need to acquire a new standard of ownership, drawing comparison to the life of the early church and withdrawing our standards from the influence of the society around us. As citizens of this country, we have a great responsibility, more than anywhere else in the world, to use our power and wealth, both as a government and as individuals, to help our fellow human beings who have fallen and are wounded. We must do our part to lesson the gap between the economic and racial classes through use of our social and financial resources, as well as through multi-cultural church fellowship and support of private local business. We must allow our faith to penetrate our lives past the point of philosophy and morals.
Christian discipleship is two-fold. We are in constant pursuit of spiritual maturity, attempting to challenge, deepen and apply our faith. In turn, we attempt to aid others in their pursuit of Christ. Upon doing this, sacrifice and service become increasingly stronger characteristics of the disciple’s lifestyle. Sacrifice and service, if chosen, will lead us down a path of effectiveness and purpose where the love of God will reveal just how far it is willing to go. The question then turns on us; how far are we willing to go?