The Standard February 25, 2021
Many Christians use the time between Ash Wednesday and the night before Easter to reflect on the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus. A tradition is to give up something for Lent as a reminder of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. These five and a half weeks often are set apart to focus on Scripture, prayer, and repentance. It is a somber time to evaluate how closely we are following Christ.
In the days leading up to the crucifixion, Jesus warns his disciples of the difficult times ahead. He reiterates the message that following him means being an outcast in the world’s eyes. His followers would be like pilgrims on earth and should not expect a warm reception. The message of Jesus that the first will be last, to love is to serve (even our enemies), and life is not about our desires or comfort challenges most natural human thinking.
Early on, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)
The three Synoptic Gospels record Jesus giving the message that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously notes in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
The idea of self-denial is not widely popular, and a lot of people will balk at it. Jesus points out how unpopular absolute surrender will be. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13) He goes on, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ’Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:15-23)
Scripture teaches that salvation is a free gift we cannot earn; It is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Our good works do not make us right with God. Because God first loved us, we want to love and obey him. Becoming more like Jesus is a natural outgrowth of following God. Jesus makes it clear that his disciples should expect that their obedience will result in not fitting in with the prevailing culture and in being scorned. “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own.” (John 15: 18-19a) The Apostle Paul challenges us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) As we reflect on Christ’s sacrifice this Lenten season, let us throw off any worldly expectations and be transformed into the people God has called us to be.