John 12:20-33 – What It Means to Follow Christ

dying to self

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (NRSV)

The fifth Sunday in Lent is now here.  We are quickly approaching Jerusalem.  Holy Week will be here before you know it.  Why is this all significant?  Because Jesus is important.  When we take advantage of Lent with its focus on spiritual discipline, prayer, and repentance, we come face-to-face with the shadowy parts of our selves.  We discover that within us there is the pull to hold-on to unhealthy rhythms and habits of life, as well as a push to arrange our lives with the fragmentation of disordered love.

Perhaps our reflexive response to things we do not like about ourselves is to either use sheer willpower to change or try to somehow manage our brokenness, as if we could boss our way out of darkness.  The problem and the solution are much more radical than we often would like to admit.

We must die.  Yes, this is the teaching of the Lord Jesus.  That is, we need to die to ourselves.  Sin cannot be managed or willed away – it must be eradicated and completely cut out, like the cancer it is.  Transformation can only occur through death.  Jesus uses the familiar example of a seed to communicate his point.  A tiny little seed can grow, break the ground, and develop into something which provides sustenance for others.  It does no good to remain a seed in the ground.

Jesus did not tell others to do with what he himself does not do.  Christ is the ultimate example of the one who died to himself and literally died for us.  Only through suffering and death did he secure deliverance for us.  Through his wounds we are healed.  Through his tortuous death a resurrection became possible – and we must always remember that there must be a death if there is to be a resurrection.  Death always comes before there is life.  There must be suffering before there is glory.

Only through dying to self and following Jesus will there be the kind of transformative change which the world so desperately needs.  If we persist in making puny attempts at trying to straddle the fence in dual/rival kingdoms, we will be spiritually schizophrenic and left with a divided soul.

Following Jesus, leaving all to walk with him, is true repentance and authentic discipleship.  The act of journeying with Christ is the means to having a new life.  Change only happens when we allow Jesus Christ to be the center from which all our life springs.

Maybe you think I’m being too forceful, too insistent about this Jesus stuff.  Yes, you have perceived well.  I am being quite single-minded about the need to die to self and live for Christ.  Somehow, within many corners of Christianity, this wrongheaded notion that suffering is not God’s will has made it into the life of the church.  But I’m here to say, on the authority of God’s Holy Word, that dying to ourselves is necessary and it hurts like hell.  The epistle reading for today bears this out:

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7-9, NRSV)

We are not above our Master.  Even Christ’s life on this earth, before his death and resurrection, was marked with suffering.  Even Jesus learned obedience through struggle and adversity.  Our Lord himself did what he is now asking us to do.  He gave himself up to do the Father’s will.  We must give up ourselves to submit to King Jesus.  Jesus offered loud cries and tears and submitted to what the Father wanted.  We must do no less.  We don’t get to choose which parts of Christ’s life and teaching we will adhere to and which ones we don’t need to, as if Jesus were some spiritual buffet line.  All who live for Jesus will follow him into the path of suffering, of death to self, and of new life through the power of his resurrection.  In Christ’s own words: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

So, then, how do we follow Jesus through dying to self?  What does that mean for you and me on a practical daily basis?

Thanks for asking.

Surrender

Every moment of every day we can give up ourselves to Jesus.  We have hundreds, maybe thousands of small decisions every day with the use of our time, our money, our energy, and our relationships.  If we have tried to fix what is broken inside of us, we will likely just try to hastily fix the problems and the people in our lives and move on with getting things done on our to do list.  Instead, we need to surrender.  We need to create the sacred space for solitude and silence, prayer and repentance.  Take the time to sit with a person in pain and listen.  Reflect on how to use your money in a way which mirrors kingdom values.  Begin to see your life as a holy rhythm of hearing God and responding to what he says.  It takes intentional surrender to do that.

Sacrifice

Holding-on to our precious stuff and time is the opposite of sacrifice.  Are we truly willing to give-up everything to follow Jesus?  It is more than true that we are not Jesus.  Our sacrifice and suffering are not efficacious, that is, it doesn’t deliver other people from sin.  Only Christ’s death does that.  Yet, we are still called to sacrifice.  The Apostle Paul understood this:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24, NRSV)

I’m just going to let you wrestle with that verse and mull it over without comment on my part.

We were not placed on this earth only to strive for happiness.  Our lives are not meant to be lived for ourselves. Jesus has called us to see our places, communities, neighborhoods, and families as our mission field of grace to a world who needs him.  This takes sacrificial love on our part.

Christianity is not really a religion that is for people who have put together neat theological answers and tidy packaged certainties to all of life’s questions.  Rather, Christianity is a dynamic religion of learning to follow Jesus, discovering how to die to self, and struggling to put Christ’s teaching and example into practice.

Those who don’t struggle are in big trouble.  But those who go through the pain of dying to themselves for the sake of their Lord, find that the fruit they end up bearing leads to eternal life.

May you struggle well, my friend.

Letting Go

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Across the street from where I live is a small old cemetery.  Each morning, after arising, I go to the large patio window facing the old tombstones and I am reminded of the brevity of life.  Yes, we all shall die.  From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.  But the daily look at the graveyard is much more than a future reminder of what awaits us all; it is also a very present call for me to die to myself.

One way of looking at our lives is to discern that it is a pilgrimage into the inner depths of our souls.  As we move within, there is a great need to put away selfishness, arrogance, and the hubris of settled certainty about everything.  When I became an adult, I discovered that life was not all about doing whatever I wanted (as I so naively thought as a kid).  Instead, life was also full of responsibilities, stewarding my work, school, and relationships.  I found that if I was to do anything well, it involved a significant degree of death to self.  When I married my lovely wife, I quickly discovered that marriage was a whole lot more than sex and being fed grapes from a beautiful woman while lounging on the couch.  Instead, it was a new journey of dying to my expectations and learning to meet the needs of this other person.  And, just when I thought I might be getting a handle on this new way of life, I became a father.  Now my whole life seemed upside-down caring for this helpless little baby girl that only screamed and pooped if she was not sleeping and eating.  My goodness, more death to self so that I may care for another.

I could go on and on with this motif of death (the Apostle Paul certainly did! i.e. Romans 6).  Caring for others as a pastor; becoming a grandfather; being attentive to the great needs of society and the world; it all involves being reminded each day that the cemetery awaits me.  As I write, the Christian Church is well into the season of Advent.  The coming of Christ is quite the fascinating and gracious reality.  If you think about it, Jesus could have just appeared on earth.  He could have shown up as a fully developed adult ready for his ministry.  Jesus could have circumvented the whole thing about experiencing the pain of growing and learning.  But, instead, he came to earth through a woman.  The King of the universe gestated in the womb of Mary and was born in humble circumstances.  He was a baby, a child, a young man, and a teacher and Savior.  Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered (Hebrews 2:10-18).  And then he died.  But death could not hold him in the grave.

When I look at that old cemetery I am also reminded of a bigger picture, and a larger portrait that God is painting.  I am daily learning, even now, to continually die to myself so that Christ might live in me.  He must grow and gestate within, overtaking me so that His life might be preeminent.  More of Him, less of me.  He must increase; I must decrease.  But out of that death to self, something extraordinary and supernatural occurs:  resurrection to a new life.  Someday, just as Christ came in his first Advent, He will come again in a second Advent.  The graves will open.  With the presence of Christ in me, I shall rise again, just as He did.

There cannot be a resurrection without a death.  All great spiritualities have in common the need to let go.  Christianity just puts it in the frame of dying to self and living for Jesus so that the world will be blessed by encountering the great truth that He is Immanuel, God with us.

The graveyard does not have the last word.  It is a daily reminder that I must die.  But it is also an abiding picture that new life is possible through death, both in this life and in the life to come.

Hebrews 10:19-25

            Discouragement can easily settle into the bones when we are not thriving in some way.  The church rests upon three indispensable elements that must be present for every believer in Jesus to thrive as citizens of God’s kingdom:  faith, hope, and love.  “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith… Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering… And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”  Just as a three-legged stool cannot stand on only one or even two legs, so our personal and corporate Christianity will not stand unless faith, hope, and love all exist side by side.
 
            Furthermore, these three vital elements must be based in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and not within our own soul’s fortifications, or lack thereof.  The basis of our confidence in living the Christian life is through the blood of Jesus, that he has taken care of the sin issue once for all through his death.  This is all activated in a practical way through meeting together and encouraging one another as the Body of Christ.
 
            The irony of the Christian life is that in losing our lives we find them; in being last we become first; in emptying ourselves as servants of others we are full.  It is people who attempt gain for themselves that miss faith in Christ; who always have to be right that ultimately lose hope; who seek to be served and thus never know real love.  Let us develop and maintain habits of faith, hope, and love – accessed fully through participation in meeting together as believers in Jesus.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you have gone before us and secured deliverance from sin through your death on a cross.  My trust is in you, my hope is in your promised return, and my love belongs to you and your people, now and forever.  Amen.

Philippians 3:2-12

            I am in the position, as a pastor, of interacting with a wide variety of people.  No matter the age, the station in life, the family background, or the socio/economic situation, the biggest thing I see most people struggle with is letting go of something.  We, as human beings, have this nasty tendency to hold onto things we really need to let go of, and I’m not just talking about hoarders.  We hold onto our anger and nurse it as a grudge; we hold onto our past, as if our pedigree, of lack of it, has to be constantly brought up; we hold onto our bad habits of poor sleep patterns, unhealthy eating, and no time with God to the point that our bodies and our souls break; and, we hold onto our church traditions and our theological thinking with such ferocity that no one can pry them from our cold dead hearts.
 
            If this New Testament lesson from the Apostle Paul tells us anything today it is this:  For God’s sake, let it go!  “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  Paul died to his anger, his past religious zeal, his former theological thinking, his Jewish pedigree, and, quite frankly, everything.  He did it so that he could gain Jesus because Jesus was the highest value for Paul – so valuable that he was willing to die to his former life in order to embrace Christ.
 
            In this season of Lent we are to not only give up chocolate, or fast once a week, or take a break from social media; we are to die.  There cannot be new life without a death.  The death we need is to let go of all the emotional baggage, spiritual crud, and materialistic strivings that have played a more prominent role in our lives than knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  What am I giving up for Lent?  I am going to follow Paul’s example and give up my life.  Will you join me?
 

 

            Blessed Lord Jesus, you are the ultimate value in life.  Help me to beware of people who would seek to draw me away and deplete my soul from this highest priority of knowing you.  I want to know you, the power of your resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in your sufferings so that I can be more like you.  Amen.

Spiritual Growth

 
 
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” (Jesus in John 12:24-26).
 
This was the message of Jesus.  There is no wiggle room or fudge factor to it.  Jesus unequivocally said what people really need to do:  die to self.  To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: water; correct temperature (warmth); and a good location (such as in soil). During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored with it in the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling’s roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.
 
            This is exactly the kind of process that Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God.  People must never settle for being seedy because that is not what we are designed for.  Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit.  To follow Jesus means to die to being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again (reproduction).  We are to push down and anchor ourselves firmly into the soil of God’s Word and pull vital nutrients from it.  At the same time, we are to push upward toward the light of Jesus Christ so that his warmth and grace can cause us to be spiritually formed into the disciples that he intends us to become.  The process is only complete when we reproduce ourselves in others as followers of Jesus.
 
            Jesus said that the person who “hates” his/her life will gain eternal life.  That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ.  The one who serves Jesus will follow him.  Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.  My girls were all born in West Michigan.  When we lived there, my wife and I would take our three girls to the beautiful sandy beaches of Lake Michigan.  We loved being there on hot summer days.  The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt, so it was difficult to walk on them.  I would tell Sarah, Charissa, and Mikaela to follow me and walk in my footprints.  I told them to follow me not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me. 
 
            We are to forsake all other paths that stray from Jesus, and are to follow him by walking in his footprints.  We are not to turn to the right or to the left.  We are to hate all other avenues that are not behind our Lord Jesus.  We are to love his path and his ways.
 
            Church ministry that focuses on anything else other than true Christian discipleship must be, without compromise, jettisoned.  We are to be about the business of spiritual growth, helping others to take root in God’s Word and bring them the light of Christ.  Evaluation of programs, procedures, and ministries are to center in the path of Jesus and nothing else.  Determining the effectiveness of ministry based on how many butts are in the pews, how much money gets put in the offering plates, and how pleased people are with the pastor are not biblical criteria for church ministry.
 

 

            Lent is a season that is designed for us to remember Jesus, to recognize that we belong to him, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from him.  This is to happen on the corporate church level, as well as the personal individual plane.  There cannot be the new life of Easter without the crucifixion of self.  There will not be spiritual growth without dying to ourselves.  Ministry can only be truly Christian when it follows in the way of Jesus.    

Dying to Our Plans

 
 
Most people are not much into personal change.  Change means adjusting to a different reality, and we would much rather prefer others adjusting to how we do things so that we don’t have to change.  We like how we do things. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives. Even good change, like becoming debt-free or getting in shape is difficult, if for no other reason the effort and energy it takes to see our goals accomplished. In order to change something about ourselves, we have to be willing to admit we might have been doing it wrong and try to do something different.
 
            God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything.  But the kind of change that Jesus talked about and died for is not just making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule around.  It is not about exerting more effort or adding more to the to-do list.  Jesus, instead, loved us so that we would be completely transformed from the inside-out.  For that to happen, in order to have a new life, the old life must die.  What is more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are zombies who are not really living the life God intended for us to live.  No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death.  
 
            We must die to our plans.  Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went.  He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic.  He taught like no other person before him, and healed all kinds of people.  In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.
 
            The Apostle John recorded a contrast between two people, Mary and Judas (John 12:1-8).  Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go.  Mary took some very expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security, and poured it all on Jesus’ feet.  In addition, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair.  It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, no concern with how it would look to others, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.
 
            Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship.  We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing:  “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it.  A little perfume is just fine, but to use the whole bottle is just too over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!”  Judas had a secret agenda.  He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes.  Judas is the picture of a zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him.  Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go; and, when he became convinced that Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.
 
            When it comes to church ministry, every single member must be willing to die to self – to die to our own agendas of how we think things ought to go.  Conflict and contention exist because there are persons who tenaciously hold on to their pet programs or their ideas on how to proceed.  But what needs to occur is that each Christian must serve Jesus with the same attitude and action as did Mary.
 
            A church cannot be revitalized, revived, renewed, or resurrected apart from death.  Something or someone must die for new life to happen.  We must die to our plans so that God’s kingdom agenda can take over.  Believers in Jesus need to express the same devotion and dedication as did Mary.
 

 

            We all become frustrated and discouraged at times with the petty sinfulness of the church.  The answer is not to distance or detach, but to devote ourselves to dying to our plans and personal agendas.  When an entire group of believers does this, there is an abundance of grace and a mass transformation of heart.  May it be so, to the glory of Jesus Christ.