Maybe being a Christian feels so impractical because we are resisting the judgment, the authority, and the governance of the world around us. We are resisting much of what we have been taught. Paul tells the Philippians that it is like a “peace that surpasses understanding.” Following Jesus may not always make sense to us. To the Romans, he tells us that our minds are being renewed and need no longer to be conformed to the patterns of this world.
So for American Christians, what’s the rub? What doesn’t work? What doesn’t make sense? What then surpasses our understanding? We’ve been talking about a lot of those issues during this whole series, but as we conclude it, I want to focus on three. When I consider the impracticalities of following Jesus, the impracticalities of this full and complete love, the impracticalities of the Kingdom of God, these are three that come up and they aren’t completely disconnected from one another:
Denying ourselves. Forgiving our enemies. Sharing our money in common.
I think for the American these are very impractical. Let’s briefly go over this starting with the biggest one: denying ourselves.
The American dream kind of spits in the face of self-denial. Our pursuit of happiness is our unalienable right. It is one of the deepest truths in the United States, and one of the deepest truths that keeps the keeps the capitalist machine going. Adam Smith, the founder of capitalism, (who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, the year the U.S.A. as we know was born too), even says that it is self-interest that keeps our whole machine going.
It’s interesting because this concept really only gets undone when the state undoes it. When the military teaches you, borrowing right from Jesus, to be self-sacrificial, to lay down your life for your friends, self-denial seems appropriate. Our when John F. Kennedy famously tell us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Self-denial is OK as long as we are serving the country.
Jesus has a different narrative, one that calls us to denying ourselves, because he denied himself to save humanity. To usher in a new era. Here’s a telling teaching from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Luke 9:23-25
Jesus teaches his followers this right after he foretells his death and resurrection, the very acts that will reclaim authority and change the world. If all we are trying to do is save our life, we may lose it. What do you profit from simply succumbing to your carnal desires, or perhaps ones that are more than just carnal, but ones that have been given to you by another authority to further its own agenda and demands?
Jesus makes it seem like this is a no-brainer, but isn’t it a little more complicated than that for someone who has been told for all of his life to merely pursue your dreams. But the forfeiture of your soul when you only pursue yourself, just to realize that you are perpetually dissatisfied, is costly. The system requires our dissatisfaction when we pursue saving our life. Denying ourselves is being like Christ. Denying our self and considering someone else changes the war-torn world, the one that, as a whole, has lost its soul.
Try this: this week, consider one of your desires, wants, even needs, and see what happens when you replace the time you would consuming it with a little prayer or meditation. Fast and see what God does.
That brings us to another hard saying: forgive your enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:43-44
Later on in this passage, Jesus will tell us to be perfect as our heavenly father is perfect. This significant. Now, we are moving beyond denying ourselves in a theoretical sense, and practically applying it to love. Jesus will proceed to tell us, what good is to love to your brothers and sisters? Isn’t that normal? True love is in loving and forgiving your enemies.
Jesus might be convincing himself to do this as he must die for his brothers and sisters, but also his enemies to save the world. He is going to non-violently receive the punishment he doesn’t deserve, so that he can conquer death and save the world. He is teaching us to be peaceful. He is teaching us to forgive even our worst enemies.
You actually to be something that warrants having enemy in order to even fulfill this counter-cultural reframe of the old Jewish law. But when that inevitably happens, when you have a conflict with your spouse, or your roommate, when you break up. When someone goes wrong, because we are all still addicted to the old order of sin, returning love (and not hate, this is not a contrast to truth), is counter-cultural and maybe impractical.
It feels impractical, because the world does not love its enemies. We vilify them. We dehumanize them. We make caricatures. You see this during election season, you see it in U.S. foreign policy, you see it in every movie that celebrates redemptive violence, retribution. Jesus forgives everyone and includes everyone. That seems impractical in a world where winning is more important than loving. Loving our enemies undoes the pattern of violence and counter-violence, and considers love to be how bring transformation, not hate. But it is through Jesus love of his enemies, that we are saved, truly.
Try this: when someone cuts you off in traffic, when your roommate doesn’t do their dishes, when your spouse does that thing he promised he’d never do again, see what it’s like to forgive them and let it go. Don’t get even, and see if your load is a little lighter.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Luke 3:10-11
In this passage here, the final one we’ll look at, John the Baptist, the man who is ushering in the Savior of the World, the Messiah, the reclaimer of the mishpat, tells his audience the Kingdom of God is coming and along with it, judgment. They ask him, what shall they do, and he hits them right at home. Share your clothing and your food.
For the American, beyond some consumeristic philanthropy, we really are the ones in charge of our money. We have the mishpat when it comes to our purse strings, am I right? Or rather, it has the mishpat on us. For the American, perhaps the most impractical thing is share what we feel entitled to most: our money. Change the world, though, give away.
Finally, try this: this is kind of basic, but see what happens when you save some of your money and give it away. To someone who needs it, to the common fund. Let money lose its grip on you.
There’s a lot here! Would you like to add to the conversation below?