The word “Christian” seems to have less and less value these days. The reality is that anyone can call themselves a Christian, but true Christianity is not a title. It is a lifestyle. I am not a Christian on Sunday, and just a customer service rep the rest of the week. Unlike my job title, I don’t have the benefit of taking off my Christianity when I leave church service on Sunday afternoon. It should follow me all the way out the door, and influence how I live my ENTIRE life.
At its core, Christianity is discipleship, but even that word seems to have a very loose meaning in our world today. We tend to think of a disciple as a follower, and that is true to the definition. However, to me that one word fails to encapsulate discipleship. Being a disciple is more like being obsessed. It is taking time to not only see what my mentor is like, but to also mimic everything that he does. It is less about observing and more about acting.
It then follows that to truly be a Christian we must know what Christ was like, and respond in kind. Seems obvious, right? Unfortunately, common sense seems to not be so common anymore. When I look at the Christian world and see people bending the Savior into their own warped view, then that tells me that they neither know Jesus nor do they understand what it truly means to be a Christian.
So what does Jesus have to say about discipleship? Well that’s fairly easy. In Matthew chapter 16 he spells out exactly what discipleship means. “If you’re going to follow me,” he says, “you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” When Jesus invited the twelve disciples to follow him (and others, because we know that Jesus had more than just twelve disciples), he wasn’t just inviting them to be fishers of men. He was inviting them to take up a cross, and the ignominy that went with it. Crosses aren’t seen as lively and fun places. They are generally viewed as places of death.
We don’t hear much about self-denial in Christianity anymore, especially in America. The most popular preachers are the ones who preach some kind of self-help or prosperity nonsense, telling you about how great you are, but failing to mention who truly makes you great. The cross has become a relic that athletes wear around their neck, or that people kiss for good luck. It rarely refers to discipleship and sacrifice anymore. It has become a symbol, not of self-sacrifice and life-altering power, but rather of trying to get on God’s good side.
Without really realizing it, we have taken two of the most powerful concepts in Christianity and trivialized them. It’s no wonder that most Christians aren’t really disciples anymore. The power of Christianity has been removed with the avoidance of self-denial and the cross. We would rather preach about love, mercy, and grace (nothing wrong with those topics) because they make us feel really good. However, Christianity isn’t about a good feeling. It’s about answering the call to self-denial and the cross that Jesus so beautifully exemplified two thousand years ago.
Right before his death, the great apostle Paul warned his son in the faith, Timothy, that a time would come when people would no longer want to endure sound doctrine. Instead, they would want to have their ears scratched. That has happened all throughout history, and it is still happening today in the Christian world. People don’t want to hear about real discipleship. They just want to be told that Jesus loves them, and they are on their way to heaven when they die. Is that really all that discipleship entails? Truly, us preachers have failed our listeners if that’s all they ever hear.
The same apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” We love the last part, but really seem to skim over the first part, not seeming to understand that there is no second part without the first part. Let me make this very simple. There is no real relationship with Jesus Christ without self-denial, just like there would have been no resurrection without a crucifixion.
By trivializing the very foundation of Christianity, we have trivialized Christianity itself. Even more tragic than that is the distortion that we have made of the image of Jesus Christ himself to the world around us. We have given them the soft and cuddly Jesus, but have missed out on the actual Jesus. We have shown them “God so loved the world”, but have failed to show them HOW God so loved the world. The love of God was then, is now, and always will be demonstrated through self-denial. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.