Living Like Jesus

Delivered March 11, 2001 by Dr. Ronald J. Sider.

Sermon Text:
Mark 8:34-38
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up
his cross and follow me.
35 For whoever wants to save his life [1] will lose it, but whoever
loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
36 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?
37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?
38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful
generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his
Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Greetings, Brothers and Sisters, in the Name of the risen Jesus. It’s a real delight to be here with you this weekend. I have sensed an excitement, dynamism and openness to what the Spirit’s doing in this congregation and I am very, very delighted and happy with that.

I want to think with you about living like Jesus. Someone imagined a fascinating conversation that Jesus had with the Arch Angel, Gabriel, just after Jesus returned to heaven after the Resurrection and the Ascension. And Gabriel asked Him, “Well how did it go? Did you complete your mission and save the world?” And Jesus said, “Well yes and no. I modeled a godly life for about 30 years, I persuaded a few thousand Jews in a little corner of the Roman empire to follow me, I died for the sins of the world, I burst from the tomb to persuade a little circle of frightened disciples that my life and my story are God’s way to save the world, and then I gave those 120 to the Holy Spirit and I left them to finish the task.” “You mean,” Gabriel, said, “your whole plan to save the world depends on that little rag tagged bunch of former prostitutes and fishermen and tax collectors?” “That’s right,” Jesus said. “But what if they fail?” Gabriel persisted in growing alarm, “What’s your backup plan?” And quietly Jesus said, “There is no backup plan.”

Jesus could have used angels to save the world, but He decided to use you and me, to preach the gospel and to transform society. I think Gabriel must have watched with dumbfounded amazement as that first small motley crew set to work, they had little money, less education and no political clout, but they loved Jesus with all of their hearts and they defied raging oceans and roaring lions. The message spread like wildfire in just three short centuries, they conquered the most powerful Pagan Empire that ever existed. And as the centuries rolled along, Gabriel must have watched amazed as Christianity spread west to Europe and south, deep into Africa, in the first few centuries. North to Russia, then further west to the America’s and then finally in the great missionary centuries in the 19th and 20th centuries, Gabriel watched Christianity sweep across Africa, multiply greater in Asia, and Latin America. The 120 in the upper room had become 2 billion people in every country on the planet, without any backup plan. Jesus’ strategy seemed to be working. But as Gabriel looked more carefully an old anxiety resurfaced. Time after time He remembered in previous centuries, vast numbers claimed to be Christians without living what Jesus taught. He wondered were the people today who claimed the name any different from those who did not. How could the worst massacre in human history, perhaps, or at least the worst massacre of the Jews happen in the middle of the continent that had been most Christian for the longest time? What about the United States? Rich and powerful polling dates show at least 86% are Christians and 45% go to church every Sunday morning. But does their Christian faith make any difference in the way they live? They have the highest divorce rates in human history. In the U.S., jails have a higher percentage of its population than any other country. Violence stalks its cities. Christian’s are very visible in politics, but it’s not clear that Jesus’ special concern for the poor is central to their agenda. Was Jesus’ strategy for changing the world, really working after all? The picture wasn’t clear. Here and there, of course, Gabriel could see wonderful examples of transformation. He looked down to inner city Chicago. He saw people living like the first 120. Wayne Gordon living in one of the poorest, most violent sections of the inner city there. And soon after his conversion Gabriel remembered, Wayne had looked up in the face of God and said, “I’ll do anything you want me to do with my life.” And he and his wife, Ann, defied roaches, break-ins, and violence in order to tell inner city kids who had virtually no hope for a decent education, a job or a good marriage, that the creator of the universe loved them and wanted them to live eternally with them. And because Wayne followed Jesus’ example of caring for the whole person, he also started a tutoring program, then recreational services and then a health clinic, and job training and small business development. And after 20 years there was a congregation of 1,000 people who had come to faith in Christ in a community center that had a budget of $10 million dollars a year, transforming a whole section of Chicago. Gabriel could see other committed Christians, hundreds and thousands of them scattered all around the world. Jesus was the center of their life and joy. Everywhere they were leading people to faith in Christ, they were throwing their arms around these broken people, walking with them as Christ brought them to wholeness. The ministries renewed broken families, empowered the poor, transformed violent neighborhoods. They corrected environmental pollution. They worked for freedom and peace and life and justice in society. And again and again, their goodness and their wholeness improved whole neighborhoods and whole countries. “Yes,” Gabriel concluded, “Jesus’ strategy really works when the people who claim the name are unconditionally committed to Jesus Christ.” Even a small percentage, Gabriel decided, of the 2 billion people today could easily change the world in dramatic ways. The ravages of divorce could end. Almost everybody could enjoy a decent job and adequate income. Violence, racism, war could recede if only a fraction of Jesus’ followers really practiced what Jesus’ preached. And as Gabriel looked ahead into the next hundred years, thinking about Jesus’ astonishing game plan, the question he asked himself was this, “will there be enough Christians, like the first 120, will there be enough genuine Christians?”

In my book, Living Like Jesus, I mark out eleven markers of genuine Christian faith. I am not going to talk about all of those this morning, but a few of them briefly. First of all, genuine Christians embrace both God’s searing holiness and God’s astonishing love. I know from personal experience that the way to joy and happiness is found in the biblical truth about both God’s holiness and God’s mercy. My wife, Arbutus and I have been married come August for 40 years. It’s been as Richard Foster said, “a mixture of ectasy and halitosis,” mostly I assure you deep joy. But we have had struggles. The most painful time came in our late 30’s, you know mid-life crisis. No we did not commit adultery, but we hurt each other very deeply. And there were times when I was so angry at Arbutus that I wanted to hurt her deeply. I probably would have had an adulterous affair, but for one thing, I knew it was sin. I knew the Holy god hated adultery. I knew I could not break my marriage vow and still look clearly into the face of my loving Lord. God’s righteous commands protected me when my strength was very weak. The Biblical truth about God’s holiness and righteousness guided my step and kept me from inflicting awful pain on the woman I love more than anybody else in the world. Now that’s not to pretend that we hadn’t hurt each other, we had sinned against each other, we inflicted deep pain, our marriage was in crisis. There were days when I wasn’t sure if it would survive. But it was preciously in those days that I think I gained a deeper understanding of the cross. As I pondered the wounds that Arbutus and I had inflicted on each other, I realized that we had three choices. One possibility was to say, “Awe schucks, our sins don’t really matter very much, they’re not very important.” That would have been an absurd lie. They hurt terribly. Another possibility would have been to shout in anger, “That’s it, I will never forgive you!” But that would have ended our relationship forever. There was only one other possibility, I’d say to Arbutus, and she had to say to me, “What you did was wrong. Your actions hurt me deeply, but I love you. I love you so much that I will take the evil that you have committed into my heart and I will forgive it. I can’t say it was nothing, but I don’t want to live forever estranged. So I will accept the wounds of your wrong actions and I will purify them with my love and my forgiveness.”

My friends, that’s what God Almighty was doing on the cross. Our sins are too awful for God to wink at them, yet God’s love is too strong for God to forget us. So God embraces our sins and absorbs the evil we have done into his divine heart. God accepts the punishment that we deserve. All because God wants to walk with us again, face to face, in openness and reconciliation. Now I think that’s the most amazing solution to the problem of evil that the world has ever heard about. No other religion dares to teach that the creator of the universe died for our sins. The cross is the only satisfactory solution to the brokenness, violence, and agony in our world. But the cross makes sense, only if you understand that God is both blazing holiness and astonishing love. If anything is clear in the Bible, it is that righteousness and holiness is just as central to God’s nature as overflowing mercy. Jesus taught us of course, more clearly than anybody before or after, that the awesome creator of the galaxies is a tender loving Papa, who delights in forgiving our sins, but the same Jesus repeatedly warns that sinners will depart eternally from this Holy God. You know the modern church wants to forget about half of God. It would like to re-negotiate God’s revelation, it would like to substitute a new covenant and a new God, who forgets about sin and who offers forgiveness without holiness. I think the modern church really wants a cosmic Santa Claus. Somebody who produces wealth, health, and happiness to bolster our good feelings and our self-esteem. We would really like a divine buddy, who smiles kindly at Santa and says, “Aw schucks pal, we all mess up sometimes.” The modern church wants to forgive sin. We’d like to write our own guidelines for happiness. The modern church wants to neglect repentance and sanctification. We would like to replace holiness with happiness. But the Biblical God stands beckoning you and me to return and rediscover who that God really is. God summons us to bow in awe before his searing holiness as we praise Him in wonder and astonishment, at his amazing love.

And second, genuine Christians know who Jesus really is. And then they surrender every corner of their life to Him. So many people in the modern church don’t really know who Jesus is. Some Christians worship Him as God and Savior and then forget that He was the liberator of the poor, a daring peacemaker, and a friend of prostitutes and marginalized women. Other Christians claim to follow Jesus as the world’s greatest ethical teacher, but they forget that He is true God, as well as true man, and the only way to salvation. And most Christians, no matter what they say they believe about Jesus, don’t practice what they preach. So many Christians today mimic the world. So many are almost as self-centered, sexually promiscuous, racist, and materialistic, as their unbelieving friends. So many Christians worship idols, commit adultery, file for divorce, and destroy the environment, just like their sinful and unbelieving neighbors.

Mahatma Gandhi was surely the greatest Hindu of the last century. As a young man he seriously considered becoming a Christian. He loved the Jesus of the Gospels, but when he compared what Jesus said and did with how Christians lived, he turned away in disgust. Jesus was a radical God. He gently ministered to lepers, prostitutes and other marginalized women. He commanded his followers to love even their enemies. He warned that those who don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked depart eternally from the living God. He also claimed to be the only Son of God. He died for the sins of the world. The early Christians taught that Jesus wanted them to live the same way that He had lived. And they claimed that the risen Jesus was at the center of their lives and gave Him the power to be there. That’s why the early Christians were so different and amazed their Pagan neighbors. Second Corinthians 3:18 sums it up by saying, “All of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another daily.” In other words, St. Paul is saying, “Genuine Christians look directly into the face of Jesus Christ and they reflect his glory as in a mirror and day by day we are in a process of being changed, becoming more and more like Him.” Genuine Christians live like Jesus.

And three, genuine Christians keep their marriage vows and place parenting above their careers and money. This is a hard topic. My wife is a family therapist. I know, both first hand in our own marriage, and from Arbutus, how tough marriages are today. And I don’t mean to simplify. But let me tell you about my Uncle Jesse. After five years of happy marriage, tragedy struck. His wife developed a mental illness on the birth of their second daughter. And he had to take his wife to a psychiatric hospital and leave her there. He thought she would soon get better. But one day the doctor said, “your wife’s not going to get any better. I think you should go home, start over, take care of your girls and forget about this woman.” Jesse said, “Well Doc, I can take care of the girls, I am doing that, but I can’t forget about Lydia. She’s a part of me.” And for almost 30 years, about every other week, he drove the 40 miles to Hamilton to visit the woman that he had promised to love, for better for worse, till death with them part. After some years the doctors did a lobotomy and got the medicine right, and after about 30 years, she was back home. Her sloppy appearance and her religious indifference made it clear that she wasn’t the woman she had originally been, but she was reasonable and cooperative and Uncle Jesse was delighted to have her home and he gently cared for the woman that he still thought of as his youthful sweetheart and bride. Then one Thursday she got sick and ruptured her appendix, the lobotomy didn’t tell her what was going on and she died. I cried as I listened to Uncle Jesse tell me that story the first time. I said, “Did you ever feel angry at the Lord?” “I did at first,” He said. “I thought, this isn’t fair, she’s only 29 years old! But that doesn’t get you anywhere.” And then he said, “All those years, never once did I feel that she was a burden.” And he quickly added, “Oh, she was a burden, but I never felt it was anything I should be relieved of. I loved her and I did all I could.” I said, “Do you think it would be harder today to do what you did? Thirty years ago, divorce was seldom heard of. Today, men abandon their wives in almost any pretext.” He said, “I can’t understand the modern attitude. I chose a wife and I thought she was it. Now why after 10 years would I want to get rid of her for somebody else?” I said, “It looks like you have been asked to walk a hard road.” “Yes,” he said, “especially if I had seen those 30 years ahead. I took her to the hospital with the feeling that she would be returning in three months or so. It just didn’t work out that way. We walk with the Lord,” he said, “one day at a time.” Uncle Jesse made a vow before God, in the presence of the community of believers, with the woman that he loved to live in life long covenant for better or for worse. It got a lot worse. But by God’s grace he kept that covenant, one day at a time.

Today’s world is so different that it feels like another planet. Most marriages are broken by either adultery or divorce. This generation is doing to its children what no generation in human history has ever done to its children. The psychological studies make it very clear that the Creator knew the way we needed to live. Children need their parents, both of them. I doubt that our society can survive many generations with the agony of what we now have in our homes. I think that if Christians today and in the next generation would live the wholeness enjoyed by beautiful marriages, the Christian family would stand out in stunning starkness and appealing beauty. The Christian family would be like a cozy, inviting living room, warmed by a crackling fire in a frigid city torn by a raging blizzard. I think the Christian family could be our best evangelistic witness in the next 20 to 30 years. Today’s hurting families long for something better. We can offer them what they want, only if we live it. Genuine Christians keep their marriage vows. Genuine Christians share Jesus and God’s special concern for the poor. There are hundreds of verses in the Bible and the second most common theme in all of the Holy Scripture is the poor. Proverbs 19:17 says that helping the poor is like making a loan to Almighty God. Jesus said that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked we actually do it to Him and if we don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked, we will have to depart eternally from Him.

Bene and Colleen Samuel are good friends of mine. They are middle class indian Christians with Cambridge educations. Back in India, they belonged to one of the most prestigious churches in South India, a middle-class flourishing congregation, and there they began to sense they were called to care for the poor. They developed one ministry after another and eventually they moved to a new church in a slum and they, themselves, built a house in that area. They now minister to 50,000 people. Genuine Christians fear God’s concern for the poor. And fine, genuine Christians love the whole person, the way Jesus did. Some Christians seem to be concerned with only evangelism and all they want to do is preach the gospel to souls. Other Christians only seem concerned with changing society and making the world a just and fair place. But Jesus wasn’t one sided in those ways. Jesus preached and healed–look at His example. Bene and Colleen also preach the gospel in the center of that ministry, even though most of that people in that 50,000-person community who are served by them every year are Hindus and Moslems. Bene and Colleen also formed a number of congregations. One day, a woman named Lola walked into the back of one of those congregations. Lola was the most infamous prostitute of all of Bangalore. She controlled 25,000 votes and swung elections with those 25,000 votes. Everybody feared her. So when she walked in to the back of the church, a wave of terror swept through the congregation. But Colleen, who is fearless, walked over and put her arm around Lola and said, “Welcome Lola, I’m glad you’re here!” Then Lola started coming to church for six months, then she accepted Christ and the Spirit transformed her life. Then, after two years, she said, “I want to be baptized.” And that was a moment of tough decision, because she was known as a Moslem. They had baptized many Moslems and Hindus, but this was different. Everybody in Bangalore knew who Lola was. And they knew that if they baptized this woman, there might be religious riots and their whole ministry might be wiped out. So Bene did something very unusual, and he doesn’t do this regularly, believe me. He went to the local Moslem leader and said, “My friend, you know this woman Lola.” The Moslem leader said, “Yeah, I know her.” “Well she wants to be baptized,” Bene said, “why don’t you try to persuade her not to be a Christian.” The Moslem leader’s jaw dropped and he was totally astonished. Bene said, “Yeah, take a whole month.” The leader said, “I’ll do my best.” Three days later the leader was back. He said, “I can’t do a thing with her, she’s so much better off with you.” Then Bene said, “Well, is it okay if I baptize her?” The Moslem leader shrugged and said, “Do what you like.” So Bene baptized her and there were no religious riots. Today she’s a full time evangelist. Genuine Christians love the whole person the way Jesus did. And genuine Christians believe that Jesus is Lord of politics and economics. The Biblical Christ is Lord of the boardroom, just as much as the bedroom. Jesus is Lord of the congress, just as much as the church. Jesus cares about how you vote, as well as how you pray. Genuine Christianity is not some little personal privatized affair that applies to just Sunday morning for an hour or two and also maybe on Wednesday evening. The New Testament dares to say that Jesus is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Genuine Christians know that. Therefore they submit every corner of their lives, whether it’s their sexual life, their business life, their marriage or their politics, to Jesus.

Finally genuine Christians strive to make the church a little picture of what heaven’s going to be like. In the last book of the Bible, St. John paints an amazing picture of heaven, all tears, hunger, violence, and prejudice have fled, and standing around the throne praising God, are a vast multitude that no one can count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, a vast multi racial assembly from every nation on earth stands in loving worship of our Lord and Savior. By contrast, take a quick journey around planet earth. Racial prejudice and ethnic hostility simmer in subtle prejudice and explode in deadly destruction. Classes compete, the poor are starved, the rich seek fulfillment in greater material abundance. Ugly hatred rooted in distortions of race, wealth, and gender, render and destroy the human family. These are two pictures, a reconciled humanity in heaven and a warring chaos on earth. Now ponder the churches you know. Are they more like the first picture or second? Thank God for wonderful congregations! But most churches divide just like the rest of society along lines of race and class, and that kind of church doesn’t have credibility with the world. I think American evangelist, Tom Skinner is right when he says, “God wants the church to be a little picture of what heaven’s going to be like.” We all know that the worse racial prejudice in the ancient world was between Jew and Gentile. What happened? They both got accepted at the cross and that hostility was overcome. In fact, when Pagan neighbors looked at the early Christian church, they saw a multi-racial, multi-class community where Jews embraced Gentiles, where men welcomed women as equals, where masters accepted slaves and where the rich embraced the poor. They were amazed. Think of the impact today if the church really lived that way.

I’ve got a dream from my hometown of Philadelphia that I think applies just as well in Baltimore. Philadelphia is typical of US cities. Vast sections of the inner city are very poor and overwhelmingly African American or Hispanic. Most middle class whites and blacks have fled to suburban neighborhoods. They have good jobs and good schools there. I dream that the Christians of greater Philadelphia would remember their oneness in Christ and decide to demonstrate it to themselves and to others. I dream that they would resolve that its a violation of the body of Christ to tolerate a situation where poor inner city folk who love Jesus, have inadequate schools, poor jobs and wretched housing, while suburban Christians enjoy good schools, jobs, and homes. And in my dream, the Christians don’t curse the darkness, they light candles and they change the structures. Pastors and leading laity from all the churches join together to develop quality schools and new businesses in the city. They create alternative schools and transform public education so that every child has the opportunity to acquire a quality education. And they volunteer their time, supplies, and money, so that Habitat and other organizations can help every interested family in the city build or renovate a house to call their own. Christian business leaders will develop the metropolitan area and decide if there will be a job with a decent salary for every person who can and wants to work. And through a variety of new initiatives, both private and public, they transform the city and suburbs. And at regular intervals all of these Christians join together in the greater Philadelphia area and they rent Veteran Stadium, the Civic Center, and the New Pennsylvania Convention Center and they worship together in joyful, multi-racial festivals of Christian unity. And together they repent the sin of racism and they covenant never again to allow Satan to divide them along lines of class, race, or gender. And together they pledge never to rest until every Christian, every person in the whole metropolitan area has the opportunity for a quality education, a job to support a family, and a decent home in a safe neighborhood to enjoy God’s gorgeous gift of life. And together they worship the risen Lord in multi-cultural celebrations of praise and proclamation. Together they tell the whole city that all the labor flows from gratitude to the Savior, who died to reconcile them both the God and to each other. And together they invite all who have never met Him to join them at the foot of the cross. Unlikely, perhaps. Unbiblical, not at all. Impossible, certainly not. Does anyone think what our Lord would say about it? What about the watching world? They’d be stunned. And many of them would join us in faith in Christ.

What would happen, my friends if even just a quarter of the people today that claim to be Christians, would really be genuine Christians? I don’t know. But dream with me for just a minute as I conclude, by imagining what Gabriel might see in the next hundred years. I dream of this century being a time which leaves Gabriel absolutely dumbfounded with joy. I picture Gabriel marveling in astonishment as more and more Christians surrender unconditionally to the risen Lord and open their total being to the fullness of the spirit. They live like Jesus. They care for the whole person like Jesus. Self-centered, middle class Christian materialists are radically, beautifully transformed, and so are prostitutes like Lola. And on every continent there are growing congregations of faithful believers’ that flourish in every country, city and village. Jesus’ devout followers eagerly invite people to accept His grace. And then patiently they walk with those people, offering God’s tough love that transforms mangled lives into persons and communities of wholeness. And for the first time in history, vast numbers of Asians embrace Jesus Christ. China slowly becomes more free and a huge minority of its people become disciples. Africa becomes a continent not only with the highest percentage of Christians, but where genuine discipleship is really lived out most fully. And revival sweeps across North and South America renewing tired lukewarm churches. Faithful Christians provide the morality and integrity that slowly blesses Russia with freedom and justice. And even Western Europe where Gabriel watched in horror in the 20th century as Christianity almost disappeared; even Western Europe enjoys a power resurgence of Christian faith. You know as Gabriel watches with joy and amazement he realizes that no new magic formula has suddenly appeared. The marvelous new growth is not due to some new management technique or technological breakthrough, everywhere genuine Christians struggle and again and again they fail. But temporary setbacks cannot stop them and as Gabriel watches this global explosion of Christian faith, the secret becomes crystal clear. Actually it’s no secret at all. It’s just that somehow in God’s grace, tens of millions of contemporary Christians really live like Jesus. They love Jesus with all their hearts and minds and strength, and they surrender every fiber of their being to Him; they imitate Christ’s love for the poor person, no matter what the cost; they give themselves and their resources to empower the poor and the bind up the battered. Constantly, eagerly, passionately they share their best treasure, Jesus the Savior, inviting others to embrace His forgiveness and His healing. And then they teach those new believers what they whole-heartedly long for themselves, to let this glorious God and Savior become the unconditional Lord of every corner of their lives. The result is stunning. In spite of tragic imperfection, ten of thousands of congregations actually look like what Gabriel knows heaven will be like. In spite of painful failure, tens of millions of Christian marriages overflow with contagious joy and integrity. In spite of wrenching injustice, whole societies become freer and fairer and whole and tens of millions every year discover for the first time the incredible joy of personal faith in the Savior. Gabriel is astonished at the resulting beauty and goodness, but even more, he marvels at the simplicity of the cause. All it takes to spread the Gospel, renew the family, and transform the world, is simply a small band of genuine Christians who are just as dedicated to Jesus Christ as the first 120. And as Gabriel watches their impact, he’s astonished to realize that the genuine Christians are still only a minority of those who Name the Name. But that minority has an awesome power and the reason is so simple. Day by day they look into the face of Jesus Christ and they whisper softly, “Lord there’s nothing I want so much as to be more like you and if you would give me the power, I will do anything you want me to do.” Lord help us. Amen.