Preached by Rev. Ed Brouwer at The Gathering Place,
Pulpit Series Volume 17 Issue 38 9/30/2007
As I sat in my office on Thursday getting things ready for Sunday, I found myself fluctuating between a spirit of despair and a spirit of hopefulness.
As I try to follow the path God seems to be laying out for me, I feel that spirit of hopefulness and yet also a spirit of heaviness at the weight of the call.
I spent some time in John’s gospel where Jesus tried to help His disciples understand what was ahead. It was a bit dark because it was about death and dying. Not only Jesus’ death, but about our own need to die in order to find life. It is a powerful passage about the principle at work in our life and our faith journeys.
In the gospel of John, we are being prepared for glory by the teaching and actions of Jesus in the upper room as He demonstrated radical servant-hood by washing the disciples’ feet.
Earlier on, Jesus shared a parable about wheat, and the seeds that are buried in the ground so that it would bring much fruit. The significance of this parable for understanding Jesus’ death lies in the contrast between remaining as just a single grain of wheat and bearing fruit.
Except the seed die… Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr during the 2nd World War, put it very starkly: “When Christ calls a man (or woman), Christ bids him (or her) come and die.”
For him the call was literal. He was imprisoned for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler and was executed just days before the end of the war. He understood the cost of discipleship and the cost of following Christ in a way most of us will never glimpse. He wrote about costly grace and the cost of following Christ in a way that disturbs and discomforts all of us in the modern day church.
But what does it mean for us to die in order to live? To lose our life in order to find it, to hate our life in order to keep it? It means to “let go” or “give up.”
An unconditional and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation as willed by God.
It means the renunciation of all the deluded images of ourselves and all the exaggerated estimates of our own capacities.
Friends, we each have to strip away the false ego, the false me, to discover who I really am. It has been said that the false ego is less visible than an ant’s footprint on a black stone in a dark night.
It’s about giving up control, about letting go of our own wills, our ambitions, our own desire to control our situations and the people around us, our relationships, our lives, the timing of when and how transitions happen. It’s about letting God be at work deep within us.
It’s a lifelong work of dying to ourselves and discovering the deep joy of freedom and new life as we do so, struggle by struggle, moment by moment, not always successfully but always in God’s grace.
I believe that the only way to even begin to understand how to do this letting go, is by living it out and working it out in community with those around us. We learn how to die to ourselves and live for Christ as we learn how to put ourselves second and the community first. This is the opposite of what comes naturally and is in many ways a battle within us.
It takes time for a heart to make this passage from egoism to love. It takes time and much purification and many deaths which bring new resurrections. To love, we must die continually to our own ideas, our own susceptibilities and our own comfort.
The path of love is woven with sacrifice.
And it all starts with baby steps, little steps taken one at a time.
Making the time to listen to God and ourselves and sit with God in prayer, with open hands and open hearts. At the same time, holding all that we have, lightly and loosely and allowing God to come to us in love and say, “That’s a lot you have in your hands. Here, let me take this one thing from you, so you can be more free in yourself, or, let me entrust this one thing into your care and your life, so you can live a deeper, more fulfilled life.”
In Luke 14:25-35, Jesus states that we cannot be His disciple unless: Christ is above all else in our lives We forsake ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him We forsake our material possessions
Whether self-denial, self-abandonment, self-sacrifice, or dying to self, One sure thing is the concept of self abandonment in Scripture. It is directly opposed to what the world promotes: self-fulfillment, self-esteem, self-worth, rights. Unfortunately, we the church of Jesus Christ have too often been influenced by the world’s self-esteem philosophy.
I am reminded of this when I notice that some hymns have been changed to make them less harsh. Take for example the hymn, At the Cross. When Isaac Watts penned those words in1885, he wrote, “Would He devote that sacred head, For such a worm as I?” The newer hymnals say, “For such a sinner as I? or such a one as I.”
Isaac Watts wrote the word “worm” because He understood his place before a Holy God.
What does is mean to forsake ourselves? Among other things it is, “the readiness to lay down my fixed notions, my objections and ‘what if’s’ or ‘but what about’s,’ my certainties about the rightness of what I have always done or thought or said. This must include my decisions: I will be meek. I will not sulk, I will not retaliate, I will not carry a grudge.”
One of the most precious gifts God has given believers is the sweet fellowship we should have with one another.
We are to be real with one another, holding each other accountable, sharing hurts and joys, giving grace to one another. However, many Christians lack these vital relationships with one another. Some Christians seem to have the attitude of: I’m not a bad person, I don’t kill, steal, or commit adultery.
But do we hold grudges? Do we feel resentful? Is bitterness eating us up? These indicate blatant disobedience to God. Is it any wonder we hate to risk “being real” when there is a possibility of messing up and having a Christian brother and sister never speak to us again?
The fact is that we are human. We don’t always use the best judgment. We don’t always present things in ways that are understood. But we must give grace to one another, forgive and restore relationships. If we cannot do this, the world will scoff, rightly so, at our hypocrisy.
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.” Colossians 3:12-14
Forgiveness is the unconditional laying down of the self. I Corinthians 6
This includes the desire for vindication, keeping accounts of evil, the right to an apology and bringing every thought under obedience to Christ. II Corinthians 10:5
Has some one wronged you? If he asks for forgiveness, forgive. If he doesn’t, forgive in a private transaction with God. Pray for him. Confess your anger, hatred, desire for revenge or self-pity.
“Bless the one who hurt you”. Ask for grace to treat him as if nothing has ever come between you and stand with Christ for him. Psalm 119:78
Wow, that’s a tall order! But to do anything less, is being disobedient to Christ and will only lead to our own misery and stagnation. Our obedience will not only benefit us, it will also benefit those who have hurt us. We need to give grace to one another.
None of us are perfect. We will have misunderstandings, we will have failures, we will mess up. But incredibly God can use all of that to help us grow, if we respond to them in a proper way. “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Proverbs 27:17
In forsaking myself, I must also die to my emotions and feelings. That is not to deny they exist, they are God-given, but we must resist the temptation to be ruled by them.
I am reminded of a story that Corrie ten Boom related. Years after she was out of Nazi concentration camps, she was speaking to a large group. Afterward, a man came up to her, reached out for her hand, and asked her to forgive him. She recognized him as one of the guards in the concentration camp where she and her family had been sent because they had hidden Jews in their home – where her sister had died. Corrie confessed that the last thing she wanted to do was grasp that man’s hand. She felt contempt and bitterness. But this Godly woman also knew Jesus’ command to forgive, not if we feel like it, not when we are ready, but to forgive, period. Corrie ten Boom reached out in faith and took that former Nazi guard’s hand. With that act of obedience, the freedom came.
I am trying to put into practice the Biblical steps of reacting obediently when someone has hurt or misunderstood me. It is never easy, but it is right and it is freeing. I have no misconceptions about myself, I am a worm indeed. I know what I am without a Savior.
Praise God this worm has been redeemed by the Grace of God!