Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stations of the Cross, Pt. 1: "The Way of the Master"

When skater Michelle Kwan was 13, the junior skater who was still plotting her course in the world of figure skating went behind coach Frank Carroll’s back, submitted her application for senior competition and aimed to transcend her age group. Kwan then pleaded with her coach to allow her to compete with skaters older than her, with those who were savvier and had earlier planned to peak at the right moment.

At that time, Carroll was an unknown coach, Kwan an obscure skater and the coach was caught in an awkward dilemma of whether to send the precocious but eager teenager into senior competition, where maturity was rewarded, and girlishness, play and cuteness were penalized.

Coach Carroll, worried about, horrified for and protective of his prized student at the same time, took the youngster aside, looked seriously at his prized student, and admonished her of the emotional and physical demands of senior competition: “If you want to be a senior, you have to learn what it takes. You have to give up your baby feelings, that ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I’m sick.’ You have to suffer.” (Los Angeles Times 1/4/93)

Kwan was delighted with her coach’s consent, took his advice to heart and spun, jumped and dance her way to unprecedented heights. Two years later she swept all the major senior competitions in figure skating.

At Caesarea Phillipi, after Jesus had disclosed the first of his predictions about his pending death, he issued a stringent call to the disciples, the crowd (Mk 8:24) and the wannabes who clamored to be with Him: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

What does it mean to deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow Jesus? What expectations does Jesus have for us when we follow Him? Can we live up to them? And in what way is the return greater than risk?

Say “No” to Self
22 And he said, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life।" 23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Lk 9:22-26)

Researchers at Australia's University of New England reviewed 128 studies in 1982 and calculated that people’s perceptions of their intelligence versus their actual performance on tests and academic tasks had an average correlation of less than 0.3 out of a perfect correlation of 1.

In another study, in 1977, 94 percent of college professors ranked themselves as above average, even though by definition only 50 percent can be in the top half.

Professor David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell University, and a colleague conducted several studies to test theories about incompetence and inflated self-assessment. Forty-five Cornell undergraduates took tests on logical reasoning and estimated how their test scores would compare to that of their classmates. The students who performed in the top quarter lowballed their actual scores and rankings. But those in the bottom quarter were grossly off mark. They misjudged that their scores would fall at the 62nd percentile instead of the actual 12th percentile. Conclusion: Incompetent people are doubly handicapped because they lack not only the requisite skills but the ability to recognize their own deficiencies.

David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Michigan, author of “Social Psychology,” contends that errors in perception bear blame for much of life's disharmony। “It's at the root of many divorces, as both partners see themselves as contributing more and benefiting less than their counterparts.” (“Mirror, mirror on the wall…,” The Seattle Times, 3/2/07)

The first criterion in following Jesus is to deny oneself. To deny oneself is not to hate oneself, live in denial or take up a vow of poverty. To hate oneself is to snub one’s heredity or personality, to live in denial is to deny and avoid reality, to take up a vow of poverty is to escape and denounce society.

However, to deny oneself is to concede the right of ownership to one’s life and to transfer the deed to Him, who is our Savior and Lord. It is to grant the power of attorney to Jesus Christ, who alone has the lawful and exclusive claim on your life. Errol Hulse said: “The practice of self-denial for the Christian means that his feelings, desires and comforts take second place to the Lord's will.”

To deny oneself is a positive and not a negative step, progressing forward not regressing backward, being proactive and not passive. It is not the repression, but the restrain of our emotions, desires and wants; not crushing them, but containing them; not their disparagement, but their discipline. The old self tempts us to live a self-centered, self-fulfilling and self-sufficient existence, but the new Master beckons us to God-centered, Christlike and Spirit-led living.

A few centuries ago, Father John Joseph Surin was asked why few are truly saintly when so many people wished for greatness in God's eyes. He said: “The chief reason is that they give too big a place in life to indifferent things.” (Disciplines of the Spirit 169-70, Dallas Willard)

God in Christ has saved you by dying in your place. He has given His life for your life, covered your unrighteousness with His righteousness and delivered us from darkness to light. Therefore we owe a debt to Him, our lives are no longer ours and we belong to Him. Jesus is the rightful owner of our lives by His redemptive death on the cross. He has purchased the existing lien, title and deed to your life at a heavy price, paid the remaining mortgage you accrued and repossessed the parts, the body and the key to your life, making it brand new.

The Lord is not interested to limit your personality, ability or flexibility, but that you acknowledge what God has done for you, yield your life to Him and allow the Spirit work in your life.

Suffer the Rejection of Men
23 Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Lk 9:23)

My cousin who lives in Chicago is the first relative to accept Christ and the first person I know of that encountered persecution for his faith. His parents practically disowned him. At that time, I was barely a teen and, like others, I, too, shared this opinion about my cousin: “What a religious nut, an extreme person and an ungrateful son!”

The worst was yet to come. On his wedding day, his mother threw a fit in church, attracted a lot of attention and chewed up the pastor for talk of leaving father and mother and uniting with wife and becoming one flesh. We felt bad for my cousin and his wife, were worried his mother might hit the pastor and, of course, were embarrassed that we were relatives!

I asked my cousin about his conversion experience in an email correspondence and he wrote: “My family had a difficult time adjusting to the fact that I was a Christian then. My father and mom were so upset that they literally threw me out of the house, and told me to live with my Christian friends. I had no option but to stay with my friend for a day or so trying to figure out what to do. However, my mom sort of recanted, and sent one of my sisters to call me home. It was a difficult two years of isolation from the church. My dad burnt most of my Christian books. However, it was a good time for me to sit down and learnt more of what I believed.

The good news is that as I looked back, all my sisters are Christians now, and recently I heard from my sister that my dad had decided to accept Christ. The only person left is my mom, and when she heard the news of my dad's conversion - she sort of, resigned to the fact. I am not sure what this means, but that is what she told me.” (Via e-mail 6/13/00)

The crosses Jesus refers to are not gold-plated jewelry, mystical religious icons or wooden cosmetic crucifixes. They are burdensome, cumbersome, fearsome, even tiresome, but God has not called us to a tea party, a group social or a free lunch.

The cross is a scandal and a setback to the world, an emblem of suffering and shame, but the signature and stamp of Jesus Christ in the life of Christians today. Persecution suffered by Christians around the world reminds us how dearly Christians have paid for who and what they believe in. In many parts of the world, pastors are beaten, churches are burned and believers are jailed with regularity. In India alone, 35 violent anti-Christian incidents have been reported in the first six months of the new millennium.

Jesus predicted his betrayal, rejection and death three times – once in Caesarea Phillipi (Mark 8:31), the next time on the way to Capernaum (Mark 9:30-32) and, lastly, before reaching Jerusalem (Mark 10:32-34, Luke 18:31-33), but in his first prediction, Matthew (16:21), Mark (8:31) and Luke (9:22) all agreed on one thing: Jesus said he “MUST” suffer, the Greek word occurs in the Synoptic gospels. Another astonishing thing the three gospel writers did was to put the word “must” before the rest of the record on his suffering (Note: “must the Son of man suffer,” not “the Son of man must suffer”). Luke used “must” to start Jesus’ declaration in Luke 9:22. More than any gospels, Luke consistently records that Jesus’ suffering is a must: “But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” (Luke 17:25) and “This is what is written: The Christ will/must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46)

There are no ifs, buts and maybes concerning suffering on the road to discipleship. It is absolutely necessary for the Son of man to suffer. Suffering comes also to all disciples of Christ. Todd H. Wetzel said, “When you follow Jesus, what happened to Him happens to you.” It is a not a matter of who will suffer, but on what occasion, to what end and for what purpose. Taking up the cross cannot be equated with your normal hardship - studying, working or parenting, but being expelled, fired, disliked, ostracized or attacked for associating with the name of Christ.

Matthew Henry said: “We frequently meet with crosses in the way of duty; and, though we must not pull them upon our own heads, yet, when they are laid for us, we must take them up, carry them after Christ, and make the best of them.”

So let us not beg God for suffering, but neither should we begrudge God when suffering.

Surrender All to Jesus
A question young people asked used to bother me easily, especially when I was organizing group activities like going to a movie, a baseball game or a youth conference, but occasionally I find myself instinctively asking the same question to people who invite me to conferences, seminars or outings, no matter how exciting, nearby, beneficial or inexpensive they are. The question is: “WHO ELSE IS GOING?”

The predictable next question people ask is: “Is so-and-so going?” And if you say, “No,” “I have not asked him or her yet” or “They will tell me later.” The subsequent question I hear is, “Why not?”

The bad news for disciples is that no one can experience the way of the cross with them, for them or like them. Not your parents, friends or children. But the good news is that Jesus is ahead of us and when we follow behind Him, we will never be separated from Him.

The four gospel writers recorded at least 14 times Jesus’ use of the Greek phrase “Follow me” (Matt 8:22, 9:9, 16:24, 19:21, Mark 2:14, 8:34, 10:21, Luke 5:27, 9:23, 9:59, 18:22, John 1:43, 12:26, 21:19) to call the crowd and the curious to Himself, but the duplicate gospel accounts record only six individual calls given the call. Even so, not all answered this unique call of discipleship. Those who obeyed the call were identified as Andrew and Peter (Matt 4:19), Matthew (Matt 9:9, Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27), and Philip (John 1:43). They were rewarded with their inclusion as apostles. Not surprisingly, others who rejected the call and refused the journey remained nameless to the end – the man who asked to return home (Luke 9:59) and the rich young ruler (Matt 19:21, Luke 18:22). They declined the call and missed the opportunity.

Fittingly, the last time Jesus uttered this command again before His ascension was to a finger-pointing Peter (John 21:19) to remind him not to look at, compare with or inquire about others.

When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” he did not say where he was going, when he was leaving, and who else were coming, but only that who was ahead of them, who was providing for them and who was deserving of them.

Conclusion: A disciple of Christ is a full-time, long-term, high-risk servant of Christ who by enduring all things for the sake of Jesus Christ will gain eternal life in the kingdom of God when Jesus comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. Augustine said: "Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all.” God has not called you to be a passive recipient, silent spectator, or a half asleep, half-hearted, halfway follower. Have you remained a baby, a weakling or a deadwood in the path of discipleship? Will you wake up or rise up? What is preventing you from allowing Jesus to be the center, the head and the frontrunner of your life? What are your obstacles and excuses?


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