The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 14, 2022
Linda, a first grade teacher tells about an interaction with a new student the first day of school. Accustomed from kindergarten to going home at noon, young Ryan started putting his things into his backpack when he was supposed to be heading to lunch with the rest of his class. Linda asked what he was doing. “I’m going home,” he replied. Linda explained that, since he was now in first grade, he would have a longer school day. “You eat lunch here now,” she said, “and then you return to our classroom to do some more work before you go home.” Ryan looked up at her in disbelief, hoping she was kidding. Convinced at last of her seriousness, Ryan put his hands on his hips and exclaimed, “I’d like to know who signed me up for this!”
Some Christians are startled when they catch wind of Jesus’ agenda, and they exclaim, “Who signed me up for this? I am supposed to deny myself nice things to take better care of the needy? To put up with annoying people and forgive them 70×7 times? To always seek to act like Jesus? Who signed me up for this?
Though Jesus knows better than any of us that we’ll never, this side of heaven, attain perfection, He nevertheless expects us to ever pursue perfection. In the Sermon on the Mount He commanded, “Be perfect…as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus’ ambitions for us are higher than our own! We are good with just being “good enough”, but He refuses to settle for any self-satisfied status quo with which we’re content. He always means to make us more like Himself – not because He can then love us without restraint – but because He already loves without restraint, just as we are, still a million miles from perfection.
C.S. Lewis reflected on how often Christians are bothered by Jesus’ command to be perfect, as if He were saying: “Unless you are perfect, I will not help you.” What Jesus is saying instead, Lewis notes, is this: “The only help I will give is the help to become perfect. You may want something less; but I will give you nothing less.” In other words, as we like to say around here, “Jesus loves us just as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way.” Thus, while we don’t have to grow ethically and spiritually to have His love, we get to grow to enjoy the love we already have from Him, apart from any self-improvement. We get to grow, and we want to grow just to the extent we get into Him and what He wants for us.
But know this. He will not rest content with half-measures! He intends to transform us into His image from top to bottom, inside and out. To quote Lewis again: “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work; I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it…I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth or crown it…but to have it out. Hand over your whole natural self…[and] I will give you a new self. In fact, I will give you myself.’”
This process of transformation is a long, hard adventure. There are no shortcuts and we cannot hurry it along. Nor can we escape the muscles aches and growing pains of it. It requires the willingness to suffer, the perseverance to keep on keeping on, and the stubborn faith to believe the pay-off will more than compensate for the prices we pay.
Whether you want to sign up for this challenging adventures depends on where you stand with respect to Jesus. Think of human beings as like magnets. Think of Jesus like that too, since He’s fully human as well as fully divine. Now, every magnet has a north pole and a south pole. If one magnet’s north pole stands close to the south pole of another, or south pole to north pole, the forces within them draw them to each other. But if two magnets are positioned north pole to north pole or south pole to south pole, the forces within them pull them back from each other. So too, whether a person is drawn to Jesus or repulsed by Jesus is determined by the position they’ve taken toward Him. Hence, there will always be some who are drawn to, and some who are repulsed by, Jesus. The Great Polarizer leaves almost no one unmoved or neutral. That’s why He, the Prince of Peace, says in today’s scripture, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!”
Even within the same family, some members will be attracted to Him and some appalled by Him. Jesus knew firsthand what this is like. While some strangers followed His lead, some members of His immediate family, Mark 3 tells us, opposed Him. Jesus just stirs up trouble!
Dorothy Sayers has noted that Christians have often reduced Jesus to a manageable “meek and mild” miniaturization of Him. They have cut to nubs the claws of the Lion of Judah and made the One who came to “bring fire to the earth” a household pet for the pious and pale. But, in truth, Jesus is wild, untamed and dangerous … someone who, for love’s sake, has no qualms about disrupting, disturbing and discombobulating those He loves and getting them in what John Lewis called “the right kind of trouble”.
Are you willing to sign up for the challenging and strenuous adventure of following Jesus? Are you daring enough to love Him even if you thereby lose some loved ones, and daring enough to believe that the rewards of discipleship more than make up for its costs?