What does it mean to be a Christian today? What does it mean to be Christ-like?
“The process of becoming a Christian (that is, being changed into the likeness of God) is, in a human sense, a greater torment and wretchedness and pain than the greatest conceivable human suffering, and moreover a crime in the eyes of one’s contemporaries. And thus will it always be; that is, if becoming Christian in reality means becoming contemporaneous with Christ. And if becoming a Christian does not have that meaning, then all your chatter about becoming a Christian is a vanity, a delusion, and a snare, and likewise a blasphemy and a sin against the Holy Ghost.” Soren Kierkegaard
These are seriously difficult words from the Danish Christian philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. If we are troubled by them, I think it might be a sign that they represent something true. He also said, “The truth must essentially be regarded as in conflict with this world, the world has never been so good, and will never become so good that the majority will desire the truth.”
You see, there are two things that we know about the truth: “The truth hurts.” And, “The truth shall set you free.” That is the paradox within which we as human beings live, but to be Christian is to understand and to accept the truth of this paradox and live fully, fully alive, fully committed, fully ready to suffer as Jesus suffered to be good and to be true in the world that is so much against him and the truth.
Kierkegaard understood the truth about being Christian deeply, from his own experience. He knew that to be Christian, to live in the image and likeness of God, is the most difficult, the most painful thing one could choose to be in a world so clearly at odds with the truth and the wisdom of living and loving as Jesus did.
If we understand Christianity to be merely a means to consolation, a means for “feeling good” then we have, as Kierkegaard says, “forgotten that it is a DEMAND upon men.” If that is all that we think of Christianity, then it really is nothing more than chatter, a vanity, a delusion, a snare, a blasphemy, and a sin against the Holy Spirit.
Christianity demands that we live the truth among men. It demands that we be compassionate to all, no matter who they are, or what their human condition is. It demands that we love others as Christ loves us, that we turn our cheek when slapped or insulted for being true to our calling. It demands that we take care of the homeless and the sick, the forgotten the rejected, the damaged and the lost, not to get their blessing, or to make ourselves feel good, but because they are worthy of our love simply because they are our brothers and sisters, fellow children of the same God.
To call oneself a Christian, one must be ready to suffer the worst that the truth-denying world can threaten. But this must not be misunderstood, or misinterpreted either. This is not a matter of macho courage, nor is it about being a rebel with a cause. It means that one is choosing to be like Christ in the world.
Many Christians today want to make Jesus into some kind of Marxist rebel willing to take up arms against the injustices of the world, or, if they are of the Gandhi kind, a non-violent warrior against the oppressors of the world. But they miss the point entirely here. Jesus was not a rebel. A rebel fights against something, either out a sense of self-righteous surety, or out of a desire to replace the cause of “the peoples” suffering with their own humanly inspired brand of justice.
Christ was neither of these. Jesus came to serve us in the midst of our suffering, to be with us, to show us a way to overthrow the tyrannical rule of our own egos. He was showing this equally to those who were in power and abusing it and to the simple, the common person, because he loved both equally. He did not take up arms against the Roman oppressor. Instead he took up love, the most liberating of all human powers. He did not fight for our souls’ redemption, he suffered for it, willingly. He did not demand changes the tax system to be more just, he did not argue for one political/theological party over another. He did not take sides with human parties of any kind. He took the side of God, the Father, in all things.
To be Christ-like in the truth hating world means to speak the truth fearlessly in the face of the worst threats, the gravest insults, the most sarcastic, biting ridicule without taking insult, or being outraged, but rather with a gentle challenge. And these threats, insults, and sarcasms may come from the most intimate of your friends and families, not some metaphorical “them” out there in the larger world.
When Jesus was brought before the high priest and questioned about his disciples and his teaching, Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly for all the world to hear; I have said nothing in secret. But why ask me? Ask my hearers what I taught: they know what I said.” When he had said that one of the guards standing next to him struck him in the face saying, “Is that the way to answer the high priest? And Jesus replied, “If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offense in it, why do you strike me?” (John 18: 22-24)
This simple statement of Jesus’ in response to the self-important, physical attack of the guard, is not one of anger, nor is it vengeful, it is simply a statement about the truth of what he had said and because it was the truth he spoke, he was completely calm in his response. He was simply trying to get the guard to reflect on what he had done in light of the truth. Jesus responded out of the freedom of truth. Though he was more innocent than any human being could ever be, he did not take the insult personally, nor did he (as he could so easily have done) respond with a self-satisfying tirade about who he was. He did not say, “Do you not know who you are striking and talking to? He simply attempted to get that one individual, the guard who had struck him, to contemplate his actions, to be responsible for them, in truth.
To be a real Christian today, or in any time, is seen as “a crime in the eye’s of ones contemporaries.” Again, those “contemporaries” might be those who you might think of as friends and family. Then to be a Christian, a real Christian, that is, one who has willingly chosen to try to live in this world in the image of God, as a contemporary of Jesus, is to be a criminal and we all know what “they” do to criminals.
Again, if we think that Christianity is merely consolation (though it gives us much of that) we have missed the entire meaning of the incarnation, the life of Jesus. He did not come to condemn us, though we may have indeed deserved his condemnation, rather he came to save us in the fullness of his love for us. He would not force his love on us. He would not demand that we be his followers. Instead he showed us the way that would lead to eternal life. He proposed the truth to us, he did not impose it on us. He shows us the truth in all of its glory and then let’s us choose to follow him or to deny him. Both choices, as we all know, have their consequences in this world and in the next.
To be a Christian in a world that denies the truth, or that names falsehoods the truth every day, is to be a burr, a source of irritation, a constant challenge to that world. It is living in the truth that makes us dangerous in the eyes of the world, not our self-righteous anger at the injustices of the world. It is the utter simplicity of the truth of love, a love so great that it can even love the enemy without condition, that so troubles the world. And the world does not fully realize that it is this simple truth that it so desperately desires. As Christians we too, then, must simply show the truth of this love to the world and let the world choose for itself how it will respond.
The Christian knows for a fact that his or her power, intellect, or commitment is not the source of goodness in the world. A Christian knows that he or she is only an instrument of God’s grace and love in the world. A Christian knows that only God can save the world. No righteous revolutionary, armed to the teeth, and full of self-importance will ever win the world or a single soul’s salvation. Only God can do this and he showed us exactly how he would do this through the life, the death and the Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. God grant us the humility, the insight, and the desire to be like Jesus in the world today. AMEN!SKM: below-content placeholder