“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called, in Hebrew, Golgotha.”
There was a programme on TV in England this week called "The Battle for Christianity." It was about how most of our churches are in serious decline with fewer and fewer people attending them as each year passes. But there are churches that are bucking this trend where the congregations are growing, where literally thousands of people turn up to worship every week. It is no secret why these churches are so well attended. They follow a formula that has been tried and tested over many years, one which any church could adopt if they so wished.Basically, the leaders of these churches primarily preach one simple message which is “Become a Christian and everything will be alright.”
It works and the churches and their leaders prosper. They are full of healthy, young people with money to enthusiastically put in the collection plate. They celebrate youth, health, family and prosperity and they have found that there are still plenty of people out there who want to worship these things, preferably to the accompaniment of a boy band beat. Easy grace is always on offer. Believe and YOU will be saved and bugger everyone else.
It is law of business that if you want to sell your product you have to make it attractive and as cheap as possible. If you owned a shop and you put a big notice up in the window that said, “We guarantee that all our goods are twice as expensive as everybody else's and will make your life a lot harder” you might as well not bother opening up because nobody in their right mind is going to come in and buy. So, like a successful shop, a church that wants to be successful must make the product that it is trying to sell appealing and cheap. A nice, easy Christianity, with no demands. A Christianity that fits in with the punters’ existing lifestyles. A Christianity that makes you feel good. A supermarket religion for the shopping mall generation.
Of course, there is a problem here which is the fact that such a religion, though very tempting, has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Christianity.
In reality, as opposed to in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Christianity hurts. It hurts because it is about coming alongside other people and other people are hurting. It hurts because it is about sharing with other people and sometimes the only thing other people have to share with you is their pain. It hurts because it is a faith that was born through the suffering of Jesus Christ and to fully understand what that suffering achieved you have to become one with Christ and when you do that you will feel his pain.
In this fallen world it is difficult to cope with our own pain. We hide from it, we distract ourselves with worldly pleasures, we suppress the memory of the things that have hurt us. Surely, only a fool would not only embrace their own pain but take on the pain of other people as well? But the Christian is expected to, in fact the Christian has no choice in the matter. If we are serious about our faith then we will be made to carry some of the burden of the world’s suffering. We are like Simon of Cyrene. He did not want to carry the cross for Jesus but the soldiers made him carry it. Not all the way; Jesus carried it for the greater part, but for part of the way he carried it. As if to emphasise the part that his followers were to play in the bringing in of the Kingdom of God, Jesus publicly allowed an ordinary, nothing special, man, who just happened to be there, to share his burden.
No doubt, Simon did not realise the honour that he had been accorded until afterwards, and that is usually the same for us. When we are feeling the pain of the Lord as we minister to his hurting children, or coping with our own suffering, we do not enjoy it. In fact to enjoy it would be perverse and indicate a sense of pride in us not acceptable to God. And we should not embrace pain for its own sake, as some Christians have done in the past, as this is foolish romanticism and, again, perverse. God will allot to us the suffering that we can bear. Maybe our own suffering, maybe the suffering of another person. But the suffering that we share with Christ is a redeemed suffering, a suffering from which good will come. Maybe the good will not be for ourselves, or not for ourselves in this life. Maybe the good will be for others. For instance, in the early years of Christianity people saw how the martyrs bore their pain and many were led to faith in Christ by their example.
Pain will be a part of every Christian’s journey and we should be aware of this, we should make sure people searching for God understand this and although we should not revel in our suffering, although we should always seek ways to alleviate pain, both in others and in ourselves, we should see our suffering almost as a prayer, as a way of coming closer to God, whose Son shared in our suffering, and we should regard it as an honour bestowed on us by God who trusts us to share in his Son’s continuing redemption of the world.
So faith is painful and it is also costly. In the supermarket churches people only take what they want and ignore the parts of Christianity that do not appeal to them or which would demand to much from them. But if you really buy into the Christian faith then you will be expected to purchase everything in the store. Otherwise you are like the rich young prince who could obey the law, who could love God and his neighbour but who could not give up his personal wealth that was getting between him and God. Christianity is about commitment, costly commitment. Again it was our Lord Jesus who showed us how costly faith in God the Father could be. We will never be expected to pay the price he did but we will be expected to pay a price. True faith is expensive.
The Christian faith is painful and it is costly, and it does not give you easy answers. The supermarket church does, it says, “come inside and we will give you answers to all your questions, we will tell you exactly how you should lead your lives, we will tell you exactly how everybody else should live their lives as well so that you know who the good guys and the bad guys are, so that life is nice and simple for you. We will tell you what to believe, we will translate the word of God for you.”
But, again, Christianity is not like that. God takes his gift to his people of free will very seriously in deed. We are expected to use our own brains, he does not give us all the answers. Love God and love your neighbour, Jesus said. How we do that he leaves up to us to work out. Even Christ’s death and resurrection pose more questions than they answer. We were given an answer on that cross but at best we only catch glimpses of it, we see through the glass darkly, and it will not be until we are with him in his kingdom that we will finally understand the ways of God.
So if Christianity is painful, costly and ambiguous why should anybody want to become part of it? Why put ourselves out for so little instant gratification, which is what most people are after nowadays? Is it for the spiritual highs we experience in worship? Is it for knowledge, health, prosperity? Is it to learn how to be good? Is it for the satisfaction of knowing we are on the side of the good guys? Or is it something more long-lasting and profound, like knowing we are loved by God or even for the promise of eternal life? Actually it is for none of these. There is only one reason why you should become a Christian, why you should give up everything you previously held to be precious, why you should accept the suffering that you will be asked to bear, why you should agree to be led, like Saint Peter “where you do not wish to go,” without knowing all the answers and on a journey where all you have is your faith. The reason is very simple. Embracing the Christian faith and all it entails is the only possible, honest and human response to the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us on the cross at the Place of the Skull all those years ago. Jesus has already done enough to be able to demand our very lives from us. He does not have to promise us anything more, he does not owe us anything, in fact, we owe everything to him. Once we have been told about the passion of Christ and believe it to be true, once we understand the love that Christ had for us, then we simply have to give our lives to him, we simply have to love him. We can no longer put ourselves first, we can no longer hold the things of the world, which were previously so dear to us, to be of any worth at all. Not riches, not possessions, not family or friends, not anything.
When I survey the wondrous cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.
His dying crimson like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then I am dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.