Follow Jesus to martyrdom?

Several weeks ago, there was an attempted assassination of some folks in my church. This was a deliberately targeted attack on the leaders of a ministry that was having a detrimental impact on some of the illicit and oppressive cottage industries in the neighborhood. In God’s sovereign design, these saints were miraculously saved from a violent death.

Is being a follower of Jesus safe? Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost. He came to bring down the oppressive systems of the world which enslave and oppress. If we follow him, then will we not also bring the same kind of violent resistance that he himself (and the prophets and the apostles) experienced? Are Jesus followers all called to be martyrs?

Jesus made a very clear statement about what it means to come after him:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The cross was not invented by Christians; it was a tool of the Romans to torture and execute insurrectionists. Jesus was inviting his followers, the “crowd” as well as the disciples, to sacrifice their lives. What does it mean to lay down our lives? Is it enough that we are just willing even if we don’t actually make any real life change to demonstrate that willingness? Does it mean facing physical death or just a mental and intellectual submission? What does it mean to be “ashamed” of Jesus and his words? What would it do to the oppressive and broken systems of the world if everyone who claimed to  follow Jesus chose to physically take a stand? What would happen if American Christians who have bought in to the notion of the American dream chose to drastically alter their lifestyles in order to share their resources, sacrifice their time and energy, or build real relationships with “sinners”?

Asking these kinds of questions might sound like some kind of hyper-religious mortification of the flesh. However, in both the Old and New Testament, God’s plan for his people has always been to bless, prosper, liberate, give rest, heal, and restore. Jesus’ plan is the exactly the same. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. How does this fit with “taking up our cross?” You can see that in the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt that they had to be brought into wilderness, weakness, sacrifice, and dependence in order to establish a new nation where the promises to Abraham could be fulfilled. But, when they were brought to the promised land, they gave in to fear of “the giants” in the land. They chose to “save” their own lives instead of trusting the Lord to protect and deliver them as they went into a war fought by the Lord himself. Ultimately, they lost the opportunity to go into the land and had to wait for God to raise up a whole new generation. The promise that God gives us has always been that we if we choose to sacrifice our lives to maintain justice and righteousness, then he will deliver, protect, vindicate, and bless us.

How does God bring his blessing through this kind of reckless sacrifice? Our ministry leaders were not only delivered from physical death, but the incident brought them into the good favor of authorities who could give the ministry even more access and freedom to bring God’s righteousness into the lives of broken people. For my wife and I, we have given up so much in order to love 2  kids who are not ours by birth or law. We are spending ourselves with the hope that comes from faith in a good God who will preserve and provide for seeking his kingdom first. We have seen the amazing blessing of God in our lives in the past 2 weeks through the love and prayers of the saints. Letting go of the idols and slavery to this world is a kind of death, but it always results in new life, righteousness and justice, even if it means physical death. That is the lavish blessing that is promised to the followers of Jesus who take up their cross and follow him.

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