McLawhorn column: Requirements of discipleship

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 25, 2012

Perhaps the primary missional statement and agenda of Hood Theological Seminary is to “prepare men and women for transformational leadership in Christian ministry.” Among other things, that means that one of the reasons you have come to Hood Seminary is to try to learn more about what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Most of you have probably already learned the primary lesson: that there is always more to learn, always greater understanding to be achieved. So the question is ever before us, never fully or completely answered: What must I do to be a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ? What are the requirements for being a true follower of the Master?
These are not easy questions, and the answers are even harder. For in order to follow the Master, we must try to know and understand the Master; we must be acquainted with his thoughts, not just his words. We must come to some sort of understanding of his spirit, not just his actions; we must know who it is that we follow, for only then will we begin to know why we follow, and whether the trip is worth the price of gas and all the other sacrifices we are asked to make.
And there are sacrifices to be made. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). For generations, many people have denied themselves by giving up something for Lent. They may try to give up something they know they shouldn’t be doing in the first place; or they may actually try to give up something they cherish for these 40 days. Whatever it is, they deny themselves the pleasure of it as a symbolic gesture of denying themselves for Christ. But truly denying ourselves for Christ is more than giving up coffee for 40 days, or abstaining from certain luxuries or delights, thinking we are making some great sacrifice for God. This kind of denial is actually sin. For it is all too easy for us to applaud our own self-control — making spiritual “Little Jack Horners” out of ourselves, saying “What a good boy, or what a good girl, am I.”
Self denial — the denial of self — is something deeper. It is making ourselves not an end, but a means, in the kingdom of God. It is letting go of our preoccupation with “I,” “me” and “mine.” It is the denial of self, not for the sake of denial as some sort of moral athletics, a kind of moral calisthenics, but for the sake of putting ourselves, who we really are, on the line and into the cause of Christ. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
The story is told that a Christian from India named Sundar Singh and a companion were once travelling through a pass high in the Himalayan Mountains. They were out of provisions, a long way from their destination, and they were struggling desperately against the snow, the ice, the bitter cold and the wind. Suddenly, Singh stumbled over something; it was a man, covered with snow, nearly frozen to death and barely alive. Singh wanted to stop and try to help, but his companion refused. “We have no provisions and are nearly frozen to death ourselves. If we burden ourselves with this man, who will be dead in a few minutes anyway, it will slow us down and we will all die.”
But Singh would not leave the man to die there alone in the snow and ice. As his companion said farewell, Singh lifted the dying man onto his back. With tremendous exertion and pain, he carried the man onward through the pass. Soon, the heat from Singh’s body began to warm the half-frozen man, and he revived. After some time, both were walking together side by side. When they caught up with Singh’s former companion, he was dead, frozen to death by the cold.
Sundar Singh was willing to lose his life in order to save another, and in the process he found his own life. His companion, who sought to save his life at another’s expense, lost the very thing he was trying to preserve.
“Taking up our cross” may not mean picking up and carrying a dying man through a Himalayan mountain pass, but for the disciple of Christ it does mean the deliberate choice of something that we could avoid. It is the taking up of a burden that we are under no compulsion or requirement to take up, except for the compulsion of God’s love in and through Jesus Christ. Taking up our cross means choosing to take upon ourselves the burdens of others, of putting ourselves without reservation at the service of Christ, of putting ourselves in the midst of the struggles of life, whatever the cost to ourselves, when we could have gone safely about our business.
To take up our cross as a disciple of Jesus Christ means, for one thing, that we, like Christ himself, will bear the sins of the world. Like Christ, we must accept the fact of it, contend with the grief of it, and carry the cost of it just as he did. We cannot say, “I’ll have nothing to do with that — I’ll have nothing to do with somebody’s else’s sin and its causes.” To take up our cross as a disciple of the Master means that, like him, we must say, “I’ll have everything to do with that.” With Saint Paul, we must say, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3).
Today, we come to the table of the Lord to find the strength and the will to become better disciples together, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of those who are dying in the cold, and can go no further without the help of someone to carry them for a while.
Dr. Robert McLawhorn is an adjunct professor of theology at Hood Theological Seminary.