‘Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me…..For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”’ (Matthew 16:24-26)
Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) was a Baptist missionary and the first American clergyman to bring the gospel to the Buddhist people of Burma. Soon after his appointment at the age of 25, he proposed to Ann Hasseltline, with what some might call an unromantic offer: ‘Give me your hand to go with me to the jungles of Asia, and there die with me in the cause of Christ.’
Judson, who already knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, immediately began studying the Burmese language. He saw his first convert after seven years, and it took him 20 years to translate the Bible into the local language. He returned to the USA only once in his 37 years abroad, was widowed twice, and six of his children died in the bush. He was arrested and chained during the Anglo-Burmese war, and on his release, he requested to be moved to another province to continue preaching the gospel. The ruler said to him: ‘My people are not fools enough to listen to what a missionary might say, but I fear they might be impressed with your scars and turn to your religion!’ Jeremy Camp, in his book I still believe, said: ‘I’ve learned that suffering doesn’t destroy faith, it refines it.’
During Easter, we are reminded again about the cross of our Lord and what it means for our salvation as Christians.
Before we commit to something today, we usually want to know: what’s in it for me? Or if we’re being given the hard-sell by someone else: what’s in it for you, what’s the catch? Whichever culture you’re from, whatever background you have, whether in the corporate world or private, it’s widely accepted that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
A young couple walked into a jewellery store to buy a necklace with a cross on it, but they couldn’t agree on whether to have one with a ‘little man’ on it or one without the ‘little man.’ As the saying goes, ‘many people can wear a cross, but few can bear them’.
Looking at the cross of Jesus Christ, there are two sides: The Suffering Christ and the Victorious Christ.
The Apostle Paul writes: ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18) What a contrast between what the world thinks and what the Bible says about the cross.
The message of the cross is scandalous. It is even offensive to those looking with merely human eyes. It looks weak – especially to those who see religion consisting of only signs, miracles and powers. It looks unsophisticated – especially to those who think religion is about knowledge and fine-sounding arguments.
Scientists claim to have buried God – ‘God is dead,’ as Nietzsche put it. But to Christians, the cross is a message of hope for all people: Jesus was born to die, and to rise again. That was the reason for the incarnation. On the cross, Jesus faced the judgment of God. He took the wrath of God upon himself.
Is it just a matter of Science vs Faith?
As C S Lewis put it in his book A Grief Observed, ‘You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it. Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.’
In the face of death, almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – just falls away, leaving only what is truly important.
Recently, the Ghanaian president Akufo-Addo, while encouraging his population to stay home to fight COVID-19 claimed: ‘We [the government] know how to bring the economy back to life. What we do not know is how to bring people back to life.’ This simple but powerful quote has gone viral on the international scene, earning him a lot of commendations for his leadership.
When considering the current pandemic, one might sense natural selection at work. Others consider the population control views of environmental or animal rights activists. Should the shutdown provide a boost to their arguments? Of course, Christianity says no – the Lord has paid the price on the cross. We must stand in the gap for those are suffering and those in need. We love one another as we love ourselves. We stand up for the weak and marginalised and are a voice for the voiceless. Protect lives – this has been at the core of the Christian message all along.
Was the cross necessary? Can anything good comes out of pain?
The Apostle Paul goes on to tell us that the world in its wisdom did know God (1 Corinthians 1:21). Man can figure out many things; man can build impressive things – but in all his wisdom he cannot make his own way to God. You will never know God through the wisdom of the world.
Martin Luther King wrote: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’
So, one might ask, where is God when it hurts? Phillip Yancey in his book, Disappointment With God, provides an answer by rewording the question: ‘Where is the Church when it Hurts?’
We are the church. We are Christ in a suffering world. As we follow the Lord Jesus and are filled with his Spirit, we carry with us the power of God through the resurrection.
John Wyatt, in his book Matters of Life and Death, writes: ‘Suffering is not a question which demands answer, neither a problem which demands a solution. It is a mystery which demands a presence.’
St Augustin wrote: ‘Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in his works unless his omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.’
When faced with suffering, we, like the Lord, may cry out, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was bearing the sin of every believer in the world, including your sins and mine, by dying in our place. That is why he came.
Here is good news: nails did not hold our Lord Jesus to that cross. Love did. I am glad. Sunday came, and our Lord overcame death. HALLELUJAH! We are seeing and witnessing the other side of the cross, victory. The Bible says, as they came to the tomb, the tomb was empty, our Lord is alive. (Mark 16:6)
So what then is our part in all of this?
Jim Elliot once said: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’ Our salvation is eternal. Though we may die, we will rise with him. We are eternal beings.
For the world though, this life is all there is. Live and enjoy it while it lasts. Existentialists have argued that life has no meaning or purpose, we are all just a bunch of cells or meat. As Richards Dawkins put it: ‘DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
Ravi Zacharias however, while reflecting on the cross of Jesus Christ wrote: ‘We live with the hunger for truth, love, justice, and forgiveness. There is only one place in the world where these converge: it is in the cross of Christ, where perfect love and perfect justice became united in one death on Friday afternoon.’
Thank God that Sunday is coming. Our Lord has overcome the grave. We sing with Billi Gaither: ‘Because he lives, I can face tomorrow.’ We too shall live after the grave – our hope is not in vain, we will live with him for eternity. (1Corinthians 15:12-19)
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Happy Easter to you all!