I have heard people say that one of the reasons that they do not belong to a church is that the church is nothing more than a “bunch of losers.” They say we are weak, and we weaklings find strength in numbers. They say we cannot handle life on our own, so we use religion, faith, and church as a crutch to help us get along in this broken world.
Now, as bad as it might be for us to hear this, these critics of faith and religion may have a point. Sadly, their critique of Christianity, especially here in North America, may be justified.
To understand where they are coming from, all we have to do is turn on our TVs at almost any time of the day. There we will find countless preachers with great hair, bright smiles and big dimples promoting a health- wealth-and-prosperity gospel offering strength to the weak. Or we only have to walk into any Christian bookstore and see the shelves that are literally full of books promoting this message of self-help and good fortune.
I believe this is the reason Jesus may have become a little irritated with the large crowds that often followed him during his earthly ministry. One day, noticing the growing number of people following behind him, like a scene in Forrest Gump, Jesus suddenly stops, turns to the masses and says something like: “Do you people really know what this is all about?” Like someone asked me when I first moved to Enid, “Do you really know what you are getting yourselves into here?”
“Because I am not so sure the crowd would be this large if you really knew!” says Jesus. “Do you really understand what you are signing up for here? Do you really get this journey called, ‘discipleship’? Because, I have a sinking suspicion that most you do not have a clue.”
I suspect that the large crowds were following Jesus that day for much of the same reasons some people attend church today. They were looking to get something out of it. Some sort of blessing, reward, some kind of direction, perhaps a better handle on things, a little attention, keys to a better, more successful and prosperous life. They were looking to strengthen their families, be a more productive businessperson, get a leg up, receive a helping hand, get a little boost, a shot in the arm, a pat on the back and maybe just a little dose of something to help feel a little bit better, at little more righteous, a little more holy than all of those people who were not following Jesus.
As the church critics and cynics say, “They were merely looking for a crutch to help them to cope with everyday living. They were a bunch of losers looking for something, anything, to help them become winners. Because after all, isn’t that what God is all about: winning?
And noticing what was going on, Jesus stops in his tracks, turns and says to them, “You people really do not get this, do you? This journey called discipleship is not about making your family stronger. In fact, this could tear your family apart. This is not about making you feel superior or more holy than the ones who are not following. This journey will humble you! It will bring you down to your knees! This is not about self-help. It is about denying self. And this is certainly not about obtaining any keys to a more successful and productive life. It is not even about helping you cope or get a better grip on your life as it is. This is about losing your life. This is not about winning. This journey called discipleship is about losing.
So if you really want to follow me on this journey, you better think long and hard about it. Because this journey is not about receiving any reward or gain. In fact, the opposite is true. This journey is going to cost you. And it is going to cost you every possession you have. And guess what, there is even a cross involved. And you, my friend, are going to carry it. So you better do some calculations, you better do a good ol’ gut check, you better look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you really have what it takes to follow me on this journey. For this journey is not for the weak, the timid or the reluctant. It is for the courageous and the heroic. Some say that it is for the crazy and the foolish.
So, if you are a loser looking for something to make you a winner, this may not be for you. But if you are an ordinary person who really wants to find true life, life the way God intends for it to be, I am looking for a few good people who are willing to take some risk and lose it all!
This church has two wonderful practices that define who we are as the Disciples of Christ. The first one is what we call Believers Baptism. One of the reasons that we do not baptize infants is because we recognize that there is some cost involved to becoming one of Jesus’ disciples. Although the gift of salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it, walking with Jesus as disciples is a risky and costly venture. So, we wait until a child is of an age where they can weigh and calculate that cost. We call it the “age of accountability.” They have to be able to do some accounting. And that age is different for different children.
The second practice that defines who we are as Disciples of Christ is Communion. Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the cost that is involved on this journey we call discipleship. We break bread remembering that God through Jesus loved this world and all of us in it so much that he was willing was willing to suffer greatly for us. We share a cup representing the blood of Christ remembering that God’s love for us compelled God to pour God’s self out, empty God’s self through the life and death of Jesus Christ.
And we are reminded that we as disciples are called to take this same journey, carry our own crosses. We come to church not in search of some crutch to help our broken selves, but to be reminded that we are called to be willing to break ourselves for others, suffer with and for others. We come to church not looking for something to help us improve life, but for the courage and the opportunity to pour our lives out to help others.
I firmly believe that fully embracing this identity is the only way we are going to change the way the local church and the Christian faith is often perceived by those people who have all but given up on organized religion. Instead of being a bunch of losers looking for the church to help us become winners, we need to be a bunch of ordinary people who are willing to be a bunch of losers, willing to lose our very selves.
Then, we will not only have life the way God intends for it to be, we will be the witness to the world of the love that God calls us to be. And if we pay attention, there are examples of this witness all around us.
I have a friend in Raleigh who left a good paying job to become the pastor of a group of homeless men and women. He looks to the generosity from friends scattered all over the country to pay for a roof over his head and to put meals on his table. Loving God more than self, he gave up much, risked much and lost much to love a group of people who can offer him little in return.
There are people right here in this room who have given up much to not only do missions in other parts of the world like Peru and the Dominican Republic, but also right here at home. You give of yourselves constantly to minister to the poor and needy here through Loaves and Fishes or Our Daily Bread. Others here could have chosen more lucrative careers, but instead you answered a call to serve others as social workers, school teachers, nurses and other service oriented professions. Others have sacrificed much to provide for children, other family members, and even friends or employees who have exceptional needs.
Just this week, some of you gave up, lost an entire Wednesday evening, as you did yard work for people who needed it through Hearts for Care.
So to all of the church skeptics and critics, I want to say this: I understand that no one wants to be associated with a bunch of whiney losers who are always looking to get something, to find something to make their lives better or to get something just to help them cope. And I know that is why some people in the church are very attracted to the health and wealth evangelists and the always-smiling prosperity preachers.
However, I belong to the Central Christian Church of Enid, Oklahoma, a church that is full of a bunch of losers of another sort: a bunch of courageous and faithful losers who have made a commitment to always strive to love God and others more than self; a bunch of self-denying, selfless losers who are willing to risk it all to put the needs of others over their own needs and wants.
And no, we are not perfect. We all have our selfish moments. But we have decided to try our best with the help of God and each other to follow Jesus on a risky journey called discipleship— a journey of self-denial, self-giving and sacrifice, believing that it is the only journey that leads to real life, life that is truly abundant and eternal.
We believe “losing” is what “winning” really looks like. And yes, as crazy and as foolish as it may seem, we do know what we have gotten ourselves into!