Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
It is no easy thing to decide to follow Jesus. I mean to make the radical decision that you are going to be first and foremost a Christ follower is a weighty decision, certainly if Jesus is to be believed. It would seem from this dialogue in the gospel that nothing can get in the way of this following. Certainly nothing from our culture nor our context.
That great Theological heavyweight of the last century, Richard Niebuhr gave me a useful framework for assessing just where I am prepared to place Christ vis a vis my own culture with its own demands.
Niebuhr’s schema is clearly marked out in this excerpt from wikipedia:
- Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
- Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
- Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
- Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
- Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.
Reading this typology years after my theological studies I am struck by how in all the years of my ministry I have shifted around in each of the categories and how I have also encountered fellow pilgrims doing the same.
As I feel the Christian church contexture of the modern day, with fundamentalists getting most the airtime and the liberals only being quoted when they push the envelope on ethical issues of gay rights or abortion, I realise that not many of us have come to the place of deep contented commitment where we are able to follow Jesus in the here and now of daily life without continually hiving off into ghettoes of fear of what is happening in the world, all the time holding our breath for something that is to come in the far off future.
If I consider the culture that I absorbed from my mother’s breast, the culture that I live in as a Euro-African and the culture that I have transmitted to my twenty something sons, I recognise that Jesus whilst acknowledged in what was always called “Christian culture’’ was not really central to that way of life. My culture has never really stressed the cross bearing, compassion driven life of which Jesus spoke so often, and which was the very fabric of his being in the world.
I am not shamed or guilty about this, I am rather saddened that for me and for many, this business of Christ following is at best a veneer, a waxen mask that I wear to the church dance without really allowing my inner being to be changed. Small wonder then that Jesus seems to be doing something new and refreshing outside the church charade.
How wonderful as Desmond Tutu proclaims in his latest collection essays to be published, “God is not a Christian”.
We Christians love our parents and children, school ties and apple pies, our parties and our points of view too much to be worthy of the compassionate cross carrier from Nazareth.