Stephen was stoned to death. James was beheaded. Matthew was pinned to the ground and beheaded. James the brother of Jesus was thrown off the temple tower and clubbed to death. Following Jesus is dangerous.
Matthias was stoned and then beheaded. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross. Mark was dragged to his death. Peter was crucified upside down.
Paul was beheaded. Jude was crucified. Bartholomew was beaten and crucified. Thomas was tortured, run through with spears, and thrown into the flames of an oven. Luke was hung from an olive tree.
If the season of Lent is an annual, concentrated reminder of the call of discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, then Lent is dangerous.
Lent is dangerous because there is historical controversy associated with it. While it had been celebrated for over a thousand years by the time of Calvin, there was so much superstition associated with it that he counseled against keeping Lent. Lent is dangerous because there are a number of ways to celebrate it badly: morbid introspection, conjuring up vague guilt and feeling holy for it, prideful abstaining from food and drink, looking down on those who don’t celebrate. False humility is as easy as lighting a dead Christmas tree on fire. One little spark and we puff up.
But Lent is dangerous ultimately because the cross is dangerous. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). To those who want to find another way to grace, another path to mercy, the cross is an offense (Gal. 5:11). The sinful heart of man is offended by grace, offended by the folly of the cross. We would rather be proud in all sorts of ways.
In the first century it was Jews who wanted to put guard rails up around the cross, the old Jewish laws – circumcision and Sabbath – were safe and established “marks,” identifying the people of God. But Paul says that he will only boast in the cross of Christ, he will only boast in the victory of God in Jesus, “by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
The cross is Paul’s mark, his only pride. He writes the Thessalonians: “You became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything” (1 Thess. 1:6-8).
Paul says that the Thessalonians followed the apostles and the Lord Jesus such that they became examples or “marks” to everyone. They became “marks” to all those who believe in Macedonia and Achaia, but even beyond that, he says that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth” not just locally but “also in every place.” Paul says that they have become examples, types, marks displayed for the world to see so that the apostles don’t need to remind anyone about the Thessalonians. It’s clear for everyone to see; the apostles don’t need to say anything. Everyone knows.
And Paul describes how they became marks and examples for the world. They became these marks through receiving the word in affliction and with joy. From Acts we know that the city of Thessalonica had been roused into an angry mob by jealous Jews when some members of the synagogue began following the gospel preached by Paul. The Thessalonian Christians faced affliction and persecution for following Jesus, but they did so with joy in the Holy Spirit.
Following Jesus has always been a call to take risks, to risk reputation, risk danger, risk all pride. The call to follow Jesus is not a call to comfort, dignity, or respectability. Jesus says, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (Jn. 15:20) And the witness of thousands of Christians down through the centuries calls us to follow Jesus, taking up the cross, taking up the dangers, taking up the risks.
Ignatius was the pastor of the church in Antioch when he was arrested and extradited to Rome. He wrote to the Roman church pleading with them not to try to deliver him because that would deprive him of what he most longed and hoped for. He wrote: “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing of visible or invisible things so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.” It is said that as he was sentenced to be fed to lions, Ignatius said, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread.”
Following Jesus is dangerous. The call to follow Jesus is the call to take up our cross and follow Him. And that cross is not just for decoration. The cross is not merely a symbol. The cross is the power of God for salvation. It displays God’s love and justice for the world. The cross is foolishness to Greeks and blasphemy to the Jews. The cross is the glory of God. God loves that part in the story where death dies, where weakness triumphs, where mercy bursts out of violence.
Peter exhorts the elders of the church not to rule the churches as “lords” over those entrusted to them, but as “examples to the flock.” As Paul said that the Thessalonians had become examples or marks, Peter calls the elders to be “marks” for the flock to see. Likewise, Paul exhorted Timothy and Titus to be “marks” for the believers in their churches (1 Tim. 4:12, Tit. 2:7). Where does this idea come from? What does it mean to be “marks” for others to see?
This idea goes back to Jesus. The same word is only used once in the gospels in John: Thomas says that he will not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead unless he sees the marks of the nails in the hands of Jesus and puts his fingers in the holes and places his hand into His side (Jn. 20:25).
What Paul and Peter and the rest of the apostles and disciples came to understand was their calling to be the marks of Jesus for all to see. We are called to be the nail marks of Jesus for the world so that the world will see and believe. The call to follow Jesus is always a call to look like Jesus, to display the life of Jesus in our lives, in our words, in our actions, to bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in our bodies. Many Christians are hunted down by unbelievers and God displays His grace in their suffering. But if we are not being turned into marks through violent oppression, our marching orders are pretty straightforward. We are called into all the world to preach the gospel. If Lent is for remembering the cross in order that the marks of Jesus might be evident in our lives then Lent is for evangelism.
Several Practical Suggestions
First, if you plan to fast during Lent, do not kid yourself into thinking that fasting is the same thing as suffering for Jesus. Just because the pastor said that Lent is dangerous doesn’t mean you’re being a great risk taker by abstaining from chocolate or coffee or beer. Do not come up here and take the sign of the cross upon your forehead and pat yourself on the back and say that you have somehow done something courageous for Jesus. The point of abstaining, the point of taking the cross upon your brow, the point of prayer and fasting, the point of all this must be evangelistic, inviting the gospel to fill our lives, our families, our communities. The point is to make time to pray for the lost, to love the lost, to invite the lost and the hurting into our homes, and to share life with the lost and dying in our community. Abstaining from something is not the mark of Christ, but if you give yourself to heart-aching prayer for your neighbors, you have begun to be a disciple. If you plead with an unbelieving loved one to submit to Christ, the word of the Lord is going forth. If you graciously confront your roommate for obvious sin and folly, realizing that you may lose or strain a friendship, you are beginning to be a disciple. If you love your wife like Christ loved the church, and give yourself away for her more and more sacrificially, you are beginning to be a disciple.
And if you fast, let your fasting and prayer be toward particular ends, particular needs, particular hurts, not vague feelings. Fasting does not benefit us. Fasting is a bodily posture. Just as you might kneel or lift your hands in prayer, so too fasting is a posture of humility and urgency. Some of you need to learn to fast and pray. You might dedicate one day a week, one meal a week, you might do it individually, or as a family. But the point is not for a show of piety, the point is not to harness some mystical power. The point is to cry out to God. Peter says that humility is evidenced in casting all our cares upon the God who cares for us. Some of you need to cry out to God because you haven’t been. Some of you need to cry out to God because you’ve been carrying all your cares yourself, because you are weighed down with burdens and stress and fear and unbelief. Use this season of Lent to repent. Set aside time to pray, to pour out your heart to the Lord. And pray it out. Pray until it’s all out. Pray your cares on to the God who cares for you.
Next, and related to the first point is that abstaining ought to always be pointed toward some sort of giving. If we celebrate Lent as a community it ought to be an obvious blessing to everyone around us. People ought to be glad that Trinity celebrates Lent. Last year, you will recall that we encouraged you all to consider spending one evening a week with the elderly folks at Aspen Park. That Tuesday evening visit is still going on every week, and I would encourage you to consider participating in that again. There are a number of students who still regularly attend, but those of you with young children cannot overestimate the kind of joy and blessing you can bring to the elderly by sharing your little ones with them. So consider visiting Aspen Park on a Tuesday evening during Lent. Or if you have other elderly friends or relatives, plan to visit them and encourage them and show them the love of Christ in the coming weeks.
Lastly, this year, the elders would like you to give particular attention and consideration to evangelism. First, we want to ask all of you to consider having your neighbors over for dinner or dessert. And by neighbors we mean the people who live next door and across the street. Maybe you could plan one meal a week or just two or three meals over the next number of weeks. And focus your attention particularly on neighbors who are unbelievers or who don’t attend church. The point is not to trap them in your house and then stand up on your chair at dinner and deliver a lengthy sermon. The point is to love them as your neighbors, get to know them and if possible invite them to church. The elders are also organizing a couple of other opportunities. Over the next number of weeks we are aiming to take time on at least two Saturdays to go into some of our neighborhoods, to introduce ourselves as members of Trinity Reformed Church and invite folks to come to church. Again, the idea isn’t for everyone in the church to be street preachers; the idea is that we all have neighbors that we are commanded to love. Watch your email over the next few days as we finalize details, and please plan to join us.
Lent is all about the cross, the message of the cross, the marks of the cross, the risk of the cross, the danger of the cross, the joy of the cross. And tonight we are gathered together to renew our commitment to this cross, to this scandal, to this danger, to this Savior.
Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. He was arrested as an old man and taken before the governor who sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Yet the governor offered to release Polycarp if he would curse Christ, and Polycarp answered: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never once wronged me. How then shall I blaspheme my king who has saved me?” He was tied to the stake rather than nailed, as was the usual custom because he assured them that he would stand still in the flames. After the fire was lit and it had burned for a while without consuming him, the order was given and the executioner pierced him with a sword.
May God give us grace to follow the Lord Jesus with the same joy and faith and loyalty. And may we become the marks of Christ, calling the world to faith in our crucified and risen King.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.