There is a teaching of Jesus missing from many of our pulpits today. It might appear to be out of sync with the mood of this Advent season (but it is not). By its very nature, it is an instruction that makes us flinch, or ignore, if not reject it outright.
However, if we pay serious attention to it, we will address the cause of many of the shortcomings we find among Christians today. It is a message that is often missed amidst the merriment of Christmas. Yet by its absence from many pulpits, we allow the proliferation of the cult of celebrity by our leaders and members. The absence of this teaching has been filled by a justification of self-entitlement, and a rejection of pain and suffering.
The teaching is plainly summed up by Jesus in Luke 9:23 (ESV): “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” This imperative is diluted when we call it “self-denial”. Naming it that way diminishes the depth of its effect on the Christian. What Jesus is calling for is not just denial; He is calling for death. The cross is more than a symbol of denial. It is the place where one dies.
The apostle Paul sums up a personal way of life that all disciples of Jesus must hold: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
This death is of a spiritual nature. To carry the cross daily is to remind ourselves all the time about the fact that we have died to ourselves, our self-centredness and self-determination. In the words of the Wesleyan Covenant Service, “we are no longer our own”.
This is the Advent season, climaxing at Christmas. There is tragedy and death during this period that we mostly suppress. The message of the season includes episodes of fleeing refugees (Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus), and genocide of children (when Herod decreed that all children below two years old be killed, Matthew 2:16). Embedded in the story of Christ’s birth is death. The success of God’s intent begun at Advent could only be fully realised with a death on Good Friday.
With God, however, death is not the end. After the crucifixion and burial come the resurrection. But as Paul surmises, the risen life is one to be lived by faith in the Son of God. John Wesley paraphrased that line with “I derive every moment that supernatural principle; from a divine evidence and conviction, that He loved me, and delivered up himself for me.” The disciple’s life therefore is prompted by gratitude at what Christ has done and powered by the life of Christ (in the Holy Spirit) at work within. The self is dead; the life that now permeates the disciple is that of the risen Lord. Hence, there is no room for “me, myself and mine” anymore.
What mostly purports as Christian spirituality today does not give room for this teaching. Most of our contemporary songs focus on the good things God has done for us, or what we are expecting Him to do for us. When it comes to what we call ministry, it is human-centred in what must happen so as to lift the person out of his predicament or misery. What we regard today as Christian leadership centres on the record of accomplishment by the individual or team. When we celebrate success, it is on the results or what we have been blessed with.
Songs, ministry, and leadership from a position where we have been crucified are no longer human-centred. Rather, our hearts’ desire in worship is directed solely to the Lord who is glorified. Our service or ministry to others is so that they may encounter and seek Him as Lord, and that they will depend ultimately on Him and not human intermediaries. Our leaders submit themselves in a self-effacing manner so that only Christ is acknowledged as Lord.
As we journey through Advent and climax at Christmas in 2016, let the life of the Christ, whose birth we celebrate this season, be manifested in each of us and in our Christian communities. Let that life, which is not our own but shining through us, raise people up to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
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|Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup –
was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2012.