“What is the one thing Jesus absolutely had to do before God could raise him from the dead?” That’s the question I asked to begin a sermon preached in the now extinct St. Thomas projects of New Orleans. (Yes, I did a little street preaching in my younger days.) The responses varied. Some said, “He had to live a sinless life and obey God in everything.” Others responded, “He had to work miracles and set a good example.” Then one young man in the middle of the crowd answered, “He had to die.” That was it. Everything else in Jesus’ life was significant and necessary for many things, but the one thing Jesus absolutely had to do before God could raise him from the dead was to die.
I then had a follow up question: “What is the one thing we absolutely have to do before we can live the resurrected life of Christ in us?” The answer is the same. There would have been no resurrection of Christ if there was no death on the cross; and there can be no resurrected life for us if there is no crucified life in us. Paul addressed this very thing when he wrote, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal.2:20) In order to have Christ live in me, I must die to my self.
“Dying to self” has become a Christian buzz phrase of sorts, but what does that mean on a practical level? Well, I think it means we commit our lives to Christ, no longer claim our lives as our own, and fully surrender to his lordship. We acknowledge that we are no longer living to serve ourselves, but we’re living to serve him. We exchange our control of our life for his control of our life. That is “being crucified with Christ” and dying to self.
The problem with many Christians (and I use the term loosely) is that they have not changed who they serve, but merely changed the way they serve themselves. People who desire to be first, to be in control, to always be right, to be noticed by others, praised by others, and admired by others can be seen in the church as well as the world. The difference is, those in the church tend to put a religious spin on their self-interests. I know, because I use to be one of those people, and in some ways, I still am. The trouble with a crucified life is that, although the commitment to be crucified is immediate, the death process can be long and painful.
But God is faithful and patient. Over the years he has gently and lovingly pointed out many areas in my life that needed to be surrendered. There were self-centered areas in me to which I was totally oblivious; now, they seem embarrassingly obvious. These were areas which God had to reveal. I couldn’t see myself; none of us can truly see ourselves. The following stories are just a few examples of how God has worked in my life.
I always loved to preach. I would spend hours on end preparing a sermon. One day God spoke to my spirit and asked, “If I told you to record every sermon, and also told you that no one would hear them while you were still alive, or would ever know who preached them, would you still put as much effort into preparing them?” I’m not sure how I answered, but I’ve never preached the same again.
In the same fashion, another time God asked, “If I told you to always give anonymously, and never tell anyone what you give or that you give anything at all, would you still give as much?” This question changed my whole attitude toward giving. Please don’t ask me how it has changed. I’m not allowed to tell.
On another occasion I was forced to make a decision between my desire (and it was a strong desire) to be in the “professional ministry” and what I knew was best for my children. I could have easily justified my desire to pursue my “ministry” career as doing the work of the Lord. Only because of loving conviction from God regarding areas in my life that needed to be crucified was I able to make the right decision. It was painful at the time, but I’ve never regretted it.
In our church meeting last Monday night the subject of suffering was brought up. One of our members was reading the account of Jesus’ prayer before his arrest: “And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Mt. 26:39) He realized that the way of God’s will can be a way of suffering. It’s not that God wants us to suffer, it’s that he wants us to die. Dying can be painful, but it is necessary if we want to rise and live that glorious life of Christ in us.
You may be wondering what all this has to do with the organic church, or the church in general. Well, the church is about being and making disciples. In order to be a disciple, one must commit to following Jesus to the cross. Jesus himself said, “… anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Lk.14:27 NIV) If we miss this vital element of being a disciple, we probably miss it when making disciples. The result is a social organization of individuals trying to serve themselves in religious fashion, complete with political power plays and agendas. Such a group needs to be controlled by a hierarchical authoritative leadership structure.
However, when a group of people who are dying to their own desires while surrendering to the lordship of Jesus come together, the result is quite different. It shapes itself more like a functioning body than a rigidly controlled organization. Problems can still arise. Dying is a process; but it is a process headed in the right direction.