Christianity is Not Appealing

crucifixion

Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, September 18, 2016
Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives 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 this passage from St. Paul that we read today, he says something pretty shocking. And it’s something that is really unpopular in our world today. What is it? He says that he doesn’t live any more, that Christ lives in him.

Why is this shocking? Why is it unpopular today?

It’s because so much in our culture is pointing in a completely different direction. I am constantly being taught that how I live is about my life, my happiness, my way of doing things. This isn’t just people being mean, either—this is the “good advice” of our age. Go find your dream. Go live your life. Go do what makes you happy. Go listen to your heart.

But Paul doesn’t even bother to argue with that, because it’s not even admissible in the Christianity that he knows. The idea that life is about fulfilling all your dreams or following your heart doesn’t appear anywhere in his theology. It doesn’t appear in the theology of any of the Apostles. And nothing like that ever comes out of Jesus’ mouth, either.

I know that might be offensive to point out, but it’s simply true. If you can find me a passage somewhere in the Bible or somewhere in the Church Fathers or somewhere in the liturgical services that says that your life is about your happiness and your desires, then I will certainly change my mind. But I’ve been reading all of that for years now and haven’t come across it anywhere. Making your life about your own desires and dreams has nothing to do with Christianity. That’s why Paul doesn’t even argue with it—there’s no basis in the Christian revelation for that idea. There’s nothing to debate.

So what does Paul say? He starts out this verse, Galatians 2:20, by saying, “I have been crucified with Christ.” In other words, he’s dead. His life, his dreams, his desires are now over. He is dead to the world. There is no turning back. Paul has been crucified. Where are all his big dreams now? He’s dead.

Yet keep going. What does he say next? “Nevertheless, I live.”

The spiritual crucifixion that Paul talks about is not all there is. He’s not merely dead. “Nevertheless, I live,” he says. But he just said he was dead! What can this mean?

He goes on: “nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” So he’s alive, but it’s not he who is doing the living. Rather, it is Christ Who lives in him.

So let’s take it back to where we started again. What is life about for Paul? It’s not about himself. It’s not about his own desires, his own plans, his own dreams. Life for Paul is that he is dead to the world but that he lives because Christ lives in him.

So what does look like from here? He goes on: “and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.” So what does his life look like now? He is talking about life “in the flesh.” Paul is still alive and well in an earthly sense here. But that life, which is the same life as ours, is not lived for himself. It is lived “by the faith of the Son of God.”

Paul might say, “This life is not mine any more! This life now belongs to the Son of God.”

I know many of us may not have had a discernible conversion experience. Paul did, of course. He was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus with a blinding light and the voice of Jesus from Heaven. But he didn’t have to be converted. He could have decided that was just a hallucination or some kind of trick or a demon. But he did convert. He did choose to be crucified with Christ. He did choose to be dead to the world.

So even if you haven’t had a big moment of conversion like Paul did, you can still imitate his choices. You can still be crucified with Christ. You can still be dead to the world. You can still make your life from here on out be “by the faith of the Son of God.”

I cannot emphasize this point enough. So many times, we are tempted to look at Christianity as being something that needs to be made appealing to us. We want Christianity to “fit in” with our own desires and dreams, our own picture of what our life is about. Come, be a Christian because you like it. Come, be a Christian because it will be fulfilling for you. Come, be a Christian because it’s a nice warm thing to be part of once in a while on some Sundays.

Brothers and sisters, that is garbage. Christianity is not appealing. It is not the fulfillment of any earthly dream or desire or imagination. And it’s certainly not just a convenient religious side dish in a banquet of ambitions and pleasures centered on other things.

The only reason to be Christian is so that we can die and be resurrected. Of course, we will all die and be resurrected someday, no matter what. But if we choose to do what it takes to die in a spiritual sense now, to die to ourselves, to die to the world, to crucify our own desires and our own plans, then not only will we experience a foretaste of the resurrection in this life, but when we are resurrected at the end with all of mankind, then our resurrection will be beautiful and joyful, a resurrection of life rather than a resurrection of judgment and damnation.

That’s why we’re Christians. Christianity does not fit into our lives. It won’t fit. It’s too big. And it can’t work that way, because being Christian means dying. Hopes and dreams and desires don’t work very well when you’re dead!

But, if you will embrace this death to the world, then you will be resurrected. You will be able to say with Paul, “nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” And you will live. And you will find a very different kind of life, a life that is above anything that this world offers, no matter how noble or fulfilling the world’s promises might seem to be.

It is the paradox of Christian faith that, if we want to gain our life, then we have to lose it for Christ’s sake. And if we try to keep our life for our own sake, then we will lose it. So if you want to live, then you have to die to yourself. And if you instead try to live to yourself, then you will die. So this life is about dying before we die so that, when we die, we don’t have to die. Die now so that you can live.

Paul is really clear here. If you’re a Christian, your life is not your own. Even if all the things you desire are good or neutral in themselves, you still have to die to them. Now, He might give them back to you as He raises you up and changes you, but you can’t count on that. You still have to die. Why? Because Jesus Christ, Who made you and Who Himself died for you, wants to live in you Himself. And that is a life that is infinitely better than anything we could imagine or arrange ourselves.

Christianity is not about self-fulfillment. It’s about self-denial. It’s about setting aside whatever great ideas—and they might be great ideas!—that we have for ourselves and listening instead to what God has for us. I’m not the boss. He’s the boss. It’s not about what I want. It’s about what He wants. It’s not about the life I have in mind. It’s about the life that He wants to live within me. But I have to die.

So why should we do this at all? Why should we accept this crucifixion, this self-denial, this death to the world and to our own desires? It’s not on the basis of any appeal. Christianity is not appealing. It does not appeal to any human idea or preference. Christianity is simply the way to life. If you want to live, this is what you do. And what is it that would make us live “by the faith of the Son of God”? It is as Paul says: He “loved me, and gave Himself for me.” That’s why. So we give ourselves to Him.

To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

14 comments:

  1. I have always known this, and tried to live it. Since becoming a widow recently, I am having to relearn what it means in a new context. So many things you’ve said here are very helpful to me right now! Thank you.

  2. What do you mean by “above” in this paragraph?
    “But, if you will embrace this death to the world, then you will be resurrected. You will be able to say with Paul, “nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” And you will live. And you will find a very different kind of life, a life that is above anything that this world offers, no matter how noble or fulfilling the world’s promises might seem to be.”

        1. That’s not a term I would use, if only because that’s not really a concept found in Scripture to describe how life in Christ compares to life without Him. There’s a lot of language available to us to use, and the metaphor of life in Christ being above (or “higher”) than otherwise is one of those kinds of terms.

  3. Dear Father Andrew,

    I love the article and heartily agree with everything except the idea that the “appeal of Christianity”, basically, that of dying to ones self is not appealing…

    I am reminded of ‘For the Life of the World’ and the beautiful picture Father Schmemann paints of the restoration of a sacramental life with God and creation that is cultivated and lived in the resurrected life of Christ in me, the hope of glory.

    I find that VERY appealing and, experientially, am extremely ‘self-fulfilled’ by dying to myself and living in this kingdom reality with Christ.

    And to the extent that I remain on the altar, a living sacrifice, and don’t wander off in the flesh, this life gets better and better. Harder, more sacrificial, yes, but better than any alternative I’ve known.

    Of course, the truth of your position when juxtaposed with much of the feel-good nonsense preached in the western church makes total sense, the typical western audience wouldn’t receive the Apostle’s message to the Galatians. But, even in the most non-dairy (no milk of the word) fed evangelical audience there may be a few that will have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches and receive the harder truth. At least I want to hope that this is true.

    Your thoughts?

    1. You seem to be using appealing in the colloquial sense of something being simply “desirable,” and that is related to my own usage of it in this sermon. But ultimately, I am using appealing here in its fuller sense—desirable on the basis of something else. That is, it is about making an appeal. In this case, Christianity is not desirable on the basis of something else or because of something else. Christ is the One Who is Himself good. He is not judged as good on the basis of earthly desires.

      1. I think I understand and appreciate your thoughtful reply, thank you.

        I can still see where the idea of hope (in Christ, because of his self-existent goodness) versus the appeal of the alternative (no hope), is appealing both in the colloquial and fuller sense. (Rom. 5:5-10; 1 Thess. 4:18).

        By the way, I’m a huge fan of Orthodoxy vs Hetrodoxy and of your podcast, thank you so much for sharing your heart.

  4. “He could have decided that was just a hallucination or some kind of trick or a demon. But he did convert.”

    I’m not sure i agree with this though. If ones experience of something external evidently changes you convictions, I’m not so sure its as easy as a matter of “mere” choice. Though I would absolutely agree that Paul “chose to live a converted life”, with all the suffering he had to go through to participate in the faithfulness of Christ…im not sure that his conversion – given that it is true, which I do believe it to be at least in the sense of Christ revealing himself to Paul one way or another – is a matter of choice. As if I’m able to deny that my mother is my mother; it is simply not possible. I’m am too convinced….

    That said, I know that I have a choice – for I am also convinced that Christ has risen.

  5. This sounds like spiritual annihilation. Sort of like saying a drop of salt-water cannot exist forever and on its own outside of the ocean, so then it’s ultimately best for the ocean to absorb that drop. The drop then ceases to exist. Ceases to exist. It’s not an individual drop (or an individual soul?) anymore. Very hard to reach that place, psychologically. (But then, we’re dropping psychology too, right? Dropping desires, mind, emotions, maybe even heart, until we get to that drop of a soul that contains nothing that was ever “us?”) To strive to see every earthly thing or person you ever cared about or ever loved and just drop it/them, because everything and everyone are “mist” and will not last. And what is on the other side? Eternal life? We won’t be there to enjoy it, will we? We will be absorbed by the ocean, no longer separate, discrete souls. No longer able to care about anything or love anything or anyone as an individual. Because we won’t exist (except as a micron of some vague, spiritual blob). Little wonder, then, that humans (as Henri Nouwen says) are desperate to make this earthly life seem “enough,” to fill it with people and places and things that will quell that existential anxiety.

  6. Father, this was simply outstanding. Being a Christian in America, it seems that if I’m honest, I find myself wanting to fit Christianity into my hopes and dreams. This article was a great reminder to me that when I do that, I’m no longer following Christianity. Thank you!

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