“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
These are the words of pastor and writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who literally gave his life because of his faithfulness to the gospel and to the way of Jesus. At dawn, on 9 April 1945, at Flossenburg Concentration Camp, he was stripped naked, dragged to the execution yard and hanged. He and many others in history, and many still across the world today, have paid the ultimate price for following Jesus – they laid down their lives. This is what happened to most of the apostles and early church leaders.
Bonhoeffer was only expressing what Jesus himself had said:
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?(Mark 8:34-36)
The call to take up a cross is not a call to bear our burdens; it is a call to die. Part of the problem for churches in the West is that we have lost sight of this as we have sought to be palatable to the world around us. Sometimes we will teach things that find a resonance with the culture – emotional health, well-being, self-care etc. But we are never just trying to get the approval of the world. And we must never forget that at the heart of Christian discipleship is the call to ‘deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’ Mindfulness is good but it is not worth dying for!
But of course, Jesus was not just talking about us physically dying as martyrs. Most of us won’t but we are still called to die. This is because death and resurrection are not only the means of our salvation but the pattern of our discipleship. In God’s upside-down kingdom we die to live, just as we lose to gain, or serve to lead, or humble ourselves to be great.
The best description of the Christian life is offered by Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.(Gal. 2:20)
When we were baptised, we were baptised into his death so that we might also be raised with him into a new life. It is a past event and reality, and yet it is also a daily practice as we learn to live in the truth of our baptism, our new identity in Christ. That is why Paul said, ‘I die daily’ (1 Cor. 15:31; see also 2 Cor.1:8-11).
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul shows how this dying to self actually works in practice. We have to understand that by the word ‘flesh’ he meant all the passions, desires, appetites at work in our body, mind and emotions that were part of our old life, and of this messed up world system. The way of the Spirit is the new life of God’s new world which we call the kingdom of God. He explains that the way of this new life in the kingdom is one of love, humility and service (Gal.5:13-15). We can only live this way by the power of the Spirit, and we can only do this if we crucify the flesh (vv.24-26). In other words, we have to deal radically and ruthlessly with the ‘flesh’ in order to love in the way Jesus shows us to. If we don’t, church will be like the zombie apocalypse! Instead of staying in the grave, we climb out of it like the walking dead and devour each other! Trying to be church while still living in the flesh is brutal.
What does this dying to self looks like in practice? It is something we have to do 100s of times a day and, as someone has said. ‘there is no version of dying to self which does not feel like dying’. In a separate post here and in this PDF. I suggest several ways. or scenarios, in which we might have to die to self.
We started by considering those martyrs who gave up their actual, physical lives, and it has been said that ‘the blood of the martyrs is seed.’ Churches grow and grow stronger when suffering persecution. Without taking anything away from this truth, just imagine if we followed Jesus in living such lives of self-emptying, self-giving, self-sacrificing love. Imagine if we truly died to self and loved this way every day. I think the church would grow even stronger, deeper and bigger if we did this.
Finally, it is easier to die if you believe in resurrection. Never underestimate the power of seed that falls to the ground and dies (John 12:24-25). If ever you feel like giving up on this way of the cross, trust that lives laid down in love always bear more fruit than we know.
There is a PDF version of this summary here