(shared with permission of the author)
Being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. Being a Christian is also the hardest thing in the world. Like the other paradoxes involved in our faith, if we look at only one side, we are likely to misunderstand the truth. Only when we see both sides of the paradox do we begin to understand what it means to be a Christian.
Being a Christian is easy because it requires no work. It requires no work to be a Christian because Jesus has already done all the work to claim us for his kingdom. Anything we do to try to earn God’s love and his forgiveness and a place in his kingdom is counterproductive. Saying that we must be good first before God will accept our lives and forgive our sins is wrong. Saying that we must finish the work that Jesus began by being good is also wrong. Even saying that we must give our lives to Jesus or invite him into our hearts is wrong. Anyone who tries to take credit for even the smallest part of salvation insults God and risks losing God’s gift. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus does everything necessary to make us his disciples; we contribute nothing to the process.
Yet being a disciple of Jesus is hard work. Now that Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom and has taken away all our sins, we are called to imitate Jesus. We are to strive toward perfection. We are to have perfect love for God and perfect obedience of all his commands. We are to have perfect love for our neighbors, helping them in every way they need. We are to make the world a better place. As Christians, we are pictures of Jesus to the rest of the world. When our imitation of Christ falls short, we bring shame to his name. Instead of being his missionaries, we might give our neighbors reasons not to want to be Christians like us.
The best way to live with this paradox is to look at Jesus and not at ourselves. We remember that Jesus is eternally the Son of God. He is completely divine, as the Father is divine and the Holy Spirit is divine. But Jesus became human. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He knows what it is to be human, because he is completely human. As God he is timeless and unchanging. As a man he moved through time—being born as a baby, growing from a boy into a man, suffering and dying on a cross, and rising to life again. Being one Christ, the Son of God experienced all those aspects of being human, and the Son of Mary has all the attributes of God.
Jesus came into this world on a mission. He came to save sinners. As a shepherd, he went out into the wilderness looking for sheep that had strayed. In the wilderness, Jesus battled the devil, who tried to discourage his rescue mission. But Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil. He remained faithful to his Father. In all his years between the manger and the cross, Jesus never sinned. He never did anything opposed to the will of his Father. He did all that his Father asked of him. That complete obedience is part of our rescue. Jesus has exchanged lives with us. When he took our sins upon himself, he gave us his perfect record of total obedience. When his Father looks at each of us, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son. Therefore, God accepts us as his children. He regards each of us as pure and spotless.
But when Jesus took our sins upon himself, he also accepted the consequences of those sins. Jesus became a victim of evil, abandoned by his followers, rejected by his own people, treated unfairly by the government, and mocked by those who should have been worshiping him. Even his Father looked away from Jesus while he was on the cross, for God is holy and cannot bear to look at sin. We were in debt to God because of the times we sinned, but Jesus paid our debt in full. Now, even if we sin, Jesus reminds his Father that our debt is paid, and his Father continues to forgive our sins.
Because Jesus was battling evil and death, he rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory. Death could not hold him, and the devil has no power over him. Jesus promises us a resurrection like his. When he is seen in glory among the clouds, he will give a command, and all the dead will rise. Our bodies will be healed, and all of us who belong to him will celebrate his victory forever with him in a new and perfect creation.
Meanwhile, Jesus has not forgotten us in this world. He is with us always, even as he promises. Through the Bible he reminds us of what he has done for us and of what that means to us. In the Church he continues to proclaim forgiveness for each of us. In Holy Baptism he washes away our sins, bringing the power of the cross personally and individually into our lives. And he often feeds us at his Table, giving us his body and his blood to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory, just as he has promised.
His forgiveness changes us. We once conformed to the pattern of the world, but now we are being transformed into his image. With our sins removed, we begin to act more like Jesus. The transformation has not been completed. We still sin every day and need forgiveness every day. But the change is happening. We have already been made saints by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, being saints, we act like saints. We generally see the transformation more clearly in the lives of other saints rather than our own lives. We know where we have fallen short. But when we look at our fellow saints, we see the goodness of God shining through their lives.
One of the qualities of saints is that they are poor in spirit. Some have money and possessions and others do not, but the ones who have them are not owned by them, and the ones that do not have them are not obsessed with what they do not have. Saints are not attached to the treasures of this world. They are more interested in heavenly treasures than in earthly treasures.
One man told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus knew the heart of this potential disciple. He could see that this man would not be content with the life of a disciple. When Jesus sent his disciples out as missionaries, he told them to take no extra supplies—not a change of clothes, nor money, nor a bag to carry extra food. As missionaries, they were to rely on the gifts given them for their work, and not to occupy themselves with questions about how to meet their worldly needs.
On another occasion, a young man came to Jesus boasting that he had obeyed all the commandments. Jesus responded, “Go, sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come, follow me.” The young man went away sad because he had great wealth. It is not a sin to be wealthy. In fact, it is a blessing to be wealthy. We can do many things for the sake of the kingdom of God with money and possessions. But when they tempt us to forget our heavenly treasures and enjoy them instead, our earthly possessions can be dangerous to our lives as saints.
A second quality of saints is that they are faithful to God. They make no excuses; when God gives a command, they obey. The perfection of Jesus was like this: he did everything his Father asked of him, even going to the cross to rescue sinners. As we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we also learn to obey his commands and not to make excuses to escape what he commands.
When Jesus said to one man, “Follow me,” the man replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” That seems like a reasonable request, but Jesus knows an excuse when he hears one. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” Jesus told him, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” So we also should avoid excuses when Jesus tells us what to do. When he tells us to forgive those who sin against us, we should forgive them. No excuse releases us from the obligation to forgive. When Jesus gives us an opportunity to share his good news with others, we should share it. No excuse releases us from the obligation to proclaim the gospel.
Peter and Andrew and James and John left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. Matthew left his tax collector’s booth to follow Jesus. So we also leave behind anything that would keep us from following Jesus. Any distraction from him, any competition for his place in our lives, needs to be left behind. We love him more than anything else; we trust him more than anything else; we even fear him more than anything else. Therefore, we do not allow our love for other things or our trust in other things or our fear of other things to keep us from following Jesus.
A third quality of saints is that they keep going forward; they do not look back. They do not think of their former sinful lives as the Good Old Days; they regret the sins for which they have already repented and been forgiven. The earthly treasures and worldly excuses that would have kept them from following Jesus do not have the power to pull them away from Jesus. Instead of looking back at what was past, saints continue moving forward on the Lord’s path.
Someone said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Again, Jesus knows our minds and our hearts. He knew that this potential disciple would never come back to Jesus if he first went home to say goodbye. So Jesus answered him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” When a farmer plows a field, the farmer does not lock back behind the tractor to see if the furrow is straight. Anyone who tried driving a tractor while looking backwards would wander all over the field. A farmer plowing a field chooses an object across the field, focuses attention on that object, and plows straight toward that object. With that technique, the furrow behind the tractor will always be straight.
Once Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat, then followed some hours later, walking on the water. At first the disciples were frightened, thinking he was a ghost. But, when he assured them of who he is, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s really you, let me walk on the water toward you.” Jesus agreed to this request, and Peter got out of the boat. As long as Peter was looking at Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. When he was distracted by the wind and the waves, he fell into the water. Jesus had to pull him out again. So we also, when we focus on Jesus, can do whatever he wants us to do. When we are distracted by other things, we are more likely to sink than to walk.
These seem like challenging things to accomplish: to be poor in spirit, to be faithful to God without excuses, and to move forward without looking back. In fact, we fall short every day. Every day we repent of our sins and ask God for his forgiveness. Every day God forgives us, because on the cross Jesus paid for all of our sins. Every day our Baptism is renewed, as God looks at us and sees the righteousness of his Son and treats us accordingly. Every day we are being transformed into the image of Christ.
When the rich young man went away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything he owned, Jesus commented that getting a rich person into the kingdom of God is difficult, harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle. The disciples were appalled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” “With man this is impossible,” Jesus told them, “but not with God: all things are possible for God.”
Being a Christian is the hardest thing in the world. We have to imitate Christ and do it perfectly to be worthy of the name “Christian.” But being a Christian is also the easiest thing in the world. It is easy because Jesus has done all the work. He has accomplished the impossible, changing us from sinners into saints. We remain sinners in this lifetime, but because of Christ’s work we will be saints forever. To Jesus, who has forgiven our sins, changed us into saints, and is still transforming us each day, to Jesus be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.