We in the church today like to think of the glorious and triumphant apostles spreading the Christian faith throughout the world. Without recourse to violence or a military and with virtually no funding, they overcame the political might and wealth of the Roman Empire, transforming it from pagan polytheism to a Christian realm recognizing the Lordship of the Holy Trinity.
St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians gives us a very different picture as to what it is like to be an apostle or disciple of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9-16):
I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored! Even to the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure it; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me.
St. Paul gives us a pretty dismal image of what it is to be a Christian leader and the suffering and disgrace involved in the position. Then he tells us: “imitate me.” And for the saints of the Church, they did understand they weren’t Christians or witnesses in order to be praised by good people and painted into heavenly icons to be gloriously hung on the walls of church buildings. Following Christ will necessitate self denial. Being a Christian is not about becoming financially wealthy and seeking pleasure while enjoying the good life. Being a disciple of Christ means taking up our cross to follow Him. It may mean not just discomfort in this world, but martyrdom. As Christians we are living for the Kingdom of God, not for American prosperity, however alluring that prosperity is. Of course we most often believe we can pursue and have both: American prosperity and the ability to love God and neighbor. Jesus did warn:
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24)
“CANNOT serve God and mammon.” Cannot. Can’t. Not possible. A choice between the two is required. Christians are supposed to have a different set of values than atheists, agnostics, secularists and materialists. We are to see the American “pursuit of happiness” in a way different from non-believers.
Following Christ, pursuing the Kingdom of Heaven, certainly involves joy and peace, but it also means seeking the Kingdom first.
“Amma Theodora said, ‘Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.’ Desert ascetics lived closely with nature, often at its mercy. This shaped much of their self-understanding and God-understanding. They lived intimately with the rhythm of harsh winters and fruitful springs. God can use all of our experiences to deepen our growth and transformation. A ‘winters storm’ is no indication that God has deserted us.” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, pgs. 64-65)
In the course of what is one of the hottest summers on record in these parts, it may seem strange to bring up a winter’s storm. But then the Kingdom of God requires us to think in a new way.