Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Matthew 16:24

These are hard words to hear for those of us who live in middle class, suburban America. I don’t mean the words are hard to take. I mean it’s difficult for us to even process these words of Jesus and imagine they are directed at us. The words enter one ear, search for purchase and, finding no soil, they exit the other ear. We claim to be followers of Christ. Yet what aspects of our lives seem to correspond to this command to take up the cross?

The words of our Lord are typically stark, unrelenting, and global. He does not propose taking up the cross as one way to follow him. Cross-bearing is the only way to be a disciple. Jesus calls every believer without exception to take up that cross.

To put it another way, the Christian life is a matter of sacrificing our lives for our brothers and sisters, of showing love to those who hate (or claim to be indifferent toward) us, and of being persecuted for our faith. Discipleship is costly. When we proclaim the Gospel we must make this clear. Our hearers must be allowed to consider the cost. As Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”

But if we aren’t suffering ourselves, we may feel foolish delivering such a message. “Come to Jesus and suffer!” we cry from our comfortable homes. “We lack nothing, but on behalf of Christ, we call you to give up your lives!” I suppose we could point to the minute and barely perceptible ways in which we do suffer. If we are believers at all, there must be some suffering to point to. But if our suffering isn’t obvious, it seems foolish and petty to draw attention to it.

Our lack of suffering–and our lack of willingness to suffer–makes it almost impossible to bring the Gospel to certain segments of society.

Take the poor. How do we call them to discipleship if we won’t sacrifice our luxuries, comforts, and even necessities for their sake? Shall we call them to take up the cross on Christ’s behalf when we won’t take up the cross on theirs? The response of the church to this dilemma is depressingly predictable. When was the last time your denomination or your congregation tried to plant a church in the inner city or any poor area? Even if we give lip service to such “projects,” how much are we willing to sacrifice to make them happen? Are we willing to become as poor as they if somehow we might make them them rich in Christ? To take some of Paul’s words out of context, “I am talking like a madman!”

Or what about calling people from other religious traditions? A Muslim who converts, a Buddhist, a Mormon, even a Catholic will face immediate rejection and persecution by their former coreligionists.

Or take homosexuals.

This is the worst situation of all. We don’t suffer, yet we call gays to a lifetime of suffering. And we behave as though we, unlike they, don’t need to suffer. We’ve redefined discipleship so it isn’t about bearing the cross, it’s about family. Now the Christian life is centered around a husband and father who’s the head of his house, a wife who submits, and children who obey. It’s hard enough for straight singles to latch onto this paradigm. But at least singles have hopes. One day they too may enter the ranks of full-fledged Christians by becoming a loving husband or a submissive wife with children in tow.

But what about gays? We call them to become eunuchs for the kingdom while we live comfortable lives. Or perhaps we tease them with the enticement that God will “cure” their homosexuality if only they have faith. That’s even less kind than telling cancer patients they’ll be healed if they convert.

As gay marriages and civil unions become more common, that call to costly discipleship gets even tougher. We’re calling them to abandon the family they have (or at least to complicate that family life rather severely). And for what? So they can come to a place where they’re not allowed to have a family. When we define the Christian life in family-focused terms, that essentially means we’re calling gays to be second-class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. Come to Christ! You can sit in the back of the bus. The call is snobbish and condescending if, indeed, we bother to make it at all.

But if we define the Christian life as bearing the cross, suddenly we’re calling gays to be among the greatest in the kingdom. To make that call, we have to be bearing the cross ourselves. We need credibility. Otherwise the call will still seem snobbish.

But wait. It gets worse.

The problem is more than calling gays to suffer when we don’t suffer ourselves. The problem is that Reformed and evangelical Christians have been the cause of much suffering among the gays. Sure, we say we hate the sin and love the sinner; but do our words and our actions really reflect that? How many gays would look at the evangelical church and say “Those Christians sure do love us”?

Why don’t they see our love for them? Is it perhaps because the love isn’t there? Or is it that the love is unexpressed? At the very least we’ve got a serious communication breakdown, don’t we?

So here’s a partial answer to that ridiculous question I posed in an earlier post: How do we start suffering? Let us begin to love gay people as we ought to have loved them all along–deeply, sacrificially, and without condescension.

This will probably involve finding ways to make our repentance for past failures to love them. It will mean standing apart from those who hope to restrain gays with the sword of the State and conquer them via culture war. (The way the Spirit subdues us to himself is sweeter and far different.) The likelihood is that others who claim to follow Christ will misunderstand, misrepresent, ridicule, and despise us for this stance. Very good! When our own discipleship is costly, perhaps we will gain the beginnings of credibility with those we hope to call.

Let us have gays into our homes and into our lives. Let us introduce them to our children, to our neighbors, to our churches–not as some sort of project or as evidence that we deserve a medal for going “above and beyond”–but as our friends whom we love.

I’ll want to talk more about the subject of homosexuality as the days go by. Conservative Christians need to do a lot of thinking and a lot of repenting on this score. (This post constitutes a little bit of both on my part.)

Meanwhile, let me direct you to the web site and the blog of my good friend Misty. She’s done a lot more thinking and acting on this subject than I have. Further, Misty has some of that credibility I’ve been talking about. The Lord has been gracious enough to allow her to suffer for the sake of these friends whom she loves. Thus, Misty is uniquely situated to help you work through the issues involved using Scripture and the love to which Christ calls us all.

And finally, as you seek to have your heart affected concerning this subject, remember the other things I’ve mentioned. Remember the poor and seek to suffer with and for them. And remember those whose culture or religion would make it particularly costly for them to hear the call of Christ. Let us seek to serve them as well.

The world is filled with opportunities to bear the cross if only we aren’t afraid to find them.