Is it worth it?

Matthew 19:27-30, Acts 9:1-22

25 January 2004

Greyfriars Church


Despite today being the feast of the conversion of St Paul I'm going to be looking mainly at the text of our gospel today, which starts at Matthew chapter 19 on page 987, though I will be using supporting material from the life of Paul, so it will help if you can have your Bibles to hand.

The reading starts with Peter's question We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?ref. In short "Is the Christian life worth it?" . Is it a question you ever ask yourself?

In the context of the chapter we can see what prompted the question? Jesus has just been talking to a rich man who was showing an interest in following him. But Jesus saw through his worldliness. He challenged the man "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. ref

So, on the one hand we have a rich man who was not prepared to make the sacrifices involved in following Jesus, and who went away sad and ultimately condemned. On the other hand we have the disciples who had sacrificed everything they had to follow him. What was to become of them? Would it all be worth it in the end?

Perhaps you sometimes wonder too. Is the Christian life really worth it? Sometimes the losses you face for living out your Christian faith seem too great to bear. What ever keeps you going?

Or perhaps you look back over a life of self-sacrifice for Christ, maybe with questions - was it worth it? Did I really do the right thing?

Well, Jesus' answer to Peter is an emphatic "yes" ! I want to look at it by concentrating on verse 29 where Jesus addresses "everyone". And that includes you and me, so it's his answer to us as well.

A life of sacrifice

The first thing to see is that it is Jesus' expectation that he will call anyone who follows him to make sacrifices. This verse is addressed to everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake.ref

This was certainly Peter's experience. We see the call of Peter in Matthew chapter 4 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.ref At Jesus' command these disciples had left their livelihoods, their homes and their families to follow him.

Paul's call that we heard about in our other reading was also a call to sacrifice, wasn't it? The message that faithful Ananias was to take to him was This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.ref In following Christ Paul was to give up his status among the Jews, and the security of his life to suffer for Christ. We shouldn't see this promise of suffering for Paul as somehow a punishment from God, or revenge or vindictiveness. Rather, this is the normal call to follow Jesus: the call to suffer willingly for him.

Paul's life of sacrifice starts right after the reading we had finishes: After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill himref, and Paul had to flee in the dead of night.

Paul tells us more about the sacrifices he had to make in following Jesus in 2 Corinthians chapter 11, where he is comparing himself to false apostles.

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?ref

"That's all very well for Peter and Paul" , you might respond, "they were apostles, after all. But what's it got to do with me?"

Well, it's sobering to see that what it's got to do with us is that this is the normal pattern of Christian discipleship. Sacrifice and self-denial is built into the very fabric of the Christian life.

A few chapters earlier, in Matthew chapter 16 Jesus gives us his call on our lives when he says, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.ref

Sacrifice and self-denial are the normal pattern of the Christian life, and in our verse from Matthew 19 Jesus picks up on that theme. He speaks to Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake...ref

In saying this he covers three particular areas in which following Christ might be a call to sacrifice.

First he is talking to people who have left houses for him. Obeying the call of Christ might mean that we have to leave a particular place, or even our home country, and move to a new place, perhaps to somewhere very foreign indeed. It's a call to give up our comfort, our security and our rootedness for his sake.

Giving up our houses for Christ's sake might also mean choosing not to live where we would otherwise want to, because we reject the world's readiness to take on too much debt or to use our wealth solely for our own comfort.

Second, Jesus is talking to people who have left family for him. This is so significant that he says it five times: brothers or sisters or father or mother or childrenref.

Obeying the call of Christ will likely disrupt our relationships. We may find ourselves far from our loved ones. We will probably find that our priorities now differ from those of our families, if they are not Christian as well, and our relationships will be under strain. In some cases our families will reject us completely. It's not so common on the west, but I have a friend who is a missionary in Northern India where converts to Christ are thrown out and persecuted by their Hindu families, and the same happens all over the Islamic world. What goes for our families goes for our friends as well.

Third, Jesus is talking to people who have left fields for his sake. Obeying the call of Christ will mean a reordering of our priorities when it comes to career and security. A man's fields were his source of income. To leave them was to leave behind all earthly security and prospects, and to cast oneself on the mercy of God.

So, our homes, our relationships and our careers all come under Christ's control when we obey the call to follow. That's the normal Christian life.

No wonder Peter asks his question. Is it really worth it?

Well, let's look at Jesus' reponse and we shall find that it's a resounding Yes! The life of sacrifice for the sake of Christ is worth it, both now and worth it in the age to come.

Life now

Jesus' response is that to give things up for Jesus' sake is not a loss but an investment: Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as muchref. That's a pretty good rate of return, isn't it?

The parallel passages in Mark and Luke make it clear that we can expect to see the return on this investment in this life, here and now. In Mark chapter 10 he says I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present ageref.

If we have left our earthly home for Christ, then our souls have found their true home in the inner sanctuary of the presence of God. No longer will we be shut out and alienated from him.

If we have left our earthly family for Christ, then we have the Church: a worldwide community united in a bond of love that is stronger than any earthly family bond could ever be. We have hundreds of brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children.

If we have left our jobs and career for Christ, then we have a new purpose in life, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God, and with it a security that vastly surpasses any imagined security that a career in this world could give us.

When I told my two year old daughter, Hannah, that I was coming to speak to you this afternoon she instructed me that I should talk to you about "little birds" . She may be very bossy, but how right she is, for didn't Jesus say, Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?ref. Our security in Christ far exceeds any earthly thing that we have given up for him.

Hudson Taylor, the great 19th century missionary to China, when looking back on his life used to say "I never made a sacrifice" . By earthly standards this was patently untrue—he left his safe, secure home in Yorkshire; he sacrificed his career as a doctor; he spent every penny he ever had on reaching the lost; he saw his daughter die in China; he saw his first wife die in China; he sacrificed his own health—all for the sake of the gospel of Christ. Yet still he could say "I never made a sacrifice" , "for" , as his son puts it, "the compensations were so real and lasting that he came to see that giving up is inevitably receiving, when one is dealing heart to heart with God... The sacrifice was great, but the reward far greater."

I would dearly love to recount some stories to from Hudson Taylor's extraordinary life to illustrate this, but that will have to wait for another time. Except, do you know the story of when he gave away his very last half-crown in the world and returned home "with my heart as light as my pocket" ?

Is the Christian life worth it? Yes, even for the joy of living it in the present age. And the less we cling to the world, the greater our joy will be.

Life to come

But we mustn't overdo the case for the life now. Despite the compensations and comfort that Christ gives us we know full well that a Christian is in no way immune from the sufferings and sorrows common to all.

The apostle Paul, whose life we've been looking at, reflected on this later in his later years. In one place he writes If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all menref. In another he writes for me, to live is Christ and to die is gainref.

Paul knew that however good life in Christ is now, there is far, far better to come. And Jesus points us to this as well. Not only will the follower of Christ receive a hundred times as much now, but eternal life in the age to comeref.

This eternal life could not be further from endlessly sitting on a cloud playing a harp. Eternal life is life as it is meant to be: all our dreams come true. It is life with God; life full of joy; life full of goodness. Forever!

For the twelve disciples it will be a life of ruling in God's eternal kingdom; for us it will be a life of enjoying a perfectly ordered world with Jesus the king.

It's important just to clarify here that of course it's not our sacrifices that win us eternal life. I don't want anyone to be in doubt about that. Rather, our readiness to deny ourselves can only come as a result of knowing the eternal life that Jesus has already given us through his own final sacrifice.

There's nothing I can do to win God's favour; not one single sacrifice I could make to justify myself before him. But Jesus' perfect life of sacrifice, and the ultimate sacrifice of his life on the cross have put me right with God, and won me that eternal life if I will follow him. This is what we will be remembering in a few moments as we join in the Lord's Supper.

So the eternal life that Jesus brings is both a challenge and an encouragement.

It's a challenge because in the light of Christ's death to win us eternal life we are asked to follow in his footsteps, living our own lives of sacrifice for him. We try to become like our master, who, in the words of the song "You laid aside your majesty, gave up everything for me" .

But, it's an encouragement, because as God calls us to greater and greater sacrifice in our Christian lives, we know that it is worth it. The things we give up are not a loss: they are an investment. An investment with eternal returns.

This is quite a thing to reflect on when I am grudging about giving up my time to write a sermon, or giving up my money to support the church, or lending my car to someone in need!


I'll just finish by posing Peter's question again.

Is the Christian life worth it? What do you think?