Wendell Berry reminds us that the Gospels ask us many embarrassing questions not the least of which is, ‘If we had lived in the time of Jesus and heard the teaching found in the Gospels, would we have become one of his followers?’ Wendell says the way to decide whether you’d pass this test or not is imagine you were walking past the court house one day and heard someone unknown, say named Joe Green, sharing verbatim what you hear in Mt. 5-7, with the proviso that you had never heard this teaching before. And then while standing there, Joe points at you and says— I’d like to come to dinner with you at your house. Would you respond— ‘Come right ahead’? (see pp. 51-52). Wendell says he is not too confident he, or many of us, would initially respond positively to this teaching or this request.
Wendell then tells the powerful story of Dirk Willems, a Mennonite to be put on trial for heresy in 1569, but fleeing from those who would arrest him. A ‘thief catcher’ is sent after the fleeing man and eventually nearly catches up with him, but in the course of running across a frozen pond, the thief catcher falls through a crack into the frigid water and is about the drown. Dirk turns around, and rescues the man from almost certain death. But what happened next? The thief catcher, who wanted to let Dirk go after this rescue, nonetheless, felt bound by law to arrest him, and so the man who was rescued from a frozen death turned a man who rescued him over to death by a lingering fire. Willems had seen his efforts as an example of loving his enemy, and it had cost him his life. This did not make his efforts either futile or impractical. It simply made them costly, very costly.
And so I think Wendell is right. Following Christ is costly, indeed it can cost you your life. Most of us may well have responded to the initial call to follow Jesus like the rich young ruler did, turning away sadly, not willing to give up something we prized highly, in order to gain something else desired. This reminds me of what Elizabeth Elliott’s husband, missionary to the Auca Indians once said shortly before he was martyred by one of those Indians— ‘he is no fool who gives up what he can’t keep (namely his life), to gain what he can never lose.’ Here at Christmas, above all seasons, there is reason to reflect on what is really valuable, what is really the cost of embracing the baby in the manger and what Dorthy Sayers really meant when she said that Jesus was the man who was born to die.