Wednesday, April 13, 2011
"But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice: 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.' Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: 'I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.'...So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or the extension of justice? In the dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their enviornment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his enviornment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
That's Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. This piece was recently brought to my attention in English class as a reading assignment, and I must confess that it has become one of the very few reading assignments that I have gone back to read again. King's arguments in the letter are full of Biblical insight and knowledge of the gospel. The primary focus of his writing is the Civil Rights movement, but he also touches on a variety of other topics such as justice, the laxity of church, and the application of laws.
The quote above didn't catch my attention until the third time around, which I find hard to believe since it is so compelling. I love how King states that we are all extremists, and how he then points to Jesus as the ultimate example. John 15:13 says, "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." Jesus demonstrated the greatest amount of love possible in sacrificing his life for us. That is extreme. As followers of Christ, we are called to tread in his footsteps. He laid the foundations of an entire kingdom with extreme love. We are called to live out that kingdom in the same way.
I recently read about Thomas Cranmer, a Christian martyr who died in 1556. I find his story fitting because I believe it is an example of the extreme love Christ calls us to. Prior to his death, Cranmer recanted of his Protestant beliefs, only to regret it and return to the faith later on. He was eventually sentenced to be burned at stake, and at the very end he declared, "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." With those words, he stuck his hand into the flames until it was burned to a stump before he surrendered the rest of his body to the flames. People would call such a display 'extreme.' Would your love for Jesus lead you to do the same?
So many times, I read these stories about people who have been killed for their faith and think that they were called to a different lifestyle than I am. We do this all the time in the church when we encounter 'extreme' faith. (We make excuses, too, like "I can't go to Africa...God has simply called her to go." or "I'm not qualified to head to the inner city...God has called others to do that.") The reality is this: God calls all of us to live the same lifestyle as Cranmer. In Matthew 16:25, Jesus says, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." He calls all of us to give up our lives for him. Whether or not we surrender our physical lives on earth for His name is a different story...the point is that Jesus calls us to live extreme either way.
"You may never have to face the decision of whether or not to die for your faith, but every day you face the decision of whether or not you will live for it." (Jesus Freaks, by dcTalk.) Remember, according to King, the question is not whether you will be an extremist, but what kind of extremist you will be. Christ said "He who is not with me is against me." (Luke 11:23) We can come up with excuses our whole lives about how we aren't living the wrong extreme, but do our lifestyles show proof that we are living the right one?
The picture at the top of this post is of a cross in Broad St., Oxford, and it marks the spot where two of Cranmer's friends were burned at stake a few months prior to his own death in the same general location. For more on Cranmer's story, click here.