By Rob Renfroe
In 1875 a remarkable woman was born. Her name was Mary Bethune. Both her parents had been slaves. At the age of 5 she began working in the fields. But she took an interest in her own education. And she found a way to attended a small, one room, segregated school in South Carolina.
From there she went to study at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. That was a big step, huge, almost unheard of for a young black woman at that time. After graduating, she returned to the south and began to teach. But she didn’t stop there. She had a dream. She felt called to start a college for black students. She wanted young African Americans in the south to get a quality education and to step into extraordinary lives.
She didn’t let the cost stop her. She didn’t let what others said stop her. She didn’t let the fact that she was young or black or a woman stop her. She had a vision. And she discovered that the spirit within her was not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power.
In 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the age of 29, Mary Bethune founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University. For twenty years as a college president, Mary Bethune made the most of her remarkable ability to inspire young people to dream their own dreams, overcome their own obstacles, and win their own battles.
At the graduation exercises each year she would charge her students: “Faith ought not be a puny thing. If you believe, have faith like a giant. And may God grant you not peace, but glory.”
I love that last line. It was Bethune’s way of saying that the battles that matter and the causes that are worthy of our lives are rarely accomplished without difficulty, courage and sacrifice. She was telling her students: You can live a comfortable life or you can live a great life. You can live an easy life or you can live a glorious life. Now, which do you think you were created for? Peace or glory?
And I will ask you the same question: What do you think God created you for? Peace and comfort? Or greatness and glory? Our theme at this conference is living as more than conquerors. Following Jesus in such a way that what we do is triumphant and victorious, great and glorious. What does that mean? To live that way? Fortunately, that’s not hard to determine because Jesus told us what that looks like.
Shortly before his death Jesus told his disciples. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12).
Jesus says: The hour has come for me to be glorified. And immediately he begins to talk about what? Not his power. Not his miracles. Not even his resurrection. He talks about his death.
You want to see glory? You want to see triumph? You want to see what it looks like to conquer in the Kingdom of God? It looks like a man hanging on a cross. It looks like a man with his back scourged and torn apart. It looks like a man giving his life for others. It looks like a man who would rather die than be unfaithful to his Father. It looks like a man enduring the most shameful and painful death the Roman Empire can devise so the unworthy and the undeserving can know they are loved, have their sins forgiven, and be born again to a new and transformed life.
You want to see glory? That’s what it looks like. You want to be victorious, you desire to be more than conquerors, that’s what’s required. Paying a price, giving your life so others may be saved.
Friends, we had hoped to be at a different place. We had hoped that the Protocol would be passed. We had hoped that a fair and just separation would be ratified. We had hoped that those in power who have long lectured us about having a heart of peace would not now be demanding a piece of flesh so we can step into the future God has called us to.
But that’s not how we overcome. That’s not how we conquer and become victorious. We conquer by paying a price to be faithful. We overcome when we stop worrying about our churches and stay committed to serving a lost world with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. We are glorious when we follow our Lord to a cross and we are willing to bleed for those who need the hope that is found only in Jesus.
The Roman Empire worshipped power and despised weakness. Human life was cheap. Children born deformed or infirmed or even simply female could be discarded in Roman society, left exposed to the elements to die of starvation or mauled and eaten by wild beasts, and there was no shame for the parents who did so. Gladiators fought to the death, the crowds clamoring for more blood and savagery. Slavery was commonplace. The early Christians stepped into this culture and proclaimed a crucified Messiah, who had died in weakness and shame on a Roman cross. They boldly declared Jesus Christ, not Caesar, was Lord. And for the next two and a half centuries they were persecuted, ridiculed, and despised.
And yet, three centuries after it began as a Jewish sect in faraway Palestine, the Roman Emperor Constantine announced his conversion. And before the year 400, Christianity had become the official religion of the Empire, embraced, some estimates state, by nearly half of its inhabitants.
How had a despised sect, with no political power, that appealed at first primarily to the poor and the uneducated, born far from the center of power and culture, that was persecuted severely, and that worshipped a crucified Messiah so change the hearts and minds and eventually the culture of people who were as cynical, hedonistic, crass and crude as the people of our culture?
Simply put, they lived the way Jesus lived, they loved the way Jesus loved, they served the way Jesus served. And when persecuted, they died the way Jesus died, praying for the forgiveness and the salvation of those who had ordered their deaths.
And over time the Romans came to see that the way of life of the early Christians wasn’t just different, it was better – and they saw that it could make them better. They came to believe that the most outlandish thing was true – God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, offering life to all who would repent and believe.
How did the early Christians love and serve? The deformed and unwanted babies, left to die; female babies unwanted and discarded because of their gender so much so that there were 50 percent more boys than girls in Roman families, Christians would go into the woods and find those abandoned children, take them into their homes and raise them as their own.
In times of plague, the Romans commonly abandoned their relatives at the first sign of illness, even pushing them into the streets before they died, in hopes of escaping the disease themselves. Not so the Christians, who not only cared for their own, but also took in unbelieving neighbors and strangers, caring for them, even though many early believers in the process contracted the disease and died themselves.
They provided food and assistance to the poor regardless of their faith, and to both sexes, though Roman welfare was given only to males. They were faithful in their marriages and kind to their children. And in the midst of the decadence and the cynicism and the hedonism of Rome, and the emptiness and the loneliness it leaves within the human heart, the Christian way, the way of compassion and purity and service looked like life – real life, a superior kind of life.
And the glory of Rome paled in comparison to the glory of a man hanging on a cross and those who followed him. What was once despised became treasured. And the One crucified in weakness and shame became adored as Lord of all, God in the flesh. And a culture was changed. That’s how the early Christians became and lived as more than conquerors.
I’m convinced the only way we will impact our culture significantly is to believe that when people see a better way of life, when people see Christians whose lives are about love and compassion and service, people will be willing to listen to us. When the one thing that a secular society knows about Christians is not that we are judgmental, or angry, or condemning or arrogant and self-righteous, or that we vote a certain way, but that we are a community of compassion, and that we care more and love more and serve more and sacrifice more than anyone else on the planet, people will come to believe in the one we proclaim, and just maybe then we will have done something glorious with our lives.
I am grateful that I serve on the Wesleyan Covenant Association council. Many of those on the council I have known for years. Others that I didn’t know I have heard their hearts and listened to their visions. What I have seen and what I have heard in them is what I know lives in you. A desire for all to be saved. A yearning to be part of a Spirit-led servant community that is willing to pour its life out for the salvation of the lost and the spread of scriptural holiness. An openness to all people. And a willingness to do hard things, pay a high price and make a great sacrifice if need be so people can see who Jesus is and come into the life that he has for them. A longing to be part of a movement that God will use to change our world the way he used the early Christians to change theirs.
That’s our purpose. That’s who we are. That’s how we conquer. And that is our future. Many of you have a rough road ahead, making your way into the Global Methodist Church. For many of you, it will be unfair and costly.
But never forget, you can have an easy life or you can have a great life. You can have a comfortable life or you can have a glorious life. And you, my friend, were created not for peace but for the glory of God.
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He has been the preaching pastor at The Woodlands Methodist Church for over 25 years where he has led Quest Men’s Fellowship. He is the author of several books, most recently, Unfailing: Standing Strong on God’s Promises in the Uncertainties of Life. This article is adapted from his address to the Wesleyan Covenant Association Global Gathering in Indianapolis in May