What’s with all the zombie stuff lately?
Everywhere you look – television shows, movies, video games – there are zombies. What’s going on?
Here’s what I am thinking. Roughly, zombies are half-dead, half-alive people (back from the dead) whose motivation is to create more zombies. At the same time they seem driven by a force they don’t understand. Their threat and strength is that that feel no pain, are numb, and have little self-awareness. Their rise in visibility has to do with our living in a time that seems like it would be easier if we were numb to life and world events; it might seem easier to just shuffle half-alive and half-awake through our days; sometimes it’s a reality given pressure and fatigue. To feel joy and pain takes being aware and alive. It also seems like we are living in a time when it would be easier to just mindlessly go along with a lot of stuff rather than be independent and stand up – authentically alive. I think Hollywood and others may be saying that many people in our society and times have become, in a manner of speaking, zombies.
It’s not just in “society” that we find zombie-like existence. We also see it in Christians and churches. Numb to the Holy Spirit, apathetic, strangely driven by things other than God, joyless, perceived as just trying to “feast” on others rather than serving them, same routine over and over – sounds zombie-ish, right?
As you might imagine, it’s not what Jesus intended for Christians and churches…
There is a vivid explanation of how to be alive in Christ and how to break through being religious zombies in the Gospel of Mark 8:31-39. It starts with Jesus asking about who people think he is. Later, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah – he believes! Then Jesus explains how he’s the kind of messiah that will suffer, die and be raised again. Peter says no way – that’s not the kind of messiah he (and the others) were interested in. Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” Then Jesus talks about how following him means denying ourselves, carrying our crosses, that to truly live we must lose ourselves in him and how we can gain all sorts of material things but lose our souls. He adds that if we hide our faith in him from others, he will be ashamed of us before God.
We find four important points about an alive spiritual life in this passage. Let’s take a look:
First, being alive spiritually means knowing and worshiping God for who he is (as revealed in the Bible); not what we want or make him to be. You see this with Peter when he confronts Jesus, he is basically saying that he wants Jesus to be the kind of savior he wants him to be; Jesus rebukes him strongly. But sometimes we do this purposefully and sometimes we do this unwittingly. God is God – we can’t make him do and be what we want – after all he created us. An idol is something we make and worship, and I think that we are often worshiping our own version of God. God wants a real relationship with us through his son – worshiping what we want God to be is not real relationship. When we want and seek to make God and church and other Christians to be what we want them to be – that is unhealthy, not life-giving, idolatrous, and zombie-ish. It also makes it very easy to “sleepwalk” through our spiritual lives – when we are worshiping and praying to our image of God rather than being open and alive to the Spirit.
Second, this passage reveals that believing and following are connected but very different. Of course, we have to believe in Christ before we know and are enabled by the Holy Spirit to follow. In this passage, Peter is a believer – perhaps the first believer when he says that Jesus is the Messiah. But, seemingly within minutes he is not following. Jesus then explains what following is – (based on believing) denying one’s self, losing our lives for his sake, setting our minds on heavenly things not earthly things. This is not easy. I’ve found that moving from believer to follower is very challenging – but it’s where we are all called to go. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, he bids he or she, come and die.” Meaning, when we die to ourselves, we become alive in Christ, thus truly alive. Today, Christianity and churches are filled with believers (a good start) but meaning it’s pretty easy to attend a church and recite creeds and say some amens and sing some hymns; but when it comes to losing our lives for the Gospel, it’s not happening very much. This is a zombie-ish quality. It’s often called the Holy Huddle. It’s as if you were watching a football game and your team came out on the field high-fived each other, got in a huddle talked for a while and then headed for the locker room. When we go from believer to follower – our responsiveness to the Holy Spirit grows (as our fears of same decreases), our compassion for others increases, our desire for “on earth as it is in heaven” grows, serving is joyful rather than like a chore. If we want to be alive, we have to move and grow from believers to followers.
Third, in order for our spiritual lives to be alive – the cross has to be central. Jesus says it in two ways – he says that we have to deny ourselves and carry our cross but he also explains that following him will cost us. That is one of the key messages of the cross – our sin cost God his only son. Therefore, if we are going to follow him, it has to cost us too. With many Christians and churches today, there is a safe, numbed, zombie-ish approach to following Christ – in that there is very little talk about the cost. It’s a lot of happy, prosperity and dream fulfillment messaging – everyone’s ok. Some churches might as well have a smiley face where the cross is. Now, is God good? Of course. Does God promise to provide all that we need? Absolutely. But all of this is found as we lose ourselves in Christ. And yes there is a cost to that. If we are not losing friends, money, jobs, our old ways as well as our love for the things of this world, and more, we are not following and the cross is not central. Remember, when we are truly alive and not zombies – we are going to feel – the joy and the pain and cost. When the cross is prominent in our lives – so is truth (the cross cuts through denial, delusions and lies), so is grace for ourselves and others, old things are dying and new things are coming alive.
Fourth and finally, as you know, zombies kind of hang together. They need to. Everyone else gets creeped out by them, right? Jesus speaks to this in a couple of ways. He basically says in this passage that we need to more concerned about pleasing God than pleasing others. Religious zombies just want to make sure they are liked by other religious zombies, often without concern for what God might think of their words and actions. As you may already know, trying to please human beings and trying to keep that going is very fatiguing and rarely works – unless maybe if you “give” yourself completely to the group. But Jesus says to be truly be alive and to follow him along the path to truly living is to be primarily concerned about pleasing God first. There is a big difference between ministering and serving others, and catering to others. Pleasing God may mean that there will be less people (or zombies) pleased but you will feel more alive than ever before.
Maybe you’re awakening to realize that you’ve been a religious zombie. Maybe you’re tired of a half-dead, half-alive spiritual life. Maybe you don’t want to be numb anymore. Maybe you’re just thirsting to be truly alive…
There is a way for all of these and more…
The voice that awakened Lazarus from his tomb, the voice that freed Mary from her the stupor of her grief, the voice that has called millions of people throughout history to leave themselves and death behind is calling to you and me still today. And this voice, the voice of Jesus is saying, “Come follow me, and in denying yourself and dying to yourself – you will live like you never have before. You will be more alive than ever before. Live abundantly in me!”
Rev. Christopher B. Wolf
Christopher B. Wolf is pastor of First Reformed Church of Saddle Brook and is the author of Giving Faith a Second Chance: Restarts, Mulligans and Do-Overs (2007) and With You Every Step of the Way; and the host of Walk With Me, Wednesdays 8 pm on WYFN 94.9 FM-NY and on www.yfnradio.com.
“It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly upon the world at exactly that point.