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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Christiansen

A Theology of Rejection

Reflecting on Lenten Rejection

As we enter Holy Week, many of us across the vastly diverse Christian Church find ourselves reflecting on the events that took place in Jerusalem a couple thousand years ago which changed the course of human history.

Serving in my current Evangelical setting, we tend to focus much more on the gospel than on the liturgical calendar and the different church seasons. I am firmly Evangelical in my theology and appreciate the priority that evangelism and serious conviction about the eternal destination of souls are given in the Evangelical world… but there are aspects of the more mainline protestant traditions that I deeply appreciate (and sometimes miss), one of which is the Lenten season.

Lent is the church season beginning with Ash Wednesday and leading up to Holy Week (the week stretching from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday), which is a time to reflect on self-denial and our default unworthiness before a Holy God. We are reminded of our need to repent and are called to do so, as we consider the subjugation of Christ in the hours leading up to his death. Having been raised in the Lutheran tradition, I never really appreciated Lent fully until I matured in my faith and in my understanding of theology.

Reflecting on Holy Week and the profound weight of the events that unfolded, one thing I am struck with is the implication of Jesus’ full humanity as he navigated the week. We rightly often emphasize Jesus’ full divinity, but he was also fully human, and he experienced life and reacted emotionally to it in the same way you or I do. Jesus knows what it is to be rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and unfairly accused.

Indeed, Jesus’ experience in Jerusalem during Holy Week is perfectly described as the most emphatic, decisive demonstration of rejection possible. Jesus’ shady arrest, highly irregular trial, scourging, mockery, crucifixion, and death were the decisive stamp of disapproval from God’s own people. There is little more they could have done to demonstrate their rejection any more strongly than they did.

Rejection of Jesus is a major theological theme in the Passion narratives, but when we consider Jesus’ teachings throughout his ministry, we see that rejection is also a defining theme for those who follow Jesus.


Counting the Cost

Careful study of the Gospel accounts (especially Luke) reveals a truth that is startling for many who have grown up in a world and culture in which the Church has historically enjoyed a place of privilege. The post-world war era in America saw the Church as an important part of the community. It represented the essential moral fiber of the culture. Even if an individual didn’t buy into Christianity, they would still send their kids to Sunday School because they recognized that Christian morality is a fundamentally good thing.

Those days are gone. The Church is no longer seen as a good or even helpful presence in the community. Rather, society sees the Christian faith as outdated at best and hateful at worst. Throughout much of the Church age (history after the time of Christ’s public ministry), the sharing of the gospel message banked on the universal understanding each person had of their inadequacy before a higher power (which we recognize as the God of the Bible).

The challenge is that in our current post-modern post-Christian world, people see themselves as that higher power. “You have your truth and I have my truth.” There is no need for repentance and no need for forgiveness because the individual being evangelized sees themself as the source of their own morality. When this is the starting point, any attempt at sharing our faith comes across as judgmental, bigoted, and whatever other buzzwords happen to be trending.

It is no longer cool to follow Jesus. While this fact leaves those who grew up in “the good old days” reeling and frustrated, it presents a refreshing opportunity to those who wish to genuinely follow Christ. The fundamental truth of the gospel message, as Jesus himself understood it, is that following him will likely cost you something. Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospel accounts makes this point abundantly clear.

By Jesus’ own testimony, it is self-denial and burden that will punctuate the Christian life, not popularity, health, and wealth.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."

Luke 9:23-24 ESV

Throughout Luke, Jesus warns his disciples and those he interacts with that there is a cost associated with following him (Luke 9:57-62). He says that the gospel is divisive and that his actions will not bring peace but conflict with those we love (Luke 12:49-53). Following Christ is a lifelong commitment that cannot be taken lightly; the costs must be carefully weighed (Luke 14:25-33). There is a serious possibility that those who follow Christ will face rejection by their peers and family. In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to expect the same rejection by the world that he has faced (Luke 21:12-19; John 15:18-25). The world vehemently rejected Christ. If we identify with Christ and follow his teachings and imitate him, why would we expect anything different?

John illuminates this point when he summarizes:

This is the judgement: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

John 3:19-20 ESV


Theological Comfort in Rejection

Rejection is a theological reality for those who follow Christ. If you’re living with the conviction that God’s Word is true and that it has authority in your life, you will be set apart from the culture we’re living in. Following Christ is hard. It will cost you something. Living the Christian life in America in 2024 should cost you something. This is why Jesus tells us to count the costs. Are we willing to really follow him? It might cost you friendships, it might cost you a job, it might cost you your reputation. For many of the faithful throughout the centuries, it cost them their lives.

Many Christians would say they would die for Christ. The extreme circumstances surrounding martyrdom have a way of drawing out the best and bravest in a person. We might, hypothetically, be willing to die for Christ if the situation arose, but are we willing to live for him now?

For the American Church, it will likely not come to death. But are you willing to make the small stands in the face of pressure, which lead to inconvenience and awkwardness?

The good news is that the eternal reward of following Christ and associating with him far outweighs the dissonance now. Following Christ is hard, but it is undeniably worth it.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:7-9, 16-18 ESV

The suffering and rejection here and now are nothing compared to eternal life with God in the new heaven and the new earth where sin and death and tears are a distant memory. We can take comfort in the fact that God does not leave us to fend for ourselves, but rather strengthens, supports, guides, and sustains us throughout our journey. The world might reject us, but God has decisively accepted us. Jesus’ prayer on his disciples’ behalf demonstrates this.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:14-19 ESV

There is a beautiful parallel between the rejection that Jesus faced and the rejection experienced by those who follow him. The profound truth of Jesus’ incarnation is that he is at once fully God and yet fully human. He is not half-and-half, he is somehow totally and perfectly God while also being totally and perfectly human.

To really understand the full force of this rejection, we must recognize it from both ways.

Jesus’ full humanity, while necessary for him to represent humankind as the perfect atoning sacrifice, also means that we have a savior who can relate to us when we struggle. When we experience rejection, Jesus knows how we feel. This enables Jesus to offer real comfort when we go through trials and struggles because he’s been there and has experienced the same rejection. It is this having been there personally that allows Jesus to offer us comfort.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 ESV

Profound Love

Jesus understands our pain and can empathize with us in our struggles and heartache. This is a beautiful theological truth that can bring great peace in the face of worldly struggles. But to stop there fails to recognize something even deeper that can offer a greater appreciation for the profound love with which God loves us.

When we take the focus off of ourselves, and turn our attention to Jesus, we can utilize our own experiences of rejection to gain a better understanding of what Jesus must have gone through. Certainly our worst day filled with rejection and betrayal cannot hold a candle to the day when Jesus was betrayed, abandoned, flogged, beaten, harassed, mocked, spat on, and crucified in a public spectacle, even though he alone was without sin. Jesus, while fully human, knew exactly what awaited him when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). Jesus’ prayer is gut-wrenchingly human. He knows what needs to be done, indeed this is the fruition of the plan which was set into motion as Eve sank her teeth into the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Everything in Scripture, all of God’s revelation to humankind has been leading up to this moment. Jesus knows what he must do, but he is not looking forward to it.

Jesus prays to God, asking if there is any other way. And yet, he is willing to endure it, knowing full well that God’s wrath is going to be poured out on him on behalf of the entire human race, paying the ultimate price for their sins. He knows the weight of what is about to happen, and when he gets his answer, he does not falter. Painful and horrible though it was, it needed to happen.

Consider Jesus’ very human emotions, coupled with the supernatural knowledge he demonstrates throughout the gospel accounts. Because Jesus was human, he experienced life as any one of us. And yet, time and time again he demonstrates that he has access to knowledge that a mere human is incapable of knowing. Jesus regularly knows peoples’ hearts and knows their thoughts, answering unasked questions. Three times Jesus tells his disciples point blank that he is going to be arrested, killed, and that on the third day he would rise again.

Jesus knew what awaited him at the end of his public ministry. He knew the rejection he would ultimately face, and yet he still loved those he was sent to save. Jesus always had time for the sick and the oppressed. He readily addressed the very crowds that he knew would someday cry out “Crucify! Crucify!”

Jesus hand-picked Judas, knowing full well that he would betray him, and he washed his feet along with the other twelve Apostles. Every single person Jesus interacted with throughout his public ministry, he did so knowing in the back of his mind what awaited him during Holy Week, and he faithfully loved and served those he came into contact with.

The depth with which Jesus loved is astounding. It is virtually unfathomable. Personally knowing the sting of rejection and the hostility I’ve received in my life simply for following Christ, I cannot imagine the love with which Jesus loves me. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV).

As we reflect on Jesus’ week leading up to the cross, let us marvel at the love Jesus shows. Suddenly, John’s words take on a whole new dimension:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1 John 4:7-11 ESV

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