Student Series: Students, Cultivate a Faith for Calvary
This article is part of Rooted’s 2019 student series, where young Christians share their experiences of faith in high school and college. JD Tyler is a recent graduate of Samford University and will attend Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall.
It was a cool winter morning as we walked down the street. The sun was just rising and, after rubbing my sleepy eyes, the city below me came into view. Beautiful in the morning light, the ancient walls stood as monuments to all these hills have seen. Battles had been fought over this place, dynasties had risen and fallen on these streets. As I paused, soaking in what was before me, the words of Jesus when he laid eyes on these same hills came to my mind, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:27)
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! This city which now quietly sits on the Judean hillside once crucified my Savior. Just as I had come to Jerusalem, so did Jesus. Yet like God’s messengers before him, he was killed by his own people. Matthew is the one who records these words but what is so striking is what comes before them. Just two chapters prior to Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, he entered to a large crowd cheering for his arrival. Jesus came down the very hill where I too stood, to people crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (21:9) It was magnificent and exciting; it was triumphal.
It isn’t difficult to speculate what those cheering for Christ’s arrival were expecting. The Israel of this time was full of groaning for God to act. Despite being in their own land, God’s people were still living as exiles under the harsh thumb of Roman rule. So along with this groaning came anticipation that the God of Israel would finally rid them of foreign oppression. “Now!” many must’ve thought, “Now a deliverer is here! This one! He must be the one! Hosanna in the highest!”
What is remarkable, however, is that just as soon as the triumph came, it was gone. The excitement of this entry was quickly washed away, leaving Israel’s Messiah to weep over his people. What was exciting days before was not enough to sustain the crowd. Soon they would be shouting for the crucifixion of the man they had so joyously welcomed. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was not the one they were expecting or the one they were prepared for. The people wanted triumph, but this Messiah seemed to welcome trial. Israel wanted remarkable power, bold action, and decisive victory. They wanted their Messiah to bring glory but instead he brought a cross.
As I stood on this hillside, pondering these events, I proceeded to do what all college students do; I checked Instagram. What I found there was striking to me. My feed was flooded with pictures of friends attending an annual Christian conference. Everyone was posting pictures, giddy from the worship, convicted from the passionate messages, and in awe of the sheer magnitude of a stadium full of college students singing praises to God. Seeing this, I made a comment to my professor next to me, “all the real Christians are at this conference but we’re just in Israel.”
My sarcasm aside, while there was nothing inherently wrong with this conference, it was a picture of an American church culture that felt disconnected from the soil I was standing on, the very soil where Christ himself suffered. So much of contemporary American Christianity is characterized by celebrity pastors, huge conferences, bright lights, and excitement. And I fear that, despite the best intentions, we have nurtured a collective faith of the triumphal entry, but not one of the Cross. This culture can easily communicate that God is found in the excitement, the power, and the hype, but not in the cross which Christ has called us to follow him to.
I want to be clear that many conferences can be helpful, encouraging, inspiring, sanctifying, and good. It is when we idolize these events and seek them out as our main spiritual nourishment that we find ourselves struggling to follow Jesus in the weeks that follow.
Far too many times I have seen high school and college students go to a conference, feeling like they are on the mountaintop of faith. But months later they find themselves in the valley and don’t know what happened. Students slip into old struggles and ask where the exciting life of following Jesus went. They ask themselves why the world hasn’t changed in remarkable ways and why God feels far away?
The truth is that the Christian life is one of daily dying so that resurrection can come. It is a life of glory which isn’t found in strength but in weakness. Bright lights, exciting worship, and celebrity pastors have been used by God to advance his kingdom—many have profited from them. Yet by themselves they cannot cultivate a faith for Calvary. It is in the weekly gathering of God’s people for prayer, worship, encouragement, rebuke, and discipleship where Calvary faith is formed. A life of faithfulness is sustained by regular nourishment through the gathering of God’s people.
What students need is a faith formed by the ordinary means of grace. It is in the ordinary, mundane, and normal fellowship of Christ’s bride that we are shaped into Christ-likeness. We need to hear the gospel proclaimed in the word preached. We need to see this gospel by feasting at the Lord’s table and seeing Christ’s death proclaimed in baptism. Our local churches are where sin is regularly confessed and forgiveness is offered. It is here where, throughout the week, the people of God bear burdens, share grief, give counsel, laugh, and daily strive together for the holiness Christ has called us to.
This is where a faith for Calvary is found, shaped, and formed. As I reflect on my past four years of college, I can’t imagine it without my church family. It was in the midst of weekly rhythms of worship, study, confession, and friendships that I was discipled into greater faithfulness. Our local churches are gifts from the Lord and are his way of shaping us more and more into the image of his Son. As Cyprian once said “No one can have God for his Father who does not have the church as his Mother.” Christ has saved us and it is in the midst of his bride where he sustains, grows, and shapes us.