“Self-Denial, Cross-Bearing, and Jesus-Following”

Lent 2

March 1, 2015


Text: Mark 8:31-38


          I find today’s Gospel lesson to be one that challenges me greatly in considering how I live as a Christian.

         As you may recall, it begins with Jesus telling his disciples that he would suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed, and then rise again after three days. Peter chewed Jesus out for saying that, only to have Jesus sternly tell Peter he was on the wrong side, thinking not God’s thoughts but rather human thoughts.

          Then Jesus continues: “All who want to come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Self-denial, cross-bearing, and Jesus-following. Let’s look more closely at each of these.

          First, what does it mean to deny myself? It means that I deny myself the right to be in charge of my life. Although I like the idea of being in charge of my life, that is an illusion. Life seldom happens the way I planned it. I don’t necessarily get what I want, don’t necessarily get my own way. God is the one who is supposed to call the shots, not me.

          Believe me, I know how difficult this is. When things are not going my way, when I am beset by difficulty and trouble, I find it easy to feel sorry for myself and treat myself to a nice big pity party. And when things are going well, it is all too easy for me to take credit for it. To deny myself in these circumstances requires me to remember that the world does not revolve around me and what I want. God is in charge. God has plans and purposes for my life that I don’t know about.

          Jesus rebuked Peter so strongly because he needed Peter to see that God’s plans were not the same as what Peter wanted. By focusing on what he wanted rather than what God wanted, Peter was in effect opposing God. He needed Peter to get in line with what God wanted. And if I am to be faithful in serving God, he needs me to get in line with what God wants as well.

          Second, Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross. Let’s be clear what a cross is. During the earthly life of Jesus, a cross was an instrument of death, the preferred Roman method of execution for political troublemakers and notorious criminals. It was not meant to be humane—indeed, it was intended to be as inhumane as possible, inflicting a slow, brutal, agonizing death. It was not unusual for people who were crucified to hang there for a couple days before they finally died. The only reason Jesus died as quickly as he did was because he had already been brutally beaten and scourged, meaning he was in a physically weakened condition by the time the soldiers nailed him to the cross. Had the Romans been told that one day people would use the cross as a symbol of their faith and even wear it as jewelry, I’m sure they would have laughed in utter disbelief.

          What does it mean to take up our cross? Some people have curious ideas about what a cross is in our context. There is an account of a pastor who had a parishioner confess that he had a terrible temper, then said, “I guess that is my cross to bear.” The pastor replied, “No, that’s not your cross. It may be your wife’s cross, but it’s your sin!”

          Sometimes people refer to any kind of difficulty or trial they experience as a cross they must bear. While I don’t want to diminish the fact that these things are often not easy, yet sometimes I think referring to these things as our “cross” trivializes the cross. I think the best understanding of what a “cross” is was spoken many years ago by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge, moments of great crisis and controversy. And this is where I choose to cast my lot today. There may be others who want to go another way, but when I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on. The cross may mean the death of your popularity. It may mean the death of your bridge to the White House. It may mean the death of a foundation grant. It may cut your budget down a little, but take up your cross and just bear it. And that is the way I have decided to go.” As King saw it, to bear one’s cross is to allow the death of one’s own desires for the sake of the greater good God wants. King chose to bear his cross because he believed God had called him to lead a movement to create a society where all people would be able to have the life God intended for them, regardless of skin color, social class, or occupation. He took up his cross, and he died because of it.

          Jesus also told Peter, and calls us, to “follow him”. To follow Jesus is to live the way Jesus would have us live, according to what Jesus taught. It is to treat others the way he would have treated them, to love not only our neighbors, but even our enemies. It is to forgive others, even as he forgave those who put him to death. And it is to follow him even if it leads to our untimely death.

          All this is hard. I don’t want to die a premature death. I don’t want to suffer, even if it is for Jesus’ sake. Many days I struggle even to let God be in charge of my life. I’m sure I am not alone in this. So I must remember that the way of Jesus is the way that leads to real life, the way that leads to life with God in this life and beyond it. Otherwise I am not thinking God’s thoughts, but merely human thoughts. Human thoughts tend toward self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and self-serving at all costs. Living that way may gain us the world, but the trade-off is that we lose the life that really matters--the way of Jesus. His way is the way of sacrifice, the way of serving God and neighbor, the way of love and forgiveness no matter how much it may cost.

          Jesus said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” God help us to be faithful in living in this way, for we cannot do it alone.


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