Prepare to listen. Silent preparation before praying: Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. (Psalm 86:11)
Read Mark 8:34-38
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (v34). These aren’t easy words to respond to with a joyous ‘Praise to you Lord Christ,’ which is what we’d do in my church. Sometimes I’d rather not join in the joyous refrain. Jesus’ words are too demanding. It’s so much easier to follow the preachers and authors who make us feel good about ourselves with comforting words that assure us we’ll live happy and prosperous lives. One of those preachers, a popular tele-evangelist, once told her audience “anyone who tells you to deny yourself is from Satan.” Perhaps she never read these words of Jesus in the Gospel, or, she has chosen to ignore them, or she is ashamed of them. I don’t know.
I’d like to label her a blasphemous heretic, except, part of me agrees with her sentiment—these words of Jesus are an assault on our lifestyles and we naturally want to recoil from them. Why should I, I think, deny myself the stuff I want and worked so hard for? But, they are Jesus’ words, the good news. We daren’t ignore, tone down or make them more user-friendly. We must face them and reflect on what they mean for us today so that we live as disciples of Jesus (that is, Christians) and not disciples of some heretical tele-evangelist, inspiring author or popular politician.
‘Deny yourself’ is far more than giving up something we want but don’t really need, the sort of discipline we practice during Lent. It’s a good practice but not what Jesus meant. He anticipated the day when his followers would be dragged into court and threatened with death unless they denounced (denied) Jesus. They had to choose between loyalty to Jesus by denying themselves, and saving themselves by denying Jesus. When Jesus said, ‘take up your cross,’ his audience knew this was another way of saying, ‘come and die.’ Almost daily they saw someone taking up a cross and being marched by Roman soldiers to their death. Crosses with dying people on them regularly lined the roads they daily walked on. They understood Jesus’ words were demanding and outrageous.
We might never be asked to deny Jesus in order to save our life, but Jesus’ demands remain relevant. How do we live this way? We deny self and take up our cross when we choose the power of love and reject the love of power; when we live as agents of God’s love in the world; when we stand with one arm reaching out to God and the other arm reaching out to the world, bringing God and the world together in our very lives. When we choose peace over violence; love over hate; truth over lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, we’re obeying Jesus’ command to deny self and take up our cross and follow him. When we build bridges rather than walls; welcome the alien, the outcast, the poor and disenfranchised we’re following Jesus his way not ours.
For most of us in Western culture, this way may not mean physical persecution and suffering, but it may mean being mocked, misunderstood, labeled a liberal (or conservative). The question we have to ask ourselves is this: will we deny self rather than Jesus and accept the labels and ridicule; will we take up our cross and follow Jesus who willingly took up his cross and died?
What about you? How will you follow Jesus today in this way of self-denial and the cross?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord Jesus, sometimes I forget or ignore that you’ve called me to follow you in this costly manner. Forgive me, and please show me how I can be more faithful and truer to your cause, not my worldly agendas. Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world where Jesus took up his cross for the world.