In our reading this morning, which we find set right in the middle of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks the essential mid-term question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” They had been together for some three years at this point; unbeknownst to any of them save Jesus, they were now on the road to Jerusalem, for the final time. Jesus knows that there isn’t a whole lot of time left, so he steps up the content of his teaching, and asks the overarching question: “Who do you say that I am?”
In response, the disciples repeat what they have been hearing people say about Jesus in the communities they have visited. But then Jesus restates the question, with the emphasis on who THEY say he is. And Peter, in an apparent flash of insight, is no longer content with viewing Jesus as one of the prophets old or new, but realizes that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one chosen and anointed to deliver Israel from oppression. Like the Jews of his time, he expected the Messiah to be a political leader who would overthrow Roman rule, convert Jerusalem to a political center, make Judaism the superior religion, and establish God’s kingdom by conquering the enemies of Israel.
So, Peter was part right, at least about the piece that Jesus is indeed God’s Messiah. He gets the title correct, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. And so, when Jesus begins to talk not about the road to glory, but of indignity, suffering and death, the road that leads to the cross, Peter blurts out a rebuke…with Jesus reprimanding Peter right back.
This may call into question our own understanding of who Jesus is. Because we have to admit that Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well. Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our military and sports teams onto victory, and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise. But that’s not where Jesus is going, literally and figuratively.
Thus far in this passage, Jesus has been talking only to his disciples. But after this encounter with Peter, Jesus calls the crowds (who, it turns out, weren’t too far away) to come closer and listen up. And then he takes up the question of the Christian life, stating plain and simple that those who wish to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross. And as an aside, this conversation is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels; that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke, these three of the four gospel writers as signifying something important and worth preserving for posterity.
So, when Jesus instructed not just the disciples, but the crowds and prospective disciples, that there were indeed conditions to following him; to becoming his disciples, Jesus put it in several ways to emphasize the seriousness of his call. First, he talks of denying oneself. To be clear, let’s not look at that term through the lens of Weight Watchers. Self-denial is not consuming a little less of or abstaining from the things you like, such as your nightly bowl of ice cream or a bad habit. It’s not about giving up wine or chocolate for Lent. It’s not even about giving up your social life for your family for church!
Self-denial, it seems to me, is not exactly a distinguishing feature of North American Christianity these days. In some ways, the church characterizes itself as exactly the opposite, the place to find self-fulfillment and to exercise one’s rights. As one commentator put it, this is the corrosive acid of the world-wide phenomenon of the “Prosperity Gospel,” the message that becoming a Christian will make us respected, successful and financially well off.
To this concept, Jesus says No! Following Jesus means self-denial, not self-fulfillment. It means self-sacrificing love, not self-actualizing power. It means giving up our lives in order to find our true self in the Kingdom of God. It may even mean that we give up what we consider our “rights” for the work of God and the kingdom, and for the health of the Christian community. It means being willing to give up our personal agendas for the sake of the community and the kingdom. For let’s face it, nowhere in the Bible does Jesus tell the disciples to stand up for their rights. Just the opposite, he calls on his followers to be humble and to love one another, just as he has loved them.
Pastor/Theologian J.I. Packer, in his book, Hot Tub Religion, (ok, it was written in the 80s) says this:
Jesus Christ demands self-denial, that is, self-negation as a necessary condition of discipleship. Self-denial is a summons to submit to the authority of God as Father and of Jesus as Lord and to declare lifelong war on one’s instinctive egoism. What is to be negated is not personal self or one’s existence as a rational and responsible human being. Jesus does not plan to turn us into zombies, nor does he ask us to volunteer for a robot role. The required denial is of [bodily] self, the egocentric, self-deifying urge with which we were born and which dominates us so ruinously in our natural state.
Jesus links self-denial with cross-bearing. Cross-bearing is far more than enduring this or that hardship. Carrying one’s cross in Jesus’ day, as we learn from the story of Jesus’ own crucifixion, was required of those whom society had condemned, whose rights were forfeit, and who were now being led out to their execution. The cross they carried was the instrument of death. Jesus represents discipleship as a matter of following him, and following him as based on taking up one’s cross in self-negation. Carnal self would never consent to cast us in such a role. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was right: Accepting death to everything that carnal self wants to possess is what Christ’s summons to self-denial was all about.
As Packer infers, the cross was meant to inflict the maximum amount of shame, pain and torture upon the victim. Roman crucifixions were carried out in public so that all who saw the horror would be deterred from crossing the Roman government. Crucifixion was so horrible that it was reserved for only the worst offenders. This apparently included Jesus, whose only misbehavior in the eyes of the religious leaders was to point to a different way to God.
Therefore, if we are to truly follow Jesus, if we deny ourselves and take up our crosses; (and I’m not talking about the lovely bejeweled pendants we wear or artistic wall hangings that grace our homes), we will inevitably be called to suffer. For a disciple of Christ to take up his cross is for him to be willing to start on a death march. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be willing, in His service, to suffer the indignities, the pain, and even the death of a condemned criminal.
Christ does not call disciples to Himself to make their lives easy and prosperous, but to make them holy and productive. Willingness to take up his cross is the mark of the true disciple. As the hymnist wrote, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” Many people want a “no-cost” discipleship, but Christ offers no such option.
Therefore, self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, but about discovering the real and abundant life – a kind of life the culture can hardly imagine – that comes in and through sacrificial love in service to another, and, for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps a life-saving one as well. My challenge for you this week is to find this abundant life by making an effort to give up our own egos and desires in order to make our little spot in the world a better one for all whom we might encounter, and truly live as followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.