Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’
Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
Jesus’ road map for discipleship does not make comfortable reading, and it is no more attractive in the twenty-first century than it was in the first. Down the ages we have learnt to ‘rationalize’ Jesus’ words but, no matter how clever we may consider ourselves to be at playing word games, the reality of Jesus’ call is as stark as it was when these words were first uttered. Jesus call to discipleship is uncompromising, and that is where we struggle.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves. As our Lenten journey began, just twenty-four hours ago, we reflected on what it means to embark upon a Lenten pilgrimage. One of the major aspects of that journey of faith is one of self-denial. As we set aside that which gives us earthly pleasure we pray that we may be drawn into a close relationship with the God who in just a few weeks will sacrifice everything for us. By removing the worldly distraction of something we value for its own sake, we enter into the periphery of Jesus’ sacrifice for the whole of humanity.
The sacrifice of Jesus that we will soon be recalling will come in the form of an ignominious death on a terrible instrument of torture. The ‘cross’ will have had a profound meaning to all who heard Jesus’ words. The Roman conquerors used the cross as an instrument of oppression. They were very skilled at making the public agony of death last for days. Jesus’ call to take up our crosses daily is one of total commitment, no matter what the cost. For many this is too much to ask. If the thought of self-denial does not prove too onerous to bear, then the thought of the sacrifice of one’s reputation, possessions and earthly life can so easily prove to be the tipping point. But, there are those who have accepted Jesus’ challenge. We are called to join that long procession of those who proved the value of following Christ by setting aside all that is superficial and offering everything to God.
Then comes those final words: Follow me. We come across these two words several times in the gospel narrative. We hear Jesus use them as he calls those who will become his closest companions and followers, the disciples. They are a precursor to those faithful souls being transformed into apostles … those who are sent out to preach and to heal, to love and to serve, to shine with an inextinguishable light in the name of Christ.
In today’s reading we hear Jesus offering that same call to us. Let us pray that, as we journey through this Lent, we might come to realize that today’s reading is addressed to us as individuals. It does not matter who we are, how old we are, what our life story to this point may have been. Jesus wants us all to become his followers, his disciples. Let us take his outstretched hand, deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily and follow him.
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