Jesus said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
In our reading from Mark’s gospel we encounter two ‘big’ events: first, Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah; then, Jesus beginning to turn our attention towards the journey that must be taken before his divinity will become known.
The disciples had all come to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, but they did not yet understand what this meant.
For the disciples, the coming of the Messiah represented a time when the heir of David’s line would assume his Kingship, sweep aside all oppression and persecution, and bring in the ultimate time of peace and stability.
For the disciples, and all faithful Jews, the Messiah would be the last king in the line begun by God’s anointed one, David.
Jesus fitted the criteria …
- he was born in the right place, and he was of the right lineage …
- he worked wondrous signs and acts of healing …
- he promised to fulfil the prophecies laid out in Isaiah …
- Jesus must be the Messiah!
But, this was not the whole story …
In his gospel, Mark makes it clear that Jesus is not only human, but divine … but that would not have been obvious to the disciples.
So, already uncertain about the true identity of Jesus, they then heard their ‘King’ declare that he must undergo great suffering, rejection, and death.
I wonder whether they heard the last bit … and after three days rise again? Even if they did, it would appear that they were overwhelmed by the message they were hearing.
Then come the words that must have shaken them to the core. They were travelling with the Messiah, the promised King who would save them, but … Jesus said: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Like the disciples, we struggle with the minutiae of this teaching … we certainly would like to be followers of Jesus, but we struggle with denying ourselves, taking up our own crosses and then following where someone else leads.
For many the notion of being a Christian is a matter of superficial allegiance.
I, like many other members of the clergy, are often told of people who do or have lived Christian lives … Of course, they didn’t belong to any sort of Church, but they were still Christian.
Unfortunately, this statement misses the point by a country mile!
To be a true Christian, is to be a member of the community of faith.
To be a Christian is not a solitary activity, an activity that demands nothing more than saying: I am a Christian … it demands commitment.
Only recently I received a letter from someone who started in just this vein … I don’t go to any church but I am a devout Christian! The aggressive and personally offensive nature of the rest of the letter hammered home what that person had actually made clear in their first sentence! … They could not be further from the reality of being a devout Christian!!
Jesus said: If any want to become my followers … therein lies the first challenge of the day … do we want to become followers of Jesus? Because, if we do, then we are going to have to put in some effort!
After this opening challenge, Jesus goes on to spell out a couple of very unattractive conditions …
- Followers of Christ must deny themselves; and
- Followers of Christ must take up their crosses.
None of us like denying ourselves of anything … we all like to feel that we are able to indulge ourselves whenever and however we want, but … that is NOT the Christian way.
Christians are called to love God and neighbour … Such love demands a willingness to be self-sacrificial in the way we live out our daily lives.
Our willingness to deny ourselves is a crucial step in demonstrating our true desire to be a follower of Christ.
Then, of course, sometimes that self-denial will lead us into a place that will be truly uncomfortable … the place which emulates Jesus’ willingness to pay the final human price for the good of others … the place of the cross.
Such a fate does not await every Christian, but it is a price that we must be ready to pay should our craving to be a disciple of Jesus demand it.
Not very attractive, is it?
All that denying and cross bearing!
And then comes the final part of Jesus’ words …
and follow me.
In the gospel narrative we read of the twelve disciples being called by Jesus, and then responding to that call by leaving everything and following him.
Those first disciples were prepared to trust Jesus that much …
For them he was an itinerant teacher who had a wonderful new message to impart.
They went on to witness great and wondrous things … but their first response was the important one … that response of hearing his call, giving up everything and following him.
In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, those disciples are being reminded of the commitment they made … and when Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for predicting the fate that awaited him, Jesus said: Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
Like the twelve disciples, we spend so much of our time focused on human things, and not on divine truths.
The challenge of being a faithful follower of Jesus proves too much for so many people.
But, that is the nature of our calling …
We are called to hear Jesus’ words:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
In fact, we are not just called to hear them … we are also called to live them every day of our lives … we are called to live out every syllable, and not just the bits we can temper to suit our own purposes.
So … let us not be tempted to join the ranks of those self-proclaimed armchair ‘Christians’ who cannot bring themselves to really enter the community of the faithful.
Rather … let us deny ourselves in order that others might see our faith and join us as followers of Christ; let us take up our crosses and show that, as Jesus gave everything for us, so we are prepared to do the same in his name; and, let us follow him … no matter where he may lead us.