“He 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.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)
It’s been a busy, hectic, tiring ministry for Jesus. He has been all over Galilee and the Gentile territories preaching, healing, even feeding. He’s stood up to legalistic religious leaders and warned his disciples about yeast that corrupts what is good and just and generous about God.
Now he stands on the border between Galilee and Gentile territory. He knows that new ministry is ahead of him; he knows that it won’t be the same as before. And he knows that before we can move forward into the new, we must look back to see where we’ve been.
“Who do people say that I am?” The answer will tell the disciples not only who he is, but who they are and what this knowledge requires of them.
A couple of years ago, our church’s ruling board went through a discernment process of what our next ministry might look like. To do this, we had to look at our recent past. We saw ourselves as a church that loves and honors and nourishes children and families. The questions was raised, “What does the 21st century family church look like?”
We all knew that it would look different. And as we look around our sanctuary these days, we know that to be true. We are a family-style church with ages from each and every generation present: new-born, children, millennials, Generation X, Boomers, Silent, GI. Some of our children arrive at church with their parents; others without. We are the marvelous blending.
So, Jesus looks back, as well, for the sake of his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” The answers are numerous: John the Baptizer, Elijah, one of the prophets. All of these, in fact, are prophetic figures. Not in the sense of seeing into the far future, but in being able to recognize that actions in society have consequences and they can name the consequences, both good and not so good.
Peter, goes a step further, though. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.
Tell no one, Jesus says to them. It’s not time for you to share this, because you don’t understand what it means to be the Messiah. You don’t know the cost of being a disciple of the Messiah. Your identity is that of a rabbi’s disciple. You’re about to be much more and I have more to teach you.
Tell no one.
And then he begins to teach them. Not what’s he been teaching them in the past. This is a new beginning for them. They’re ready to learn at a deeper level. So he gives them the “end of the story” so to speak.
The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the elders and religious elite and be killed and three days later rise again.
Wow. That’s one packed sentence!
There’s a lot to take in here. Slow down, Jesus. You’re going to be killed? And then rise again?
This statement turns his disciples upside down. This isn’t what God’s anointed does. When God anointed Saul and David, they fought and defended the land. When God anointed Solomon, he entered into huge building projects. God’s chosen weren’t under the iron hand of Rome.
Peter takes a step forward. He’s got to do damage control before Jesus says anything else. He puts himself in the position of Jesus’ patron rather than his disciple. “Slow down Jesus. You’re scaring them! We’re going to lose members! We’re going to lose money! This isn’t good! Stay the line.”
He speaks to Jesus privately. Jesus speaks openly so that everyone can hear him. “Get behind me Satan!”
This is like the temptation in the wilderness that we read about in Matthew and Luke. The anointed of God can turn stones into bread and save their own lives and can rule over every kingdom on earth.
But, this isn’t what Jesus came to do. “Get behind me Satan!” Don’t think in terms of earthly kingdoms and magic powers. Think in God’s terms. Think in terms of eternal things; things that last; things that don’t rust or get eaten away at. And don’t even think about redefining who I am and what I came to do!
God’s rule is eternal and Jesus called his disciples to reach out to others with this new way of living and being. He called them to reach out and point us to eternity.
And though they’ve had to take in a lot of information, Jesus still calls the crowds together to give them even more to think about:
If you want to follow me, deny yourselves. Denying yourself means that you have to take up your own cross. They know what that cross is: they see them all over the Roman lands with people hanging from them taking days to die. They know how easy it is to find themselves carrying a cross to their own crucifixion.
And it’s the very cross that Jesus has committed to carrying.
How do we deny ourselves? Not through self-hate. We don’t reject ourselves. Rather, we deny the side of us that would grasp at earthly treasures and values. We deny ourselves when we understand the definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
When we carry the cross, it’s not so much the burdens of life. It’s more than that. We carry the cross when we take on the painful task of helping others find redemption.
We help the poor find redemption when we actively struggle side-by-side with them to make their lives a bit easier. We help the mentally ill find redemption when we support our culture in finding solutions to their homelessness. We help our children out of abusive situations when we serve as therapeutic foster parents.
Jesus says we must deny ourselves. But, there’s more. We must lose our lives. We must give up our egos. Jesus’ call isn’t to piety that is really cheap grace. This call to take up the cross is gritty and difficult. Yet, when we take up that cross we know that it’s all we can do; that we can do nothing else.
We can’t rule our lives. John Calvin said it best: “We are not out own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not on our own: therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and things that are ours.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III,7)
We value our lives when we direct our gifts and talents to serving God every day. We de-value our lives when we make decisions based on what’s in it for me.
We value our lives when we submit our will to God and take on God’s will to serve, in all areas of our lives. We de-value our lives when we ignore God in search of the next big thrill.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in Hitler’s prison, he wrote, “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison” Chapter 6. As cited in “Interpretation” by Lamar Williamson, Jr. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1983 page156)
“Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
All glory and honor be to God.