Years ago Clarence Jordan started an interracial Christian community, Koinonia Farm, down in Georgia. He suffered greatly for his stand, but on one occasion he was getting the red-carpet treatment from a fellow pastor who was showing Jordan his brand new church building. The fellow showed Jordan the rich wood pews and decorations, all the rooms and comforts. As they walked outside, the sun was setting and a spotlight shown on a huge cross atop the steeple. "That cross alone cost us $10,000," the pastor said. "You got cheated," Jordan said. "There were times when Christians could get them for free."
We have an uneasy relationship with the Cross. We honor the Cross of Christ, to be sure, but the fact is the cross gets in the way. In the middle of Mark's Gospel, after all that the disciples had heard and seen from Jesus, there is a miracle moment when Peter's blindness was healed. "Who do you say I am?" Jesus asked, and it was as if cataracts were removed from Peter's eyes. "You are the Christ!" Right here with us all along! How blind could we be? You're God's Son, the one God promised to send to deliver us and bring us peace. "You are the Christ!" And then the Cross got in the way. Mark 8:31-33:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."
Peter reacted so strongly, of course, because if God's Messiah is rejected, if he suffers, if he dies, what good is he? How could he help? Where's the hope in that? The cross is in the way.
But Jesus had another shocker. Verse 34 says, "Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples." I assume that these were people who were thrilled to be following Jesus. They were seeing jaw-dropping miracles, seeing demons flushed out of lives like terrified birds from hiding, and hearing truth from Jesus so wonderful that it was like bread for the heart. Four thousand men plus their families had just listened to Jesus for three days despite running out of food. Who wouldn't want to follow Jesus? All those people—crowd and disciples alike—couldn't get enough of Jesus, so when he began, "If any of you would like to be my disciple …." they're all grinning at him and getting ready to wave their hands in the air: "Pick me! Pick me!" But then, again, the cross gets in the way. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." And I suspect, about that time, men in the crowd started whispering to their wives, "You know, it's getting late. We should probably hit the road."
Our translations of verse 34 tend to obscure the fact that the same word is used twice, so the sense here is like this: "If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and then follow me." There are people who profess to follow Jesus—who say they believe in him, that they try to live by his teaching, who sing his praises—but do not see the cross in their way. Before we can follow Jesus, he makes it clear we must deny ourselves and take up our cross. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."
Giving up your own agenda
Some leaders are hard to keep up with because they're so fast or so strong. They tell you, "If you're going to do this job, you've got to keep up." Jesus says, "If you're going to follow me, you must always be disowning your selfish soul and crucifying your sinful self." We cannot follow Jesus the way we are because we're too swollen to fit in the places he leads us, because we're too unsanitary to touch others in Jesus' name.
Look closer at these two phrases. First, "Deny yourself." Jesus isn't talking about self-denial the way people talk about giving up chocolate or giving up a night of fun so they can study for an exam. This word deny is used in only two contexts in the Gospels. This is one, and the other is when Peter denied Jesus, like when he swore to the people who were sure he was one of Jesus' disciples: "I don't know this man you're talking about." That's a denial.
So how would it be to deny yourself? It is as though we look in a mirror and say, "I'm not with him. He's not who I follow, not who I believe in. He is no longer what I stand for." Denying myself is saying to the guy in the mirror, "I know you want to be treated well, but we're going to put on an apron and serve. I know you think we should go first, but we will go last. I know you think I ought to give her a piece of my mind, but this is a time when Jesus would be silent."
Second is this uniquely Christian command: "Take up your cross." As Bishop Moule said years ago, "People carrying crosses were people going to execution." Those who listened to Jesus that day knew how ghastly crucifixion was, so there was surely an instant shock that ran through that crowd when Jesus said that. What they did not yet know was how this command, "take up your cross," would soon be utterly reframed by his own death. There have been many Christian martyrs of course, but I don't think martyrdom was Jesus' main point here. All who follow Jesus must "take up their cross," not only the martyrs. The really hard death disciples face does not come at some persecutor's hand. The really hard death is sentencing and executing our own wills, our own importance, our own agendas.
To see what this means for the disciples, all we need to do is read on in Mark. We see Jesus' disciples learning the hard way what it is to deny themselves and take up their cross. For example, they're soon publicly embarrassed when a demon tormenting a little boy pays them no heed, and Jesus groans over their anemic faith. When Jesus catches them arguing about who's the greatest, he doesn't tell them they're acting like children. He tells them they're not acting like children! When Jesus tells a rich man he must sell everything before he can enter the kingdom of God, the disciples gasp, "Who then can be saved?" Again and again, those who follow Jesus see how little they know of self-denial and the crucified life. But we don't really see a follower of Jesus die till early on the morning of the day of Jesus' own crucifixion. Three times in the night Peter had denied Jesus, and then the harsh crowing of his own denials woke him and crucified him all at once. Mark whispers as you would at a funeral, "He broke down and wept." Finally, Peter just wanted to die! Finally, in that baptism of tears, Peter grew small and broken enough to follow Christ.
Christians take communion to remember that the cross is the only way to Christ. And Christians are baptized—thrust into a grave and brought back up alive and clean—to remember that dying is the only way to follow Christ. Sometimes, to deny ourselves and take up our cross takes us to epic inner battles, like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord, where our wily, well-muscled wills are very nearly a match for God himself, resisting all his moves till he mercifully cripples us. And sometimes—most of the time, I think—taking up our cross means dying to our rights, or dying to our importance, or dying to our treasures, or bearing a hard thing with Christ-like virtue and trust. But Bonheoffer was right: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A. W. Tozer wrote, "To be crucified means, first, the man on the cross is facing only one direction; second, he is not going back; and third, he has no further plans of his own."
When I baptized Ruth a few years ago, she said, "Hold me under the water a little extra long. I want to remember that I have died."
Following Jesus on his own terms
I would imagine that most in that crowd, if they really heard what Jesus said, were starting to gather up their stuff to leave. It had been nice while it lasted, but if that's the way Jesus wanted it to be, well, they'd go back to the farm. But Jesus blocks the door. Verse 35: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it." If you think the cost of following Jesus is too high, consider carefully the alternative (8:35-37). The Greek word behind "life" and "soul" in those verses is the same word. It could also be translated "self." Your life, soul, self is on the line. None of those English words quite capture Jesus' meaning. To try to give us a sense of what Jesus meant, Eugene Peterson in The message puts it this way: "What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?" The stark point here is that, one way or the other, you will lose the real you. We'd like to ask, "Isn't there some way I can keep my life and save it. Can't I keep what I have, who I am, and still have Jesus save me, too?" No, Jesus says, either you deny yourself and take up your cross for me and for the good news I bring, or you can't follow me. And if we won't follow Jesus on his terms, where will we turn?
Verses 36-37 push the logic out further: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" There is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by selling out our souls. Once your soul is forfeited, there is nothing you can give to get it back. It is lost forever. But Jesus is not done. Verse 38 says, "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." To refuse the way of the cross is to be ashamed of Jesus, the Son of Man. Being ashamed of Jesus is not just blushing if someone calls you a Christian. In fact, you may openly claim that you follow Christ. You may go to church, sing at the top of your voice, bow and pray earnestly; but if we do not deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Jesus, then we are ashamed of him, because he took the way of the cross and he requires it of us. When Jesus Christ returns in glory—and he will—lost souls will not merely slip away into the anonymous shadows. Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, will be ashamed of them, and they will feel that shame. For the man or woman who will not follow Jesus on Jesus' terms, part of the suffering of hell will be knowing that when they had the choice they were ashamed of the Lord of glory and, in the end, he was ashamed of them. So, if you think the cost of following Jesus too high, consider carefully the alternative.
When Jesus bids us come and die, it isn't a glorious and valiant kind of death, like a Christian's own Alamo. Self-denial and cross-bearing have not a hint of heroism or glory. They are ugly work. But Jesus bids us come and die for the promise of his glorious life (8:38 - 9:1). As foreboding as the way of the cross is, it is at the point of our dying that we find God's grace. Peter was the poster child of verse 38: "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." That is exactly what he did, yet when Peter died in his tears, when he was buried in his failure, Jesus was waiting. At the very end of Mark, right after the resurrection, the angel tells the women at the grave, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you'" (15:7). You are not doomed to forfeit your soul. Jesus offers forgiveness and life.
Look at 9:1. I think the first Bible question I ever asked a pastor was about this verse: "And he said to them, 'I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.'" In short, Jesus was saying that there were people in that very crowd who would see him as the resurrected Lord, who would see him ascend to heaven, who would be swept up in the life of the Spirit at Pentecost, and would be brought into the new and astounding life and fellowship of God's people, the church. That's what denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus gets us. We have now a down payment and foretaste of the unimaginable life God has promised those who follow Christ.
We can rightly turn verse 38 over and read, "If anyone honors me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation—by denying yourselves, taking up your cross and following me—the Son of Man will honor you when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." Jesus puts it plainly himself in Mark 13:26-27: "At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens." What an honor! What an honor when he invites us as his bride to the wedding supper of the Lamb! What an honor when he entrusts to us the high and holy work of the new heavens and the new earth! What an honor that we shall be granted crowns and white robes and branches from the palms of heaven to wave in his presence! What an honor that we shall sing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain," in chorus with all the saints and angels of God's kingdom! What an honor that "the Lamb at the center of the throne will be our shepherd; that he will lead us to springs of living water; and that God will wipe every tear from our eyes." When Jesus calls you to follow him, he bids you come and die, to be sure, but also, to come and live.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.