The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 16:24-28....
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?Jesus gives to Peter and all of the disciples, including us, three essential guidelines for coming after him.
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
First of all he says that we must deny ourselves.
We tend to think of self-denial in a very limited sense. We might give up some luxury for Lent. Or maybe we give up eating a certain favorite food while on a diet. But after Lent or once the dieting period is over we go back to our old way of living.
That is not what Jesus has in mind when he talks about denying self. What Jesus has in mind is that at every point in our lives we are to say "no" to self and "yes" to God. Self-denial means getting our self off the throne, along with all of our plans and desires, the ones we think innocent as well as the ones we think wicked, and putting God on the throne of our lives instead. Denying self starts the moment we wake up in the morning. From that moment we must ask the question, "What do you want me to do today Lord?" and "How do you want me to go about doing this or that?" Then we need to spend the rest of the day doing what the Lord tells us, in his way, by his power. In order to do that, we must constantly turn to him throughout the day for strength.
Secondly, Jesus says we must take up our cross.
This statement gives us a radical picture of the kind of self-denial Jesus is talking about. Jesus doesn't have in mind that we simply wear a pretty piece of jewelry everywhere we go so that everyone will know we are his followers. Though that may be a good thing to do and may lead to some interesting conversations.
But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus made this statement it immediately conjured up an image in the mind of his disciples. When Jesus talked about carrying one's cross his disciples would have immediately thought of the countless people whom they had seen in their lifetime who were arrested by the Romans, tried and convicted for some crime, and sentenced to execution. Carrying one's cross was not a pretty sight. It meant something brutal and bloody. It meant death.
When Jesus said that we must take up our cross he was telling us that we must take self-denial to the extreme. We must literally die to ourselves. As A. W. Tozer once said, the person who has been crucified with Christ has three distinct marks:
- He can no longer turn back to his old way of life.
- He is facing only one direction.
- And he no longer has plans of his own.
Of course, one of the most tortuous things about death by crucifixion was that it was a slow death. Carrying one's cross meant going to the place of one's execution. For us, carrying our cross is a lifelong process. As Oswald Chambers once said, "We don't get to choose the scene of our sacrifice." Or as William Barclay once wrote, it may be that the Christian "will discover that the place where he can render the greatest service to Jesus Christ is somewhere where the reward will be small and the prestige non-existent."
Thirdly, Jesus says that we must follow him.
Someone I know told me once that every morning when he gets out of bed and his feet hit the floor he says to the Lord, "Guide my feet where you want them to go today."
What would our lives look like if we thought about where Jesus would have us go, what he would have us do, what Jesus would want to say through us every day to others? I think life would become more of an adventure if we followed where Jesus was leading us every day. Without Jesus we simply exist. With Jesus we discover life in all its fullness.
And that means a life that isn't safe. If we are searching for safety, security, ease and comfort then Jesus' way may not be for us. If we choose to make every decision from worldly-wise and prudential motives then we may be missing out on the life that is really LIFE.
Winston Churchill once said, "Play for more than you can afford to lose, and you will learn the game."
Mr. Beaver, in C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says about Aslan, the Christ figure in the story, "he isn't safe. But he's good."
What a perfect description of Jesus: he isn't safe, but he's good. Following Jesus isn't safe, but it is the best way to live.