As we can see from the conversation between Jesus and Peter in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry which began with such an outpouring of popularity, because of his personal charisma, his message of a new kingdom and his healing ministry, becomes harder for his disciples to comprehend when he starts talking about who he really was and what he had to do- i.e. suffer and die.
A few weeks ago in John 6 after telling his disciples that he was in fact The Bread of Life we read these words: “When many of his disciples heard it they said, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it? because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
So let’s fantasize for a moment and imagine a strategy session with the core group; “wow our numbers are decreasing; let’s hire a PR consultant and come up with a catchy jingle that will attract people to the cause of Christ. So the consultant comes in and says, lets brain storm with some of Jesus’ sayings that will pique the interest of seekers out there: (soften the message)
Brainstorming: I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly; blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth; love one another as I have loved you; its more blessed to give than to receive.
Well, everyone’s getting excited about possibilities and Jesus comes walking by, and consultant asks, “Master, what do you think?” He pauses, rubs his beard and says all these are great but if you want a phrase that captures the heart of my message it would be this one:
“If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save my life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Jaws drop! Not the way to popularity and numbers! Bummer!!! How does this sell?
At first hearing this sounds pretty grim; So heavy, life as a burden-a cross weighs up to 100 lbs! Message seems to be suck it up, grit the teeth, life is hard get used to it! turn your back on everything you like that makes you happy that brings you pleasure; so for Jeffrey Fishwick,
no more mint Oreos, for the ECW no more wine tastings; get rid of that nice sweet NFL cable package you just bought! Hey! Let’s have Lent all year round! We’ll be handing out monks’ robes for everyone after the service today. That’s what Jesus seems to be saying.
So we have to ask, is Christ’s call to deny ourselves to pick up our cross, really a directive to move away from our attachment to the the things of this world? No, there is nothing in this scripture about denying ourselves all pleasures. It is simply a matter of priorities and obedience. Self-denial doesn’t mean imprisoned by self-abasement; rather it is a call to let go of our inherent human narcissism and replace the primacy of our will with God’s larger purposes for our lives, that give it real meaning to them. Self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy but about discovering the abundant life that comes with sacrificial love and service to the other. For Christian communities it means to seek the common good for everyone, not just ourselves.
Again: “Deny yourself and take up your 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 save it.”
Notice how concretely, literally true these words turn out to be for Jesus as he does, in fact, carry his cross and lose his life and is given it back and more in the resurrection. For Christians the Cross means victory. Way of the cross is the way of life. So we must ask, ‘might this also be true for us?
Have we at times noticed, for example, that when we give a gift to another we recognize how much we receive in return? Interesting recent studies indicate, for instance, that the only way money truly makes people happy is when it is given for a worthy cause or purpose. Or have you discovered on occasion that only by loving another do you feel yourself to be loved? Have you ever gone without so that someone could have more and felt intensely richer as a result? Have you ever discovered that there’s no better way to find a friend than first to be a friend, and that unexpected rewards come through sacrifice. All these are small glimpses of what one might call the inverted logic of Jesus’ teaching; steps we can take that bring real life.
There is no question that such a life lived for God and others is counter cultural in today’s America. Give of yourself. Sacrifice. No wonder this kind of discipleship has trouble attracting applicants. Who really wants to be a part of this club?
Well I hope you do, because Christ offers us real life, not the pseudo life we so often settle for; a life that the world tells us depends on you get what you deserve, a life that the world tells us glorifies instant gratification; rather Jesus offers this: follow me pick up your cross, lose your life to find it-all you have to do is to trade what we’ve been led to believe is life for the real thing; come follow me and I’ll show you a life that offers you more than you could ever ask for or imagine.
The German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct when he points out in his book, The Cost of Discipleship that there are demands to being a follower of Christ.
He writes, “discipleship is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; yet the rewards are beyond measure, true grace because as we walk behind him, on the road less travelled he says to each one of us, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And so will ours. Amen.