“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.“ Mark 8:34
I can only imagine it was difficult and perhaps a bit confusing for the disciples of Jesus when they heard the words “take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). They were still a ways off from Jesus actually carrying his cross to Golgotha. Up to this point, all they have witnessed were miracles and Jesus’ radical teachings. Now talk of the crucifixion has entered the picture and his disciples, especially Peter, cannot believe it. Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke him of this.
“But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” Mark 8:33
Can you blame Peter, really? Not only are these men still expecting Jesus to be the Messiah who would overthrow the Roman government, but Jesus was also their friend. This strange message of death and being raised again three days later went against the narrative these men already had. Think about it for a moment: if death was in Jesus’ future, what would become of them as well?! Death? “No way!”, says Peter “This is not how it’s going to end!” But in the midst of Peter trying to save his own skin and to keep their overthrow-the-government agenda on track, he is not seeing the grander, more radical than you could ever guess, plan of God. Jesus is making a major point here that is powerful within the context of this passage but if we stop short at Mark 8:34 we will miss it. Jesus is talking about the cost of following him and preparing his disciples for what is to come. Which later many of his disciples will be martyred for spreading the Gospel in the first movement of the Church. For Jesus’s disciples, death is their reality and the cost of following Jesus will ultimately cost them dearly. This is a fair warning and yet a difficult pill to swallow, especially if we have already created an agenda for Jesus that we now realize will never come to pass.
So how do we view this passage today? As we sit in our comfortable homes, sipping our coffee, we are not faced with death as a cost of following Christ, at least not here in America. I believe in our attempts at contextualizing this passage, we may be missing its main point. In other words, if we try to force this passage into our current culture without first seeing the original message in its original cultural context, we will miss the point.
In our feeble attempts to explain suffering, we grasp for anything we can attribute some spiritual reason for the difficult stuff we walkthrough. I find myself guilty of this by explaining away my own personal suffering by naming things as “crosses” I must bear. As if my suffering is some spiritual ascent into godliness with a backdrop of desiring to participate fully in the life of a disciple. This, however, can be self-deceptive and not necessarily self-denial. Another example I heard recently, was of a man’s desire to live in the rural areas of Oregon. This person would love nothing more than to have land and be in the country however with so many modern church movements calling people to the city, he feels like it is his duty to live in the city instead of the country. Is this his “cross” to bear? An even more personal example is my husband and I have experienced infertility for several years, undergoing many treatments with no children to show for. Is this my “cross” to bear?
So what did Jesus mean by “deny himself and take up your cross and follow me”? Is all our suffering or acts of self-denial “crosses” we bear? In light of the passage, if we make the cross to be that, then I fear we have missed the point and instead are creating counterfeit crosses that bear a much different message.
Jesus continues, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. 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? 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.”
If we are to resist the counterfeit crosses in our lives then we must know what the genuine article is. So what is the cross? What is the message? For Paul the Apostle, there is no resurrection without the cross, no life without death. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Roman 4:25) The message of the cross is God coming to earth, taking on human form, and dying on a cross for our sins so that we may be reconciled to God. The cross is this very message. The message of God’s radical sacrifice and it takes nothing short of our lives to carry it. For it is a difficult and seemingly impossible to believe message:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” 1 Corinthians 1:18
“But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” 1 Corinthians 1:23
What do disciples look like today? The same as before, proclaimers of the Gospel! The cross is the Gospel that we carry into the world and it is costly without us having to add anything else to it. If we make the cross about our own self-denial then we have made the Gospel message about our suffering and not about The Suffering One. We are not the gospel, we are carriers of the Gospel. Notice that Jesus ends this message with “if anyone is ashamed of me and my words…” It already takes an enormous amount of self-denial to share with someone about Jesus, to live counterculture and cruciform in our everyday lives, and to be obedient in caring for the poor and marginalized in our cities. Discipleship looks a lot like our willingness to carry this message with boldness and not shy away from sharing the hope of the Gospel.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe…” Romans 1:16
So are we really prepared to “deny ourselves, take up our crosses” and carry the message of the Gospel to the world? Are we aware of the cost?
A friend of mine moved her whole family across the country to Portland, OR to plant a church. They started small by simply meeting in their home. She began to form relationships with those in the neighborhood. One day my friend was at the neighborhood playground with her children with a woman who lived nearby, and the woman asked, “So what brings you to Portland?” She explained that they were there to plant a church. Once the words left her mouth, the woman picked up her child and instantly left the playground and my friend never heard from her again. This happened so close to them moving and feeling untethered in a new city, searching for belonging and instead found rejection.
The message of the cross is costly. It costs us belonging, comfort, relationships, money, and our brothers and sisters in countries where Christianity is not accepted, their very life. The message of the cross is heavy and not easily carried without the hope of resurrection. The cross we carry, however, we also carry together as a Spirit-filled community charged with the greatest commission of all: to share this Gospel of hope to the ends of the earth.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19, 20
Jesus was the first to carry his cross and be raised to life! And we are to follow in his footsteps by laying down our lives of comfort in order to open our mouths, our hands, and our homes to share the Gospel message of resurrection hope!
So I ask us today, can we lay down our counterfeit crosses and instead, carry the Gospel?