READ : Mark 8:34-35
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
Mark 8:34-35 rsv
Bill Bradley used to be a famous basketball player, first with Princeton University and later with the New York Knicks. Now he is a distinguished U.S. senator. When he was moving from one career to the other, he wrote a book about the first: Life on the Run. Bradley tells how professional athletes who have reached the summit of achievement and fame in their early years must live out the rest of their days in a kind of prolonged anti-climax. They can never hope to feel again the exhilaration of their youthful stardom. The great performer who retires at age 35 asks himself the question, “Where do I go from here? What can I possibly do next?”
Are there parallels to that experience in our religious life? Indeed there are, especially if its beginning has been sudden, dramatic and deeply moving. How can anything that follows possibly equal the thrill of that newfound faith? I’ve known some young people, for example, who became enthusiastic Christians back in the late 60s and early 70s. They were all aglow with a wonderful new radiance. They spoke of their faith; they sang about it; they were eager to attract others. Their gifts and their joy brought them into the public eye. People flocked to listen to their music; hundreds of teenagers hung raptly on their words. What a tremendously exciting thing it was then for them to believe!
But now for some of them the party seems to be over. The sparkle has faded; the crowds are gone. The hard realities of making a living, working at a marriage, struggling through difficult days, have taken the place of those enchanted beginnings.
Perhaps all of us are in some way to blame for things like this. We’ve made too much of our athletes. We’ve had young men thinking they were persons of stature just because they were physically tall or that they were especially important because they had been gifted with superb hand-eye coordination. In a similar way, we have sometimes put recent believers on a pedestal. We’ve listened to them as though they were oracles. We’ve praised them at the start of the race as though they had already crossed the finish line. We haven’t taught them about or equipped them for the long haul.
Jesus was careful to guard against a mistake like that. Remember when Simon Peter made his great affirmation of faith. Jesus had asked His followers, “What are the people saying about me? Who do they believe that I am?” And they had answered, “Some say that you are John the Baptist come to life again. Some say you are Elijah or one of the other prophets.” And then, when He had addressed the question to the disciples themselves, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had answered for all the rest, “You are the Christ.” In other words, “You are the long-awaited Messiah. You are God’s appointed king and Savior. You are the Lord.”
What a marvelous moment that was! Here was Simon Peter voicing a revolutionary conviction. He was saying, “Jesus, You are more than a prophet, more than a religious leader. You are the Son of the living God.” This faith, Jesus said, was a divine gift, a heaven-born confession. We admire this rugged fisherman Peter for making it. He dared to believe. You would think, wouldn’t you, that Jesus would have been immensely gratified by that. Here was someone who believed in Him, who saw who He really was and was willing to declare it. This surely was a time to celebrate. Jesus would commend Peter now and all his fellow disciples would congratulate him for the stand he had taken.
But none of that happened. As soon as he had heard what Peter said, Jesus cautioned all the disciples to tell no one about it. That was surprising in itself. But they were even less prepared for what followed. Listen: “He began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, `Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.’ And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, `If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
AFTER WE BELIEVE, WHAT?
Jesus rejoiced at the witness of His followers, but He wanted them to understand clearly what it meant for Him and for them. After we believe, what next? After we declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior, the Lord, what then? Jesus teaches first that we need to know the kind of Christ He is. What is a Messiah? An anointed One, yes. But for what? Who is a Savior and how does He save? If you say, “I believe in Jesus,” you need to know what He came for and the road He must walk. How else can your faith be real?
Sometimes we can say the right words sincerely but have little awareness of what they involve. Jesus announced Himself here as One destined to suffer, to be rejected and killed. But Peter, the very man who had made the great confession, was scandalized at that. He thought there must be some mistake. “Didn’t You hear what I said, Jesus? You’re the One we’ve been waiting for. How can You talk about such a gloomy future? That’s never going to happen to You.” And He began to rebuke the One whom He had professed to trust.
It’s difficult for any of us to hear about a suffering, rejected Christ. We would much rather fashion in our minds some heroic, conquering One, hailed by the crowds. Hasn’t He come to rescue us, to meet our needs, to make our world what it ought to be? Yes, but for Jesus that meant agony and hatred, a crown of thorns and a cross of shame. That was His destiny, God’s path for Him. It was the only way in which He could be our Savior. Sometimes in the first glow of faith we miss the depth and force of that. We don’t realize that our rebellion is such that it rejects and crucifies the Lord who came to us. We don’t see that our need is so acute, our peril so grave that only a suffering, dying Lord can possibly redeem us. We stumble, all of us at times, at the offense of the cross.
We’re ready to stand with Peter, ready to correct the Lord. “Surely there’s some other way,” we protest. Then His words to Peter pierce us too. “Get behind me, Satan! For you do not mind the things of God but those of men.” What about you? Has the truth of Jesus’ mission come home with power to your heart? Have you taken it seriously that even His matchless example and beautiful teaching can never save you, that He must bear your judgment and die your death if you are to have hope? Oh, recognize that today. The only Christ there is to believe in is God’s Christ, the real One who came to suffer and die.
All right, after you believe in Christ, in the crucified Christ, what then? What will it mean for your life? What does Jesus say about discipleship? He wanted everyone to know just what they were getting into if they decided to follow Him. And so after this exchange with His disciples, He called the crowds together and then said to all of them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” He’s saying, in effect, that if we want to follow Him, we need to walk the same road. That shouldn’t take us by surprise. He was often saying something like that. “The disciple is not above his master, neither is the servant above his lord… It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master” (see Matt. 10:24).
But this is precisely the note that many have missed in their early Christian experience. We haven’t been told about the way of discipleship, or if we have, we have somehow blocked out the stern reality of it. That may be why we’ve been surprised, discouraged or disappointed at times.
WHAT FOLLOWING MEANS
To follow Christ means, Jesus says, to deny ourselves. Just as the way of the cross meant for Him saying no to His own plans, His own wishes, and His own hopes, just as it meant resisting the temptation to play it safe and look out for Himself, so it must be for us. Following Christ means a radical change in the way we approach everything. It involves shifting the center of gravity from concern for ourselves to a single-hearted pursuit of God’s will. It means renouncing, disowning the sovereign claims of king self, relinquishing all right to run our lives as we please. According to Jesus, we cannot say a realistic yes to God’s way without saying a repeated no to our own.
If that seems strong, even ominous, what comes next is far more so. “Let him take up his cross.” That phrase could have meant only one thing to Jesus’ contemporaries. In first century Palestine, if you saw a man with a cross on his back, you knew he was headed for execution. He had just shouldered the stake on which he was soon to be nailed. Jesus’ obedience to the Father was to carry Him all the way to crucifixion. Those who were serious about following Him might well meet the same fate. They were to deny themselves and come after Him even if it meant facing death.
Were you told that when you became a Christian? I certainly wasn’t. When I believed in Jesus, I learned that He had died for my sins and that I could be forgiven through trusting in Him. But no one told me that following Him meant renouncing all rights to myself and obeying Him even at the risk of my life. Had I known that at the start, would I have been as responsive as I was? I’m not sure about that. But I know that, had I known it, I would have seen the Christian life much more realistically and would have been able to make a far more responsible kind of decision.
Did Jesus want people to follow Him? Of course He did. But He loved them too much to hide the cost and struggle of it. When we tell others today that their faith in Christ will lead them to success, prosperity and fame, we distort, we almost contradict His plain teaching. We seem at times to say, “If you follow Christ, you can indulge yourself and be secure from all inconvenience.” No wonder people are dismayed and indignant when the going gets rough!
Well, why would anyone want to follow Christ if it may be a hard, painful road? Good question. That’s the issue we need to wrestle with. Jesus offered precious little in the way of earthly inducements. There was nothing that even remotely resembled with Him a sales pitch. The only conceivable reason for those disciples following Him would have been their personal attachment to Jesus. Why follow Him? Why deny yourself? Why risk everything? Jesus said, “For my sake and the gospel’s.” “Do it for Me,” in other words, “do it because you trust Me and My love for you. Do it so that the whole world can know Me and My saving love.” Now if you decide to come after Him for those reasons, nothing will ever disappoint you. The Christian life won’t be one big bang followed by a long fizzle. It will be rather a growing, deepening, transforming adventure because you live it in fellowship with Christ Himself and for Him.
And what about the end of the road? What about the final issues of the choice we make? Jesus wants us to be clear about those: Whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Suppose you decide this path of discipleship is too hard, too unnatural? You don’t want to deny yourself. You don’t want to give up all your rights to someone else. You’re not going to risk yourself for anyone. You’ll play it close to the vest. You’ll pamper that life of yours and keep it for your very own.
Jesus says no. Not that way. You’ll end up losing your true life. The more tightly you grasp it, the more like drops of water or grains of sand – it will slip through your fingers.
But suppose you decide to follow Christ, to follow Him because He’s Lord and because He died for you? Suppose you’re making daily the choice to say no to yourself and yes to Him? You may experience ridicule, even rejection. Obeying Him will cost you something and probably get you into trouble. You may seem at times as a disciple to be losing everything. But Jesus says that the self you give away will become for the first time truly yours. And out of what looks like death, you’ll discover what it really is to live. That’s what the Lord has in mind for His disciples. What about you? Can He count you in?