READ : Luke 9:23-24
And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.”
Luke 9:23-24 RSV
I want to think with you today about being a follower of Jesus Christ, about why you might want to be one, about what would be involved if you were, and about the difference it would finally make. The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 9, beginning at verse 23, gives us these words of Jesus:
And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
THE CHOICE TO FOLLOW
Let’s look first at the matter of wanting or willing to follow Jesus, for that’s how the Lord puts it. He says, not just to His disciples but to the crowd, in a sense to the whole world and to us today, “If anyone wants [wills] to follow me . . .”
That apparently is where it starts, with a desire, a purpose. The Christian faith has an intellectual dimension. For a person to become a follower of Jesus, he or she needs to know certain things about Him, to accept as true His word. But it is always more than that. It has an emotional component too. The gospel speaks to the emotions. It has a poignancy about it as a message of crucified love. But no one becomes a Christian on the basis of feeling or sentiment alone. It’s ultimately a choice. Believing as I believe and feeling as I feel, I make a decision.
It’s something akin to what happens in a marriage ceremony. A young man and a young woman get to know each other. They experience a growing mutual love. Then, by and by, they stand before God, their loved ones and their friends to make a commitment to each other. Now it’s not simply, “I think . . . I think the world of her,” or “I feel . . . I feel madly in love with him.” What makes all that into a marriage is, “I will.” “Will you take her, this lovely lady before you, to be your wedded wife? Will you take him, this man who has won your heart, to be your husband for all of life?” “I will. I will.”
Now why do you suppose a person in Jesus’ time would have wanted to follow Him? Surely part of it must have come through listening to what He said. “No one ever spoke like this man,” is what some whispered, awe-struck, when they heard Him. He spoke with authority and not as the scribes, with the poise of one who knew He had a right to command. He could speak words that searched and burned, that went straight to the heart, and yet there was a magnetism of loving acceptance in the invitations He gave. All this had the ring of truth about it. He spoke the word of the living God. Surely there were many who, once they had heard Him, could hardly stay away. They wanted to hear more.
Then there was what we call the “eye gate.” Those who were around Jesus for any length of time saw some remarkable things. People brought their paralyzed ones on little portable beds into His presence. The blind groped their way toward Him, even lepers got as close as they dared, appealing for His help, because this Jesus had an extraordinary power to heal. People long bed-ridden got up and walked away at His word. Men and women – blind from birth – were touched by Him and saw the world for the first time. He could free the most abandoned and demon-driven. There were some who saw Him stop a funeral procession once and say to a young man being carried out for burial, “I say to you, rise up!” And it happened! He gave that young man alive back to a mother overwhelmed with joy. Who could Jesus be – doing such things? Surely someone worth following!
In many cases, it was because of some personal experience people had with Jesus that they came to follow Him. This leper had been cleansed. This mother had seen her child made well. Or perhaps Jesus had spoken directly to someone in the crowd as He did to Peter, Andrew, James and John. “You there, come, follow Me.” And so, because of what He had done for them, or because of a call He had given them, they wanted to follow Him.
How might it happen today? The same way. You happened to be reading the Bible. You heard a preacher’s message somewhere. The word about Jesus or the words of Jesus got your attention. You began to wonder if He really was the Son of God. And the thought of following Him crossed your mind for the first time.
Or maybe you saw the difference that trusting in Him had made in someone else. You couldn’t get over the unaccountable change in a person whose life He had touched. It made you think. Or maybe you cried out in His direction when you were in deep need and something wonderful happened. Maybe you felt in the midst of your circumstances or in the word of the gospel that He was personally calling you, and you said, “I want to follow Him.”
However it may have come about, I hope something like that has happened for you. I hope you are saying in your heart of hearts, either for the first time or in a new way, “This is what I want. I want to follow Jesus Christ.”
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
Here’s what, according to Jesus, will be involved if you do that. He intends to put it all out there. He wants you to be aware from the very start of what discipleship will mean and what it will cost.
“Let him deny himself.” Or as another translation puts it, “Let him renounce self.” In every person’s life, there’s a ruler called, “King Self” or “Queen Self.” That sovereign “calls the shots,” as we say, in our lives, “runs the show.” Everything we do is an expression of self-will. Everything we say is in some way tinctured by self-interest. All our thoughts revolve around the security and satisfaction of the self. Someone has described our pre-Christian condition like this: “I lived for myself. I thought for myself. For myself and none beside. Just as if Jesus had never lived, as if He had never died.”
This word of Jesus then is shocking, revolutionary. Following Him means forsaking that old familiar master. Saying “yes” to Jesus means a resounding “no” to self. It’s marching to a different drum, ordering life around a new center, acknowledging a new Lord.
Those people in the crowd around Jesus that day must have had plans of their own: cherished ambitions, things they wanted to do, places they planned to go. Jesus is saying that all of that is now subject to change. The fact that you want this and I want that is not the decisive factor any more. We’re under orders now from someone else.
I suppose that military service gives us one of our best clues about what that’s like. When you’re informed by the selective service office that you have been drafted into the army, the way you think about your future undergoes what we call a “see change.” You had in mind finishing this course of study or taking this vacation, visiting these friends. All that is set aside now. To obey the summons to service is to deny a host of things that you had envisioned for your life. In a similar way, at a much deeper level, the gospel says to you and me, “You are not your own. You were bought with a price.” Now the prayer of your life is to be “not my will, but thine be done.” That’s a big change, isn’t it?
There’s more. “Let him take up his cross daily,” Jesus continues. What that meant was much more clear to the persons who first heard Jesus say it than it is to us today. They were familiar in those days with crucifixion, even more than we are with the gas chamber or the electric chair or lethal injections. They had seen the victims of this unimaginable cruelty. They had watched condemned ones stumbling toward some hill top under the weight of the beam on which they would later be nailed. They knew that anyone who carried a cross was a doomed man, on his way to die.
“What do You mean, Jesus, carry a cross?” They knew. He was saying something like this: “If you want to follow Me, you’re taking your life in your hands. It means a readiness to die. It means acting as though your life in this world is already finished, holding it with a light grasp.”
Jesus wasn’t saying that everyone who followed Him would die on a cross, but He was saying that they all had to be ready for that. They were to be so loyal to Him, so committed to His cause, that if following Him meant suffering, even death, they wouldn’t turn back. They were in it, as we say, “for the duration.” “I have decided to follow Jesus,” we sing, “no turning back, no turning back.”
IN HIS STEPS
Here’s the last thing involved. “Let him . . . follow me.” “I don’t get it,” someone says. “Jesus says, `If anyone will follow Me, let him do so and so and follow Me.’ That doesn’t seem to make sense.” Well, this second call to follow comes after the part about denying ourselves and taking up our cross. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you want to follow me, then follow me this way, because this is the way I’m walking.” That was the road He took, wasn’t it? He came into this world, He said, not to do His own will but the will of the One who had sent Him. He refused every whisper, every taunt that said, “Save yourself.” In the garden, faced with the unspeakable agony ahead, it was still, “Father, not my will, but thine be done.” Yes, even when He was about to carry a cross, a real one, a rough wooden one, on His back, up a hill. He would be spiked to it and would there die. That’s how far He was ready to go, to be obedient to God and to save us. “You want to be a Christian?” Jesus is asking, “Then go Christ’s way: the way of self-denial, readiness for anything.”
And this choice, He says, is something we make “daily.” Each morning a fresh no to any rights of mine to run my own life, each day taking life out of my own hands and putting it in His, each day setting my face to go with Jesus wherever He leads. That’s what it means to follow.
And what difference will it make? “Look at it like this,” Jesus says, “You’ve got your life in your hands. If you try to hold onto it for yourself, try to protect it, preserve it, pamper it, you’re going to end up losing it. Your real life, your true self, will slip away. But if you renounce it, if you let it go, somehow you’re going to keep it. Your life will come back to you in ways you would never have dreamed possible.”
But it’s not giving your life away for just anything that makes the difference. “It’s only if . . . you do it,” Jesus says, “for my sake,” that is, because you love Me in response to My love for you. Then you’re going to find your true identity and enjoy life with Me forever.”
“What good will it be to you?” Jesus asks, “if you should gain the whole world, if you become president of all the continents, if the wealth of the whole planet is in your name, if you have it all, what good will that be if in the process you lose yourself?”
“And if you’re ashamed of Me,” Jesus says, “if you’re unwilling to be identified with Me, if you deny Me, then who will there be at the last to speak a good word for you?”
What about you? Would you like to be a true follower of this Jesus? Do you believe today that He really is the Son of the blessed One, the Son of God, that He truly died for your sins long ago and rose again? Do you believe that He’s alive now as Lord over all? And will you make the decision to be His forever? Will you say, “I want to follow Jesus”? God bless you!
We know now what it means. I say to myself and to you, “Let’s go for it.” And remember, do it all for His sake, because He loved you and gave Himself up for you.
Prayer: Father, may everyone who shares this message be so constrained by the love of Christ, so realize that He died for us and rose again that we may want with all our hearts to follow, that we may choose today to deny ourselves and take up our cross and go. Amen.