Mark 8: 34 – 38, 9:1 The way of the cross
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’
9 And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
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This is an astonishing challenge. I need to analyse its different elements if I am to even begin to appreciate what it is calling me to do.
“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples”
This teaching wasn’t given in private to the disciples. Jesus made sure he had the attention of the whole crowd before he spoke. That suggests to me that the teaching is not meant only for those closest to Jesus; it is meant for every single human who wishes to follow him.
“ ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves…’ ”
The first essential of following Jesus is that we must deny ourselves. Our entire lives need to be focussed on doing the will of God, just as Jesus’ life was.
“ ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must … take up their cross and follow me.’ ”
This passage is often interpreted figuratively, and that’s fair enough. Not everybody is called to martyrdom, after all. Even in the early church, martyrdom was the exception rather than the rule. However, if we are to appreciate this teaching of Jesus, we need to have some idea of what he meant when he spoke of taking up the cross and following him. Remember, Jesus was talking to people who were familiar with crucifixion, and who knew what it involved. They would have been under no illusions about its horror.
Crucifixion was a Roman form of capital punishment, reserved for slaves and foreigners; Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion because it was deemed too dreadful. It involved complete humiliation and extreme pain prolonged for many hours.
And Jesus says “ ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must … take up their cross and follow me.’ ”
That’s the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, and there’s no getting round it.
He spells it out even more explicitly. “ ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’ ”
Why does he say this?
Well, it’s not because God makes this a condition of salvation. Salvation is a free gift from God; it is unconditional.
This teaching is a dramatic way of pointing out how being a disciple should affect our lives. We must put God’s will first. His will challenges human power structures because they are unjust, and rely on the oppression of the poor. As we learn to hear and do his will, it is inevitable that we will speak and act in a way that exposes the falsity of the world’s values, because all our actions will be based on love. There is no room in love for oppression or exploitation of others.
When our lives are seen to be governed by love, some people will find this attractive. However, there are others who will think we are eccentric, or worse, a threat to their interests. They may attack us, harm us, even, under some circumstances, kill us.
Jesus is warning us about this in advance; when we live life God’s way we will find ourselves in conflict with humanity’s greed, ruthlessness, lust and hypocrisy. While for most of us that will mean no more than ridicule, for some it will cost them their job, some will be imprisoned, some will even be killed.
But those of us who suffer little from opposition, nevertheless pay a cost. Following God’s will means subordinating our own will, and that can hurt. Indeed, we must be ready to accept only the opportunities that God sends us, which can – in worldly terms – be costly indeed. And remember the yardstick Jesus uses in his teaching; the yardstick of the cross. That is what it can cost us.
But there is another way this teaching can be framed. God’s will for each of us is that we should become the very best people that we can be. The challenges we face in obeying his word are training towards that objective. When Jesus says, ‘…whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it,’ he is making a promise. By losing our life, by willingly surrendering everything that obstructs God’s will for us, we gain our souls; we gain our true selves; we become the very best that we can be.
Thank you for Jesus, for his love for us, and for the teaching he gives us. Please help me to be ready to give up everything in order to do your will.
In Jesus’ name, Amen