At our service of Parish Communion this morning, Revd Alex Pease gave the following sermon:
Verse 31, Jesus 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’
“Whoever wants to be my disciple…”
Does every ‘Christian’…want to be Christ’s disciple?
As you know, I prefer to refer to ‘followers of Christ’, rather than using the word ‘Christian”, because ‘Christian’ means so many different things to different people….
For some, it means being a citizen of a constitutionally Christian country; for some, it means having been baptised and confirmed as a child and perhaps being brought up in a Christian home; for others, it means those things, but also attending church……..sometimes; but for still others, it means someone who seeks to direct the course of their lives according to the teachings of Christ, and, like the disciples of the rabbis in Christ’s day, learning from him, by being with him, and seeking to be like him.
So its the latter sense of the word ‘Christian’ that I am talking about here….
But what does it mean to ‘follow Christ’? To be a ‘follower of Christ?’ ‘To be a Christian?’
This is not about how we are saved, which is only through repentance and God’s grace, not at all through doing anything which we might think is earning our way to heaven, but how we live out what it means to be a Christian, which we will want to do if we are one…
What does it mean to be a Christian?
Well, Jesus explains in verse 34…‘Whoever wants to be my disciple….must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Firstly, Jesus says ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple….must deny themselves.
Theologian Dallas Willard says in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, ’Contemporary Westerners are nurtured on the faith that everyone has a right to whatever they want,to pursue happiness in all ways possible, to feel good, and to lead a productive and successful life, understood largely in terms of self contentment and material well being’.
Any sort of self denial seems incomprehensible to the contemporary western psyche. It is associated in our minds with monasticism….with self-mortification and the sort of practices of people like St Simon Stylites who in the fourth century AD chained himself to a pole sixty foot high In the desert for thirty years…..
And yet Jesus, in teaching us to deny ourselves, was himself a master of life in the Spirit, but He was not an ascetic for asceticisms sake….as some of the third century hermits were…who were in their self-denial and discipline like someone today who is obsessed with going to the gym or dieting for its own sake…. muscles for muscles sake or for the sake of the admiration of others, self obsession, rather than for the health benefits that exercise and keeping weight under control brings….
What did Jesus mean when he talked about denying yourself?…..
Well what did he do?
Jesus was quietly disciplined in the practice of solitude, fasting and prayer. Even though there were things that he might have preferred to have done like being in company, eating or sleeping….He was after all known for doing all those things, as well!
Theologian Ian Paul points out that the word in the original Greek to ‘deny yourself’ Aparneomai means ‘to refuse to pay attention to what one’s own desires are saying or to refuse to think about what one just wants for oneself’. It means putting yourself ‘at the end of the line’ or even ‘to say to your heart keep quiet!’
We need to learn from Jesus to give priority over our desires, over what we perceive to be our needs, to follow him in spiritual disciplines such as those he practised himself.
Dallas Willard describes the spiritual disciplines as: ‘activities of mind and body done to bring our whole selves into co-operation with the divine order so that we can experience more and more
a vision and power beyond ourselves’
Examples of these disciplines are; solitude, fasting and prayer.
If we are to be followers of Christ, we need to find time in our lives, in our day or in our week to do this:nto giving time to read the Bible and pray early in the morning, before the world gets up, or after it has gone to sleep, choosing sometimes to have the solitude of a walk by ourselves in the countryside, to engage with Him; to put fasting into the regular pattern of our lives (unless of course this goes against our doctors advice); so that whenever we feel hungry (If for example we are on a 24 hour fast….) we pray into the concerns of the day. We feast on his word we use our weakness to appeal for his strength which is so much greater than our strength at its most potent…And in doing so we find an intensity of prayer that we may never have previously known.
We must learn to deny ourselves, if we are to follow him, if we are to be Christians……
Secondly, Jesus says ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must….take up their cross’ What does that mean?
English idiom takes on its own meaning as the generations passion, what does it mean to take up your cross?
Is it meant humorously as in….
‘My father bequeathed to me a case of claret every month for the rest of my life….Its a cross I have to bear
Or ironically as in, ‘my son in law is an Aston Villa supporter…..It’s a cross he has to bear….
Or as a drawback to something good, as in, ‘Success has brought astonishing levels of media attention for the young football player,….its a cross he has to bear’
Or does it mean perhaps the really tough challenges and suffering of everyday life, as in:‘When Nancy’s husband died he left her with four young children to bring up by herself….Its a cross she has to bear’
Or does it have something very specifically to do with being a follower of Christ, as in a UN report in 2018 which said “forms of persecution in the Middle East and north Africa against Christians ranging from routine discrimination in education, employment and social life, up to genocidal attacks’ are common place….Its a cross they have to bear…
In this call to carry their cross Jesus is asking his followers to make a choice. A choice to pick up their cross and to carry it. A choice to follow through what it means to be identified as a Christian, even though this will probably mean rejection…even though this might mean death.
Jesus could easily have avoided crucifixion. There were opportunities before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate to step away from acknowledging himself as God’s son from claiming to be the Messiah….He could have avoided it. He chose not to do so.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German pastor who was executed by Hitler) puts it in his book
‘The Cost of Discipleship’, the cross of Christ is not just suffering which will come to us anyway in life and which will elicit sympathy from many, but suffering and rejection…..
It’s not rejection for any cause of conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ.
And of all those examples of ‘carrying the cross’ that I have given, including the challenges faced by Nancy of very sadly having to bring up four children alone (a task in which I am sure the Lord would have been supporting her, as he does in all the tough things which happen in our lives if we ask him), no, only the last of my examples of what might be meant by ‘carrying our cross’ is the one which Jesus is speaking about: specifically suffering for being a Christian.
And it brings to mind those 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian young men six years ago who, dressed in orange jump suits, kneeling in the sand on a beach in Libya,who refused to deny Christ, even though they knew that they would immediately be beheaded by the black-clad ISIS murderers standing behind them.
Commenting upon the anniversary of this tragic event, the Coptic Archbishop Angaelos, said “we have never fallen into a state of victimhood, we realise that it is the cross of Christ. …It’s not the end of the road because there is a resurrection that comes after the cross and the empty tomb. And so it is in that hope that we continue to live. And it’s in that hope that we continue to carry that cross, knowing that it will be removed from us.”
Unless we do, from time to time, feel the cold wind of rejection, then it is possible that we are not really following Christ at all.
As Bonhoeffer writes: ‘Suffering…is the true badge of discipleship’ but he continues:‘There is no need for [the Christian] to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him deliberately to run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God’….
When I first was willing to acknowledge to others that I had become a Christian, I faced quite a lot of that rejection both from friends and family, from friends who thought I had gone mad and wanted to avoid me; from family who were patronising and mocking, relations who thought being a Christian was ‘non U….’ (to use an old fashioned expression). It was sad to see and experience that rejection. But, strangely, I did not want to recant or retract what I had become….
Sometimes the rejection is because, as Christians we go about it in the wrong way. If our rejection comes from being rude or obnoxious, or shoving the gospel down people’s throats, that is not suffering for Christ, thats not carrying your cross…
Even when Bonhoeffer was thrown in prison, he was so kind to the cruel Nazi guards
that he won them over and they were soon asking him to pray for them.
But all of us will face times when we are being called to make a stand for Christ in our lives whether at work or at home. A stand which may be unpopular. A stand which may be, like Bonhoeffer, politically incorrect for the times in which we live….
The question is will we make it? Will we pick up the Cross and carry it, whatever the consequences? And may lose us friends, may lose us even a job, because we are Christians and potentially may make us the subject of hate mail, and even (as with Bonhoeffer) criminal penalties, even death….But its a stand that we must make, if we are seeking to be followers of Christ.
But in doing so, we must not abandon our duty, to love God and to love our neighbour, which could easily include, as it did with Bonhoeffer, the guards who were chastising him.
It may be one thing to make this stand with friends and relations, but what about at work?
Dan Walker is a presenter on BBC 1’s breakfast show. He is now quite well known as a Christian. His determination not to work on Sundays has not hampered his career. But his faith has been ridiculed, according to this month’s Christianity magazine. Simply expressing the belief that God created the world was all (according to the magazine) one national newspaper needed to jump to the conclusion that Walker was not fit to be a TV presenter.
And you may recall the story of my boss’s Christian secretary Rita, who, when my boss was dealing with some kind of crisis, took a call from another client was told by my boss, ‘Tell him that I am out’.
’He says to say that he is out’ said Rita to the client……And when my boss remonstrated, she simply said ‘I’m sorry, but I won’t lie for you, Jonathan’. As a, then non-Christian, assistant solicitor, I thought she was being ridiculous, but now I see this as one of the best examples of carrying your cross in the workplace that I know.
Jesus says ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. As we do this, we will learn from him, we become more and more like him, the Lord will be able to achieve amazing things through our lives and the world will be transformed
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 8:31–9:1). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.