“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.’” — Mark 8:34
Have you noticed the popularity of “extreme sports”? It’s not enough to go biking: Dare-devils ride up and down the side of steep mountains with no trails. It’s not enough to parachute from a high mountaintop: “Birdmen” in suits with wings soar along cliff faces for hundreds of yards before deploying their parachutes.
The Discovery Channel once devoted an entire program to one man’s quest to ride his bicycle off of the world’s tallest waterfall and then parachute to the bottom. He never felt more alive than when doing something that scared him to death, he said.
We might be inclined to think such folks are crazy. But they tend to keep their bodies in good shape, their edgy activity keeps their daily stress levels low, and they have more of those good-feeling and health-producing endorphins flowing in one weekend than most of us will see in a year.
If we criticize such risk-takers from the depths of our recliners while binge-watching TV and loading up on junk food, we have to ask who’s really taking the biggest risk.
What does this have to do with following Jesus? Could there be too many believers reposing with an armchair attitude while Jesus calls us to risky discipleship that goes well beyond the comfortable inspiration of Sunday morning worship? Jesus has always looked for “extreme disciples.”
Risky faith(vv. 31-34)
The first part of Jesus’ ministry – the part described in Mark 1:1-8:30 – was quite exciting, but also fairly safe. He spent most of that time wandering the hills and valleys of Galilee, visiting villages and healing people and teaching his disciples a new way of living. With the story related in today’s text, though, Jesus turns away from safety and toward extremity: He points his feet toward Jerusalem and turns his mind toward suffering and sacrifice that his disciples cannot begin to comprehend.
That theme makes today’s scripture passage a most appropriate text for the early days of the Lenten season, as we, like Jesus, turn our hearts toward Holy Week.
Imagine the disciples’ response when Jesus “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” (v. 31).
Can you hear them? “Suffering and dying? What? That isn’t what a messiah does! Don’t you think you’re being a little extreme?”
Peter almost certainly spoke for the other disciples when he took Jesus to task for such a crazy plan. So, Jesus may have been looking at all the disciples when he returned the rebuke, saying: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).
Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to “Get out of here” or “Get lost,” but to “Get back where you belong – behind me, following me.” Jesus dared to use the name “Satan” for the simple reason that Peter was tempting him to choose human desires over God’s way, even as Satan reportedly had done (Mark 1:12-13).
There is something significant about that: Jesus is saying, in effect, that human thought without divine influence will always run the danger of becoming evil. We live in the world, but must remember that we are citizens of God’s kingdom.
Peter’s problem, in part, is that he knew enough to put two and two together. He knew that if the master must suffer and die, then the disciples must follow him. Jesus confirmed that conclusion when he turned to all who were present – disciples and “the crowd” who followed them – and said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (v. 34).
Yikes … Preachers of the prosperity gospel claim that following Jesus will solve our problems and make us successful, but that’s not the gospel Jesus taught. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the Messiah’s way would not be the way of power as the world knows it, but the way of service; it would not be the way of self-gratification, but of self-denial.
That is not the way most of us would choose. We prefer to play it safe, to show up at church every now and then, and to avoid any risky business.
Risky living(vv. 35-36)
Jesus knew our penchant for wanting to take the safe way. That’s why he addressed that idea head on, and with no comfort in his words: “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” (v. 35).
Jesus calls us to deny our selfishness and to follow in the way of the cross, even if it leads to death. That’s extreme. That’s also the way it is. Bearing the cross for Jesus is not just dealing with the everyday difficulties that come to everyone. Bearing the cross is about accepting challenges and risks and dangers that come precisely because we choose to take Jesus seriously.
If we think about it, we come to realize that the question isn’t about dying so much as it is about living with the right attitude about dying. Taking up the cross means not only to be willing to die, but also willing to live as Jesus called us to live. Loving others as Jesus loved us may call for sacrifice, but that’s what it means to live in the light of the cross. Losing one’s life in this context is surrendering control of our life to Christ.
How we live makes a difference, both to us and to others. Taking the easy way may keep us alive without really experiencing the life Jesus wants us to know.
The Greek word for “life” in this text (psuchē) is the root of our word “psychology.” Jesus was talking not only about our physical life, but also about our inner being – about our true self. In this text from Mark, to lose one’s life is not so much about physical death, for sooner or later everyone dies. Rather, it is to miss out on the true life that God wants for us – a life that can only be known through the risky relationship of following Jesus in the way of the cross.
Risky dying(vv. 36-38)
We can work all our lives to gain happiness and security – that is, to “save our lives” – then get to the end of the road and realize we have missed out on what God intends our earthly life to be. Not only that, but the end of the road will be the end of the road.
When we reach that point, we would give every dime in every mutual fund we have for one more chance, but it will be too late. Jesus concluded this frank lesson on discipleship with these words:
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.” (vv. 36-38).
Those words sound hard. They also sound true. If we are too ashamed to follow Jesus now, how can we expect anything other than for him to be ashamed to claim us later? The text demands that we ask whether we are more inclined to deny self or to deny Christ.
This is not an easy question to answer. We may find it hard even to distinguish between wants and needs, much less to consider giving up either one. Whether it’s a bigger TV or a place at the beach or more days of vacation or a nicer house or a newer car, we have a way of turning our “wants” into “needs.”
There’s an old story about a family who moved into a new house that had been built next door to the humble home of a Quaker family. The simplicity-minded Quakers watched in amazement as two large truckloads of furnishings, appliances, toys, and tools were unloaded and packed into the house and a workshop behind it. After all had been unloaded, the Quaker patriarch walked over to greet the new family. “We welcome thee neighbors,” he said. “And if thee ever need anything, come over to see me, and I will teach thee how to get along without it.” I suspect that many of us could use a teacher like that.
The more we try to “save our life” by following this world’s idea of what life is about, the more we will lose track of what real life is all about. But the more we learn to surrender self-will to God’s will, the more we learn to say “no” to self and “yes” to Jesus, the more we learn to give ourselves in loving service to others, the more we will come to appreciate the true glory and meaning of the abundant and eternal life that God has in store for us.
Truly following Jesus is risky business, but no risk we take for God will separate us from the love of God or the hope of God’s eternity. The biggest risk we can take is that of playing it safe. It was Jesus who said that those who try to save their lives will lose them, while those who surrender themselves to Christ will find their lives not only restored, but also amplified with abundance.
It’s not easy to choose the risky way of the cross, but that is the way of Jesus. The question before us, then, is not whether we can do it, but whether we will. BT
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