The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day contains one of the hard sayings of Jesus. Before we consider it, we should perhaps first define the expression.
“Hard sayings,” which occur throughout the gospels, represent a teaching of Jesus that outrages, offends or alienates. We have good reason to wonder why they are there. After all, if the gospel is in fact good news, if it’s the power of salvation for all who believe, then why does Jesus often seem determined to drive people away by his teaching? Today we have in mind specifically this teaching: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.” If it is myself to which the gospel is addressed, then what sense does it make to deny this self, to burden it with a cross, to lose it, in order to save it?
It all seems so confusing. But if this hard saying outrages, offends and even alienates us, let’s not somehow feel we are less spiritual than we should be. Let’s not feel that the life of discipleship is an unattainable ideal, that the gospel Jesus teaches is intended only for the select few, the spiritual elite, among whom most of us probably would not consider ourselves to be numbered. If it were intended only for the select few, then we would have no reason to continue. Instead, we would tune out the preacher, concluding that he has nothing to say to us. In that case, like the rich young ruler, with our brows darkened, we would turn away sad. But let’s not leave just yet! Let’s instead spend the next few moments together to listen carefully to the words of this hard saying. For in the course of our meditation, we may very well discover that instead of a harsh demand, this teaching is actually a saving grace. Or rather, that only insofar as it is a harsh demand is it a saving grace.
Let’s first sketch the background. The occasion for this teaching is Peter’s reaction to the prediction that Jesus makes about what awaits him in Jerusalem. “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.” This did not sit well with Peter. It did not square with what he believed concerning Jesus. To him, that plan was totally unacceptable. In fact, Peter was so indignant about it that he took Jesus aside and began to try to set him straight. But at that moment Peter became a stumbling block to Jesus. He stood in opposition to the will of God. For this reason, he earned the epithet “Satan,” for if the sole purpose of Satan is to oppose and undo all that God intends and does, then there is no more fitting epithet for Peter than Satan. After correcting Peter, Jesus turned to the crowds and the rest of the disciples and began to teach them what it really means to be a disciple.
He says first that they must deny themselves. Let us ask here whether the self that Jesus is asking us to deny is a false self. This is the self that wants to be in control, a self that wants at all costs to maintain appearances. It’s a self that refuses help because it wants others to see it as strong and capable at handling things on its own.
“I’m not half the woman my mother ever was,” confessed former US first lady Betty Ford. “My mother was a wonderful woman, strong and kind and principled, and never let me down. She was a perfectionist, and tried to program her children for perfection.” Mrs. Ford never asked herself how “kind” it really is to try to “program” a child for “perfection.” If she had, perhaps she would not have fled her severe self-judgments into alcoholism and a lifetime of stress that culminated in breast cancer. The false self that Jesus is asking us to deny is a self that is killing us anyway, so how else can his demand to deny self be seen as otherwise than as a saving grace?
To this summons to deny oneself Jesus adds another. To deny oneself is joined the summons to take up one’s cross. What does it mean to take up our cross? It is worth noting that this is the first time in the gospel of Mark that the word “cross” appears. In first-century Rome the cross was an instrument of torture and execution reserved for the basest of criminals. The contrast between the power and reputation that the false self craves and the shame and degradation of a cross could not be starker. That is why the false self resists this call. It wants to live on its own terms, even though these terms set it on a course that leads to death. But Jesus wants to redirect that self. We can put this in even stronger language: he wants us to let go, to release our fierce grip on that self that we want so desperately to save. But that can only happen when we deny it. To do this involves acknowledging with honesty those aspects of ourselves that we want to hide or disown, those aspects we would deny even if people confronted us with them. We mentioned earlier that we want to give the impression to others that we have it altogether. But behind this tendency lies the false self. This is the very self that we are to deny, so that we may take up our cross.
What is our cross? It can be chronic pain or recurring illness. It can be anger, lust or lack of self-control. It can be a tendency to overeat, to drink excessively, or to abuse substances. It can be deep disappointment in a spouse, a son or a daughter. In general, it is a weakness that we do not want to own. We do not choose it; it is chosen for us. Whatever it is, it is repugnant to the false self. It is an affront to its sense of itself as strong and capable. We would rather be free of it than take it up as our cross.
Consider in this connection the example of the Apostle Paul. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he writes to the faithful in Corinth about what he calls his thorn in the flesh. Three times he pleaded with God to remove it from him. Whatever it was, it must have affected how he saw himself. But God did not remove it. Instead, he told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.” Then Paul learned to delight in his hardships and weaknesses, because when he was weak, then he was strong.
Paul’s experience perhaps helps us to answer the question: why do I have to take up this cross? Because if we were relieved of its burden, we would reclaim the false self we denied, and begin to live through it again. Then we would no longer see our need for God’s grace. The burden makes us aware of this need. We learn to depend on God rather than ourselves, and to live from God’s strength rather than our own. Then it becomes clear that there is no real alternative for us than to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
At this point, we may wonder how the crowds and the disciples received these words. Jesus anticipates their response when he warns them about the consequences that will face those who are ashamed of him and his words. But can we imagine otherwise? Jesus is inviting them to follow a rejected and suffering Messiah who is going to be crucified. To be sure, he does what only he can do. But to be associated with him means that this is going to be their lot too. It is not a popular message now, and it was not a popular message then. And yet we said that for us there is no other alternative than to embrace his message. But is there a real alternative for anyone else?
Jesus is aware that the self is restless in its search for fulfillment. The self is a bottomless well of need and desire. But Jesus declares that even if we gain the whole world in our restless search, we would not thereby save ourselves. The whole world is not enough compensation for the loss of our lives. But the one who denies himself for Jesus’ sake and the gospel, that one will save it.
In November 2018, the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey of how American find meaning in life. The most important source was family, as we probably could have guessed. Others included career, friends, money, hobbies, activities, and even religious faith. But a number of respondents gave answers that suggest that many Americans are leading lives of quiet despair. In his last book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, the late Jonathan Sacks included some of the responses:
One said: “It would be nice to live according to my being rather than my blackness. I will never know how a totally worthwhile life will feel because of this”
Another said: “Drugs and alcohol are the only shining rays of light in my otherwise unbearable existence.”
And a third said: “I no longer find much of anything meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying. Whatever used to keep me going has gone. I am currently struggling to find any motivation to keep going.”
To be sure, the demand that Jesus makes of his disciples does sound harsh. We cannot pretend it does not. It will alienate. But even if his invitation to follow him does not appeal to everyone, would not everyone have to acknowledge the truth of what he says about the self? Not everyone who finds meaning or fulfillment in life would claim they found it in following Jesus. But they almost always do so in terms of a cause or project that involves a total commitment and a dedication that takes them beyond themselves. They would understand the expression: you have to lose your life in that which transcends it in order to find it. A life in which the self is at the center will ultimately end in meaninglessness. As the American philosopher Susan Wolf argues, if you are devoted only to your own happiness, then you will fail to realize that other things than yourself have value. It is as if, for you, you are the only thing of value in existence. Meaning involves the acknowledgement of a world beyond the self. An individualistic, I-centered world will be one in which people will struggle to find meaning.
The demand that Jesus makes of his disciples to deny themselves means to shift focus away from themselves to him as the one who takes them beyond themselves. They keep their eyes fixed on him who goes before them and no more on themselves and on the road that seems hard to them. Self-denial says: “He leads the way, keep close to him” (Bonhoeffer).
Our Old Testament lesson tells us about the covenant that God made with Abraham, our father in the faith. Consider Abraham as our model as we respond in faith to Christ’s call to deny self, take up our cross, and follow him. Abraham went out from his father’s house, not knowing where he was going. But he entrusted himself to God, and to God’s knowledge about the way, not paying attention to his own. And he took the right road and arrived at his journey’s end.
Let us be sure that we hear Christ’s call to us anew in our Lenten journey. Let us entrust ourselves to him and to his knowledge of the way, not paying attention to our own. His road leads to Jerusalem, where indeed he will undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed. But the fact that it is the right road is demonstrated in his resurrection from the dead. Following him is always in view of Easter hope, where our journey too ends. Amen.