“Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” Mark 8:34
To be a follower of Jesus meant to be sent, to save one’s life, and to serve him, it meant facing challenges and fears and dangers we would find it hard even to imagine.
Jesus warns his followers what lies ahead for him. In Saint Mark Chapter 8 Verse 31, he gives a warning that he will repeat in Chapter Nine Verse 31 and in Chapter 10 Verse 32, but his disciples do not wish to hear his words. Saint Mark tells us, “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”. The disciples are not happy to hear such a prophecy of what will happen and Peter probably spoke for all of them when he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But Jesus will have nothing to do with dodging the reality of what lay ahead, Chapter 8 Verse 33 says, ” 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.'”
Being sent by Jesus was not going to be easy. In Saint Matthew Chapter 10 Verse 16, Jesus gives his disciples a warning, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”. Here in Saint Mark Chapter 8, Jesus says that the warning that being one of his followers would bring danger, persecution and violence is extended to anyone who might wish to hear his call. In Verse 34 we read, “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.'”
Hearing Jesus’ voice and accepting his call to be one of his people sent out into the world was something to be done in full knowledge of what it might mean; no-one who followed Jesus did so without being aware of what it might mean. Some found his teachings too hard, if we read Saint John Chapter 6 Verses 66-67, we hear that the challenge Jesus set down was just too much for some of the followers, Saint John writes, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?'” No-one could claim that that they were sent out without being aware of what it might mean.
What does it mean to us, in our own 21st Century lives, to be sent out by Jesus? Where might we be expected to go? What might we be expected to do?
Accepting Jesus’ call to follow him, accepting everything that might happen to those who were sent out, meant not losing a life, but gaining one. In Verse 35 Jesus says, “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”. It sounds strange, to give up a life in order to save a life.
The disciples would not have found it easy, turning their backs on their homes and families, leaving behind their daily work, giving up security, losing their old lives in order to find new ones. The religious people would have seen them as turning their backs on what was right and respectable, turning their backs on their membership of their local communities, in order to live wandering lives. They gave up their lives in order to find lives, in losing their everyday lives they found one who promised eternal life. Jesus warns that people who prefer holding on to the things of this world end up losing everything.
Are we in danger of being people so intent on holding on to the material things of this world that we lose the prospect of eternal life? Do we struggle so hard to have things here and now that, when we end this life, we have nothing at all?
Jesus sends out his followers, he calls them to save their lives by losing them, and he calls them to serve him. Serving him means seeking his way, he asks his disciples in Verses 36-37, “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?” Serving Jesus would be troubling to those who valued their material possessions, those who were thought themselves important in local society, those who did not like the idea of being out on the edge of things. Jesus knows that there are people with reservations and he speaks in blunt terms, “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.” If they are not prepared to acknowledge him now, then he will not be prepared to acknowledge them on the last day.
Saint Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth and he spells out very clearly what it may mean to serve Jesus, in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 4 Verses 11-13, he say, “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment”. No illusions there that serving Jesus would be something easy.
What about ourselves? How far are we prepared to go in our serving? Few of us are ever going to be like Paul and be able to say, “we have become as the scum of the earth” because of our commitment to serve.
To be sent, to save our lives, to serve him: Jesus does not offer easy options. He leaves us with no possibility of mistaking what he means. he says we should deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.