“Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” Matthew 16:24
Reading the verse from the King James Version of the Bible rather than from the New Revised Standard Version that we use in our churches, Jesus’ words become much more direct and personal. Rather than “If any want to become my followers”, Jesus says, “If any man will come after me”; rather than “let them deny themselves”, Jesus says, “let him deny himself”; and rather than “take up their cross and follow me”, Jesus says, “take up his cross, and follow me”. In trying to make the language inclusive, in trying to avoid male pronouns, in trying to avoid talking about a “man” and “himself” and “his”, we lose the directness of Jesus’ challenge.
“If any man will come after me”, says Jesus. The response is to be personal. It is not about a community deciding to follow Jesus, it is not about a church deciding to follow Jesus, it is about a person deciding for themselves that they want to be a follower of Jesus. Being followers of Jesus is something that we do together, but it is a choice we have to make for ourselves: no-one else can decide for us, no-one else can believe for us.
How often have we ever thought that what we believe and the way that we live is our own choice? It is easy just to go with the flow, to accept the thinking and the ways of the people around us, to do as they do, to think as they think. It is not a new attitude, in Jesus’ time there were many who went along with what others thought and did, who went through the motions of believing and who observed the rules because everyone else did. Jesus criticises those who say words and who behave according to the rules, but do not have faith in their hearts. Jesus wants people who have decided for themselves, people who have thought about their faith and their life and who have taken a decision to follow him. “If anyone wants to become my follower”, says Jesus, and it is an invitation to each of us as individuals.
“Let him deny himself”, says Jesus. Self-denial is not a popular idea. Some churches teach the opposite of self-denial, teaching people that if they have faith they will be rich, teaching people that being faithful will bring material blessings and that they should not be afraid of telling God what it is they want. Jesus teaches that his way is different, it is the way of being unworried about material things, (we should regularly read Saint Matthew Chapter 6 to have a proper perspective on priorities in life), it is the way of simplicity because a simple life gives us a clearer view of the things that really matter.
There is a temptation to feel that Jesus’ words were fine for his time, they were fine for his followers two thousand years ago, but self-denial now is so much more difficult. We might feel that Jesus’ words do not take account of the complexity of our lives, they are not appropriate for us when we have so many worries with which to deal. Jesus seems to anticipate our objections, he seems to know that we would say, “Yes, Lord, but I have so much going on, I have so much to do”. Two verses later, in verse 26, quoting the King James Version again, Jesus says to his disciples, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Denying ourselves, we keep the thing that is most precious to us.
“And take up his cross, and follow me,” says Jesus. In our times, we have lost sight of the meaning of what Jesus was saying. People will talk sometimes about everyone having their own crosses to bear, everyone having their own hardships and struggles and pains, but often these things are about people’s own lives, they are not about following Jesus. The people listening to Jesus would have been troubled by what he said – a cross was something scandalous, it was used to execute the those who were the least respectable, it was not a pleasant thing about which to think.
Jesus is saying to his listeners that being one of his followers will mean taking on things that are unpleasant and hard and painful, not for ourselves, but for him. Most of those who followed Jesus disappeared when the hard times came, just as we would disappear if we had been in their place. We often fail in our attempts to follow Jesus, but we keep trying, knowing, as he says in verse 25, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”
Believing ourselves, denying ourselves, taking up the cross ourselves and following him ourselves, responding to his words ourselves, so as to receive the reward he promises in verse 27, “the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works”.