Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”
Perhaps Twain was referring to passages like this one today, “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.” In a Lenten season when we desire to be filled up by God and nourished by Christ as we recover from a year of crisis and a season of natural disaster, these are not the easy words for which we long. We want to join Peter in his rebuke, and say, “No, Lord, No! Please, no more death—not for you, not for us, not for anyone.”
But Jesus’ response is to call us to “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him”—reminding us that following him does in fact, include suffering and death. But there is some grace and good news in this passage that we can mine when we dig deeply enough. Let us start with the command to “deny yourself” as we follow Jesus. How can this be? Do we really want to know what this implies? We often take a superficial interpretation of this phrase, especially during Lent—that if I give up something I enjoy like wine or chocolate for 40 days, and then go back to it on Easter, I have done something for God. Well, if you have given the money you would have otherwise spent to the hungry, used that time in prayer, and felt your faith deepened, then I would say, “yes, you have done something for your relationship with God.” But is that the self-denial Jesus is talking about here? If we chuck this new practice out the window when six weeks are up, and we go back to how we lived before, has anything really changed?
I once heard a preacher say, “don’t give up anything for Lent you are not willing to give up for good.” In other words, Jesus is not interested in superficial sacrifices. If there is a substance or a habit that is getting in the way of your devotion to God or in the way your health—and therefore your stewardship and service to God, do not give it up until you are ready to give God your all. That is what it really means to “deny yourself.” This phrase really means to dis-own yourself. To accept that you are not own. You belong to God. All of you—body, mind and spirit, are God’s possession, God’s property, God’s vessel, the reflection of God’s divine image and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit. Let that sink in for moment. Take a deep breath. When we get past the anxiety that we might have to do without our favorite things, and settle into the truth of being shaped by God, belonging to God, a mirror for God, an instrument used by God—we relax a bit, we begin to feel love and peace, our bucket fills up, our anxiety goes down, and our breathing slows.
When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, he invites us to attach more and more to this identity and ownership by God, while simultaneously letting go of our attachments to our own agenda, and our earthly identity. Let God’s identity, love and claim on who you are be the strongest, most powerful identity you stand on—that is to be nourished like a watered garden in Lent. The Ash Wednesday reading in our Lenten devotion book talks about shedding down to a state of “wild indifference,” to our own agendas, outcomes, and interests, so in being stripped down, we are infused with God’s love and ready to receive Christ and follow where he leads.
Next Jesus asks us to “take up your cross.” Every time we hear this passage, I am compelled to correct past misinterpretations. Suffering abuse, violence, or trauma at the hands of someone else, is not your cross to bear; it is part of sin, and our job is to help remove people from harmful situations and get everyone help. Many of us suffer from chronic illness, ongoing pain, mental health challenges, or family difficulties, and we may do so with grace, and courage. This is admirable, but it is also not our cross to bear. All of us have suffered from the pandemic, the recent terrible storm, and many challenges others do not even know about. We have soldiered on nobly, but again this is not our cross to bear. Our cross is not our mother-in-law, the loss of a job, financial difficulties or any other trouble life throws at us, however greatly we rise to the challenge.
To pick up your cross is to make a choice—it is suffering that we choose in order to serve someone else. To pick up your cross is to intentionally take up a life lived for others. This is why Jesus lists, “deny yourself” first—because only when we so deeply root ourselves in God’s identity and let go of our agenda, outcomes, and interests, can we choose to intentionally suffer to bring about life for someone else. For this is the essence of Jesus’s mission—to bring about life for us and others. Jesus mission is about life, after all, not death.
• Jesus’ healed people that they might have life.
• Jesus’ fed 5,000 that they might have abundant life
• Jesus’ forgave people that they might have eternal life.
To take up your cross is to be on the mission of life! To take up your cross is to make a choice as Jesus did, at every turn, in every town, in every conversation, to extend himself, to offer himself, to suffer himself to give someone else life.
Finally, Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus calls us as ones who are rooted in God, and committed to sharing life, to follow him in his mission of making sure everyone experiences the good news of God’s love. Jesus makes clear a special focus of his mission is to reconcile those who are not already a part of the religious fold—the lost, the broken, the outcast, the marginalized, the sinners, the rejected. These are the ones who need life and life abundant brought to them. These are the ones Jesus spends times with and heals—those who are blind, or cannot walk, those who are mentally ill, or have dying children, the foreigners and tax collectors, the poor widows, and the prostitutes—all those who are rejected by the powerful religious, the well-educated, and the wealthy. The village masses flock to Jesus for healing –it is to these people that Jesus asks to follow him. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”—base your identity so deeply in God that you can disconnect from your own interests, choose to live intentionally to bring life to someone else, and follow me to those who society rejects the most.
Jesus does not make a small ask, but his ask is rooted in life. We see that life as he predicts what will happen to him: "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed!" But that is not the end of his prediction. He concludes his prediction with these six words: "and after three days rise again.” This is no passion prediction! It is a resurrection prediction. Jesus’ mission is about life! Even after death, it is about life. He tells them that even when they kill him, he will rise again, and his mission will still be about life! So, “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus!” It is about life here and now for those who needs us most. It is about life abundant even after death.
The powers that be can never win, because the mission of Jesus is always about life. That is a mission we embrace at St. Luke’s. That is the mission of our Community Breakfast—here are some pictures that Rick Rodriguez took when he and Steve delivered free, hot burritos to some homeless camps last Saturday. They provide a great example of what it looks like to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus so that we and others might have life, and have it more abundantly and eternally in Jesus’ name.
- Have you thought of yourself as being "owned" by God before? What impact does this way of thinking have on you?
- When your identity is rooted in God, how does this shift how you think about priorities? What is the most difficult outcome for you to let go of?
- What are the behaviors, substances or other things that get in the way of your relationship with God or prevent you from fully trusting God?
Take Up Your Cross
- What suffering in the world breaks your heart? This is often an area where God calls us to take up our cross and make a choice to serve.
- Who do you know who has been example of taking up their cross, making a choice to sacrifice to bring life to others?
- Sometimes we focus so much on Jesus's death, we forget how much his mission was to reconcile, save and bring life to the broken and the lost. He was killed in part because he would not let those in power deter or derail him from the mission of bringing life and salvation to all. As the church, what does it mean to be on the mission of bringing life? to our community? to issues of race? homelessness? hunger?
- What happens when we bring this question to all our ministry and life challenges: “what does it look like to bring or foster life in this situation?”