Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”Matthew 16:24
In last week’s sermon, I looked at the crucial question that Jesus asked his first disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” As I suggested last week, this is a question that I believe all followers of Jesus are called to answer. Today, I want to look at another crucial question of the faith: What does it mean to follow Jesus?
In today’s gospel reading (Matthew 16:21-28), we get a statement from Jesus that answers this question in a very clear, simple, but challenging way. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
So, today I just want to dive into this particular verse, and unpack what Jesus is teaching us about what it means to be his follower, to be a baptized Christian. And this statement has three dimensions to it, so let’s take each of them in turn.
First, Jesus teaches that we must deny ourselves. This is definitely not a popular teaching in our world today! It never has been. It won’t win you an election. It won’t make you famous. And we don’t hear it anywhere else but in church. If you go on the internet and search for websites or YouTube videos that teach you how to deny yourself, about all you will find is this teaching from Jesus.
So, what is Jesus talking about here? I think he simply means that there are times when we must say “no” to ourselves in order to say “yes” to God. It’s really that simple.
And maybe you even did that today. You turned on this video (or read this sermon), when you didn’t have to. You might be getting tired of worshiping in this way – I know that I am! – but you did it anyway. If that’s the case, then you denied yourself, at least on a small scale. And I think that is some of what Jesus is talking about. Sometimes we must say no to ourselves in order to say yes to God.
I also think that, on a deeper level, Jesus is saying that we must deny our false selves in order to truly be the person God created us to be. What is our false self? It is the self that is governed by the world’s standards. It is the self that equates success with happiness. The self that believes that the one who dies with the most toys wins. The self that thinks that things like more money, more power, are more pleasure are what will bring more peace.
This is all our false self. And only when we deny it can we become our true self, the person that God has created us to be. We don’t have to be anything different from who we truly are. But we will never discover and accept who we truly are until we deny the false self that we all have. That is step one to following Jesus.
Take Up Our Cross
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If denying ourselves is unpopular these days, then how about taking up our cross? And what does that even mean?
If there is one thing that I have learned as a pastor, it is that not all crosses that we take up are voluntary. Sometimes a cross is placed on our shoulders that we did not ask for. A positive COVID test or any unsettling health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job – these, to me, are crosses that we don’t ask for. But when we accept them, and trust God to be with us through them, then we are taking them up as crosses. They are not God’s punishment – I don’t believe that – but when we can accept them, we can begin to see God at work in them.
To be sure, though, there are many other crosses that are voluntary. Tasks, for example, that we know will be difficult, but that we choose to do anyway, because we believe that God wants us to. There are many stories these days of people, especially in the health community, putting themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.
But another thing that I have become convinced of is that the cross that we are asked to take up by Jesus changes over our lifetime. The cross that you are asked to take up as a young person is very different from the cross that you are asked to take up as an older person. As a young person, your cross might mean standing up for what you believe, even when it’s unpopular. It might mean saying no to friends, even when it threatens your friendship.
When you get married, there are new crosses, including those times when you are called to put your spouse’s needs and interests before your own. If you are blessed to have children, there are new crosses as well. Including caring about your child so much that it hurts you when they are hurt. As you continue to age, new crosses present themselves. Giving up independence, as you no longer are able to drive. Learning to humble yourself and rely on others for help.
And, again, these crosses are not always voluntary. But part of what it means to follow Jesus, I believe, is to accept them gracefully, and humbly, and courageously. Accept the cross, trust Jesus, and follow him. And oftentimes when you do this, you will be telling the world much more about what you believe than any words that you might say.
But let me get a little more specific about what it means to take up your cross. And I want to do this by taking a look at our Second Reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Romans 12:9-21). Because this reading offers us some specific suggestions on what it might mean to take up our cross. Here are three of them.
First, in verse 12, Paul writes: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” If the cross you are being asked to take up is an involuntary one, this verse might just speak to you. Can you find a way to rejoice in hope, despite your suffering? Can you find joy in the hope of the gospel and in the promise of eternal life. Can you be patient in your suffering? Can you persevere in your prayers?
The second example from this reading is the very next verse, verse 13: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Maybe your life is going very smoothly right now, but you have a nagging sense that you are being called to do more. Maybe that means giving more to the needs of the world, even if it hampers your lifestyle. There is no end to the needs in our world these days. Not just with this pandemic, but with those whose lives have been upended by recent hurricanes and other weather events, along with many other important and worthy causes. That might be your cross right now – to contribute to the needs of the saints.
And, as a third example, consider verse 18: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Could this be your cross? And isn’t this more challenging than ever, as we come closer to a contentious election? What might it mean for you to decide to live peaceably with all right now? Insofar as it depends on you? Can you disagree with someone and still live peaceably with them? I certainly believe so!
So, these are just a few examples of what your cross might look like right now. There are obviously many more. The truth is that I don’t know what cross you are being asked to bear right now. But I do know that there is a cross that is yours and no one else’s. There was a cross that was only for Jesus. There was a cross that was only for his first disciples. There is a cross that is only for me. And there is a cross that is only for you. And if we want to follow Jesus, we must take it up. Take up our cross.
But as we do this, and choose to take up our cross, let us remember the third and final aspect of what Jesus is teaching us today about what it means to follow him: That we deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to follow him. And that means that when we do this, Jesus himself will be with us. He will be leading us. And he will help us do what he asks.
With Jesus leading us, we can deny ourselves and take up our cross. Without Jesus, it would be far too difficult. But he doesn’t ask us to do this alone. He invites us to follow him, which means to be with him.
This brings to mind for me another invitation that Jesus makes. He also invites all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, he says, and learn from him. For his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Could the cross that we are being asked to take up be this yoke? I think so. Could denying ourselves also be this yoke? Again, I think so. When we are yoked with Jesus, we no longer do whatever we want and go wherever we want. We are denying ourselves. And we are taking up this burden, this cross.
But Jesus takes it up with us. And that makes the cross bearable. Denying ourselves and taking up our cross means being yoked with Jesus. It means losing one life, but it means finding another. It means losing the life that leads to despair and emptiness, but it means finding the life that leads to hope and meaning.
And the only way to find this life, is to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow Jesus. So let us do so, to the glory of God. Amen