“Calling the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the lessons in English class that was always a bit more challenging than the rest for me was identifying various figures of speech. The reason for this is that there are so many different kinds of figurative language and the difference between some of them can seem pretty slight. The real trick, too, is that all of the different categories of figurative language are simply multiple ways of saying the same thing: the author didn’t mean what he wrote and he wrote it that way to more effectively and creatively make his point. Does it really matter if this sentence functions more like a simile or is a metaphor being slapped down on the table for you to understand what I’m saying? (Did you see what I did there?) Well, while naming various kinds of figurative language is good to be able to do, recognizing them when we see them is better. And in this verse, Jesus is using figurative language…or is He? Whether He is or not, He certainly got the attention of His audience. He should have ours as well.
Jesus was in a good rhythm of blowing the minds of everyone around Him and He wasn’t ready to stop just yet. As we talked about last week, He had blown the disciples’ minds by completely reframing what it meant that He was the Messiah. In the minds of pretty much all of the Jews of the first century, the Messiah was going to be a kingly figure, a military leader, who would ride in on a white horse, defeat the legions of Rome, and usher in a new golden age for the people of Israel. The exiles would return and the nation would rise to rule over their foes in a glorious new age of peace (unless you were one of those foes in which case peace was going to be in pretty short supply).
When Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah, that’s exactly where all of their minds went…until Jesus told them He was going to be killed soon. That was too much for them to handle and Peter took Him aside to tell Him so. This prompted one of the harshest rebukes Jesus gave and that’s recorded in the Gospels (which is saying something because He could give quite a rebuke when the situation called for it).
With the disciples’ heads still spinning, Jesus invited the ever-present crowds to come closer once again and started laying out what following Him was going to require so there wouldn’t be any confusion or surprises when the cost started coming due. He said three different things here that would have each left the crowd utterly speechless as they wrestled with what exactly to make of the truly radical things coming out of His mouth. We’ll look at the first this morning together and the next two over the next couple of days.
Jesus started with a doozy. “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
Now, up to the halfway point there, He had the crowd tracking with Him. There was a fairly widespread culture of discipleship in Galilee in the early first century. Well-known rabbis attracted followers called disciples. Potential disciples would come and literally start following them around wherever they went, trying to prove their loyalty and worthiness of being accepted as a student. Then, they would just keep right on following the rabbi wherever he went. They would sleep where he slept. They would eat where he ate. They would even use the restroom where he did in case he said any specials prayers in the process that they needed to be sure to learn. Their goal was to become just like their rabbis. In order to do this, they had to deny what they wanted over and over again in favor of what he wanted. The crowds all understood this.
But then Jesus said that next thing and lost them.
His followers needed to not only be prepared to deny themselves, but to take up their crosses. Now, we hear that and just kind of pass over it. If you’ve been around the church long enough, you’ve almost certainly heard a sermon or three about how Christians need to deny themselves in favor of Jesus. The phrases “deny himself” and “take up his cross” are basically synonymous. One means the other. Jesus was just using figurative language to reemphasize His point. The real point is that we need to be ready to follow Jesus no matter what. Go team!
Now, that “no matter what” used to be fairly easy in this culture because it basically supported and parroted our beliefs. And when that’s the case, following Jesus is a fairly light duty. Oh sure, there were always some folks whose families had issues with religion generally and gave them a hard time about becoming a follower of Jesus, but they tended to be the exception to the rule.
Nowadays, though, the culture is changing. The Christian faith, following Jesus, has moved over the last thirty years from the dominant option to one of many options to a pariah. We don’t have the support of the culture any longer and what little we have is disappearing quickly. There are sincere efforts – all unsuccessful so far – to effectively make meaningfully living out some of the less culturally savory parts of our faith illegal. Much of that would be accomplished if the Equality Act were passed by Congress and signed by the President. But let’s be honest: No one is coming after our lives here for following Jesus. We haven’t caught up to the rest of the world and much of the rest of human history on that point just yet.
Yet in other parts of the world, that’s exactly the reality our brothers and sisters are facing on a daily basis. They understand in entirely more realistic terms than they would prefer what Jesus’ audience understood Him to be saying. When the crowd gathered around Jesus heard that second phrase, “take up your cross,” they didn’t think it was just figurative language to make a point. That phrase made their blood run cold. They had all seen someone crucified. They’d seen it multiple times. Hundreds of times perhaps. It was Rome’s punishment of choice for political revolutionaries and their followers – something fairly common in that part of the Empire. It’s hard for we who haven’t seen it before to get our minds around just how gruesome crucifixion was. Yes, we have excessively gory horror films nowadays, but seeing something on a screen and seeing it in real life are two different things. Seeing death writ large like that is something generally only first responders and soldiers encounter with any kind of frequency (a fact which should make us grateful in general and grateful for them specifically).
When Jesus’ audience heard Him use those words they thought about the last time they saw someone beaten beyond the point that they were easily identified as a human being dragging a rough wooden beam to the place they would be nailed to it and left to hang until they died and their corpses were picked clean by the buzzards. If that was a possibility facing someone interested in following Him, they were going to have to think very seriously before they signed on that particular dotted line…which was exactly Jesus’ point.
Following Jesus isn’t something to which we can give a partial effort and meager interest. It is truly an all or nothing affair. Either we follow Him with every part of ourselves, denying every desire until it is fully subject to His will and ways, or we’re not following Him. Now, because we are broken vessels, being shaped and repaired by the Holy Spirit as we go, the journey is going to be one of ups and downs, but the intention is what matters. If we want to follow Jesus, then we need to follow Him. What we want comes second. Our desires need to be daily subjected to His desires. Our plans needed to be relegated to secondary in light of His. And we need to be prepared to pay the cost the culture around us will demand from us for it. The world doesn’t like those who deviate from the standard script. It may bill itself as being all about freedom and individuality, but what it really wants is conformity…and we don’t. But if we’ll do it, the prize is worth it. We’ll talk about that more tomorrow.