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." Mark 8:34
When I was about 10, I read a little novel about a pastor’s daughter growing up in a parsonage. The main character, Joy Sparton, was mischievous, sometimes upsetting people in the church where her father served. At one point, Joy goes to bible camp and learns the ABCs of becoming a Christian. “A”—Admit that you are a sinner. “B”—Believe in Jesus, that He has power to save you and will forgive you. “C”—Confess your sins to Jesus. The guilt she feels leads her to pray the ABC prayer. She feels better and knows she is saved.
As I read Mark’s gospel as an adult, Christ offers a far more complex plan to follow Him than ABC. Jesus offers three steps to would-be followers: to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. No matter how long I look at it, I find myself having more questions than answers.
1. Deny oneself. I am not entirely sure all that encompasses, but I know I cannot do it to the extent that Jesus asks. I don’t sell everything I have and give to the poor. I don’t forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus. I find myself more concerned about my personal identity than my identity as God’s beloved child. Before I can ever think about the next two steps of what Jesus asks, I realize that to deny myself will be a long journey along life’s way, until I realize that what identity remains when all others are stripped away is Child of God.
2. Take up your cross. People died on crosses. Jesus did, we know that for sure. Does Jesus ask me to carry that upon which I will die? For what am I willing to die and for whom? For whom or what am I willing to be rejected? What sacrifices will I be asked to make? Or forced to make? I think about all of the sacrifices I’ve made already, willingly and unwillingly, and I wonder... Is carrying the cross a burden or a privilege? I am aware that I cannot avoid those things that cause deep suffering, and so when I make the sign of the cross or trace the one above my brow, the mystery of Christ deepens for me.
The journey is less clear than ever.
3. Follow Jesus. Oh, how hard this is. How do I know if I am following Him? Perhaps that is the gift of the liturgical, Christian calendar. Many worshipers have followed its course for well over a millennium. We follow the life cycle of Jesus and His ministry from Advent through Christ the King Sunday. Over and over again, we walk forward into God’s eternity with the Christian community to which God leads us in the particular time in which God has put us on this earth. Together, we support each other on this faith journey. It isn’t easy, and we won’t always do it well, but we embrace grace. We pray. We discern. We take the next best step forward with Christ.
I invite you to make your own reflections on what it means to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Jesus. What questions rise up for you? Perhaps these thoughts are ones you’d like to share in conversation with a fellow follower or with the Risen Lord community or your pastor.
Above all, we can offer each other grace and love along the way.