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Not only would Jesus carry a cross. Peter, and every disciple after him, would need one, too! Why? Because the old must die so the new can be born.
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, Jesus said to them,
"Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, Whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.
"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, And loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
"Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."
Mark 8:34-38 NKJV, condensed
Dying to Live
A cross--it was the dreaded instrument of choice in Roman executions. Full of force and brutality, a crucifixion was cruel punishment inflicted upon those too powerless to defend themselves. Condemned criminals had to carry the beam of their own cross to the execution site. There's no way to sanitize a cross, it meant an agonizing, drawn-out death. Understandably people were shocked when Jesus used this totally godless image to illustrate the life of a disciple. It was further fuel for those who thought Jesus was out of his mind. Peter had tried to prohibit Jesus from talking like this, but to no avail.
Jesus took the image of the cross, retained only its central aspect, and spun the rest of it around into complete opposites. Clearly the cross meant death. But then the contrasts began. Not imposed from without, but chosen voluntarily! Not running away and trying to escape, but deliberately and intentionally following the footprints of Jesus. Not forced under compulsion, but freely denying myself and taking the mallet in my own hands. Thereby nailing to the cross my natural inclination to be #1, surrendering all rights to define my own existence, and giving full authority to Jesus. In other words, killing the old man or woman inside, so that the new life of Jesus can live there instead.
Jesus was at a fork in the road. He was finishing his travels around the country towns of Galilee and setting his face toward the confrontation that was sure to come in the city of Jerusalem. So he wrapped up his old teachings in a new sense of urgency. The familiar commands such as love your enemies; forgive those who sin against you; show mercy; pray for those who despise you; be generous; store your treasure in heaven; fear not; don't worry; give top priority to seeking God's kingdom; have faith; believe--all these directives required disciples who would deny themselves, take up the cross and follow to the death.
When we speak about self-denial, we're not talking about forgoing butter on the pancakes or sugar in the coffee. Nor is it giving up 30 minutes of TV time during Lent to read the Bible instead. Such practices are profitable only as a sincere first step into the realm of dying to self in order to be redeemed and reborn into the life-giving, everyday disciplines of faith.
Look again at the teachings of Jesus. There's a common thread running throughout, and it's summed up in the image of the cross. Take for example the straight-to-the-point Golden Rule. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." In order for us to fulfill that teaching, our natural desires to dominate, take revenge, excuse ourselves, ridicule, to be the decider and final authority--these would all have to be crucified. As frightening, radical and contradictory as it may sound, Jesus' invitation is, "Come and die!"
But here's the good news. For believers, death is never complete without a resurrection. Anyone who voluntarily surrenders their own will to Jesus is like a seed in the ground which, when it dies to itself, grows and develops into a fruit-bearing plant. We save by losing. We gain by giving it up. We find new life by leaving the old one behind, and in the process gain much more than we lost.
Only as we are willing to take up the cross are we be able to perceive the sacredness of treating others as we like to be treated. We will be saved from the unhappiness and misery of our ways only as we giveJesus authority over our lesser desires, also known as loser desires. Those who hung Jesus on the cross at Calvary thought to demean and debase him. But in reality they demeaned and debased themselves. Who were the winners that day? Who were the losers? Whose name lives on two thousand years later?
Jesus took the repulsive image of the cross and painted a compelling vision of discipleship. Not a poison pill to be avoided, but a promise of life to snatch up and treasure. The question is not "What's in this for me?" but "Lord, what will you have me do?" Act now, take theinitiative, be the victor.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What is one comfort or convenience you would not want to give up? Have you ever had to go without it? If so, what was that like?
Most people experience self-denial within their primary relationships. What have you sacrificed for spouse, child, parents or siblings?
Lent is a traditional time for self-denial. Name some good Lenten disciplines. Do you cheer when the duration of your Lenten discipline is over? Or does your spirit clamors for more?
What are the implications of the word "follow"? Cite some evidence which indicates you are following Jesus? Has your decision to follow Jesus made you richer or poorer? If you're not following Jesus, who are you following and at what price?
So many of Jesus' teachings are fulfilled within the two greatest commandments to love God totally, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Do you think if we did that, God's will would be done here on earth as it is in heaven? In order for God's will to be done on earth, who needs to change and what needs to die?
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in theSon of God, ho loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians 2:20) Discuss how these words of St. Paul help us understand what Jesus said about denying ourselves, taking up the cross and following him. Paul was alive, but he talked of being crucified. What did he mean by that? What did Paul's faith in the love of Jesus have to do with it?
Describe an experience wherein you extended a kindness to someone else and got back more than you gave. Is it true that God always give more than God takes?
When have you found yourself by forgetting yourself? What happens to our vision when we focus on ourselves? Who is #1 in your life? If you're not #1, what number are you?
Jesus' appeal rings out across the ages, "Come, follow me." He promised hard work, long hours, and even persecution. Yet it strikes a chord now just as it did way back then. How amazing is that? Why, after 2000 years, do people still desire to follow Jesus?