This morning in my devotions I read these words:
‘Then (Jesus) said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels’ (Luke 9:23-26, NIV 2011).
This passage has been badly misunderstood down through the centuries, through the misapplication of the ‘take up your cross’ imagery. The ‘cross’ has been understood to mean any suffering that comes our way (eg. my chronic illness, my financial struggles, my difficult mother-in-law); we are called to carry it patiently, and if we do, the Lord will use it to shape our character and grow Christlikeness in us.
That may or may not be true, but it’s not what this passage was about.
The key phrase is ‘must deny themselves’. Early Christians in the time the evangelists wrote the gospels were being hauled before the courts and told to deny their faith in Jesus – to make a break with Christ and return to the pagan worship of idols. Even in the Jewish community, the book of Acts tells stories of the early Christians being brought before the Sanhedrin where they were told to cease and desist their preaching about Jesus – to disobey Jesus’ command to spread his message to everyone – effectively, to deny their loyalty to Jesus.
That’s what’s in view here. Jesus challenges his followers: if you want to be my disciples, you’ve got to be willing to deny yourselves rather than deny me. Deny yourselves the easy life that would come if you just went along with everyone’s demands and expectations and blended back in with the world around you. To ‘take up your cross’ is to refuse to do that. Someone who was carrying a cross in the time of Jesus was on their way out to a place of execution; the Roman empire was about to kill them. To follow me, Jesus is saying, means to be willing to be publicly identified with me and to take the consequences of that identification, whatever they may be. It led our Master to the Cross. It might well mean suffering for us as well.
So the challenge for me today is, if I claim to be a follower of Jesus, am I willing to be publicly identified with him, no matter whether or not that is popular? By my actions and my words, am I willing to be public about my allegiance to Jesus, and to the flawed, fallible, slightly crackpot group of people who are called by his name? That’s what it means to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Jesus.