Sure, I’m a Christian. I go to church. I listen to Christian radio sometimes. I sing when I feel like it. I even listen to the sermons sometimes. I where Christian t-shirts. I went to Six Flags with the youth group last summer. I try not to cuss. I guess I’m a pretty good Christian…
It’s as if we think there are degrees of Christianity – I’m a better Christian as so-and-so, but I guess I should try to be more like that person. She’s a great Christian.
Really? If only it were so simple.
Following Christ is much more than that. It’s supposed to be a challenge. If it’s easy to follow Jesus, you’re probably doing it wrong…
In Mark 8, Jesus gives a wake-up call to his disciples and the crowds following him. It’s gut check time.
According to Jesus, here’s what it takes to come after him:
1. Deny yourself.
Now, we want to add something to that. We think Jesus is saying, “Deny yourself (x).” If you want to be a Christian you’ve got to deny yourself this TV show or that movie. You’ve got to deny yourself those friends or these vices. But he doesn’t say to deny yourself things. He says to deny yourself. Deny your very self – the thing that makes you you. Your identity, your self-worth, your image, your reputation. You no longer define yourself by yourself. You define yourself by Jesus. Your life is no longer about you – it’s about Christ. It’s not about what you want – it’s about what he wants.
2. Take up your cross.
This imagery has been so skewed over the years that it’s hard to break people out of their old notions. To be clear: Jesus is not equating a cross with your own personal burdens. I’ve heard it preached that we all have a cross to bear, and some are heavier than others. But if we stick with it and bear our burdens, God will reward us in the end.
That’s Paul talking in Galatians, not Jesus talking in Mark. Jesus’ words are much scarier than that.
If the cross equals burdens, then that implies that some people will have an easier time following Jesus than others. Compared to prison inmates or homeless drug addicts, my burdens are extremely light. Does that mean I have a better chance at following Jesus? If the cross equals burdens, then that opens us up to the comparison game. But if the cross means…the cross – an instruments of painful execution – then we’re all on the same level.
Sure, some people may be stronger and more able to carry that bit piece of wood, but the physically strong and the physically weak will both die on that cross. Your strength won’t save you. No matter what our lot in life may be – whether rich or poor, smart or uneducated, strong or weak – the cross and the death it represents is the great equalizer of us all.
3. Follow Me.
Two points on this one. First, we can’t have salvation on our own terms. It’s either God’s way or no way. Sure, mankind has come up with all sorts of alternatives throughout the millenia. But God has shown us the way to eternal life – and it comes through self-denial and death. Jesus never once taught that we could follow him and come to God any way we want. He never said that we should choose whatever way seems best. He says, “Follow me.” And we can only truly follow him once we’ve denied ourselves and taken up our cross.
Second, Jesus is not asking us to do anything that he has not already done. In coming down to earth and becoming a man, he denied himself to a degree that we cannot even fathom. He “emptied himself” and “made himself nothing” (Philippians 2:7). And it was he who would first carry that cross all the way to his death. He’s not asking us to do anything he has not already done.
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I think we fall into the trap of comfortable Christianity. But there is nothing comfortable about Jesus’ words here. In fact following Jesus is a commitment that is guaranteed to break you out of your comfort zone, to tear down the walls of safety you have built up around yourself, and to get you outside of yourself. Once you wear the name “Christian,” your life is not about you anymore.
Paul summed up perfectly what it means to be a follower of Christ:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20