Peter’s rebuke ended with a sharp rebuttal from Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (NRSV) Peter needed to let go of his own needs, desires, and interests and accept what it truly means to follow Jesus. Peter needed to re-align his priorities, to risk losing it all, in order to discover the way of life. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Our Lord outlines the requirements of discipleship as self- denial and the willingness to lose everything, including our lives for the sake of the Good News. When Peter rebuked Jesus, he thought self-preservation was the only necessity worthy of Jesus’ agenda. Peter slipped into a conventional wisdom, which touts that looking for one’s own success is the only road to fullness of life. This wisdom seems to proclaim that we are at the center of our own existence. None of us are the center of the universe, life is not centered on us. The ground of our being, the center of life itself is found in Christ. If that is our faith, and I believe it is, then we must consider taking our rightful place in the grand design of God, not at the center of life, but as a part of the whole. Jesus discipleship call thus means, that we must recognize we are a part of the larger human family, we must release our own desire, our own interests, and our own priorities for the sake of others.
When we release the hold we have on our own life, when we risk our very self for another, we come to know our rightful place in God’s creation. There once was a young couple named Carl and Lori. They were very much in love and had everything going for them; a new house, great jobs, and a bright future. After a few years of marriage, Carl one day noticed, that something was not right with his health. He and Lori decided to go together to the doctor for a little checkup. A few weeks later, and after several tests, it was discovered that Carl was suffering from a life-threatening illness. Things changed for them as Carl began a regimen of treatments. Throughout all the procedures, through the recovery, through the physical therapy, Lori was right there with him.
Many times, Lori denied her own need for a respite from the long nights at the hospital. She denied her own frustration with Carl’s slow and uncertain recovery. She denied her own fear of the outcome. A friend one day was concerned about her and mentioned, “Why don’t you take some time to recover, you must be exhausted.” Lori did not respond because she knew that the giving of herself for her beloved, emerged out of the depth of mutual giving, which she and Carl shared. The self-giving love demonstrated by her resilient commitment, went beyond merely her own needs, her own comfort, and her own interests. She realized that her self-interest were secondary to the relationship she and Carl shared.
This revolutionary form of love was what our Lord meant when he said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me” and it was self-giving love that led Jesus to the cross. The journey to Golgotha for Jesus was one that began, not in the Garden at Gethsemane, nor in the High Priest’s court. It all started with the child in the manger. The journey to the cross began with God’s willingness to walk among us, it continued into the wilderness of temptation, it carried forth with each healing of the broken, blind, and lame; the cross drew ever closer with each miracle he performed; and the path gained momentum with each meal Jesus shared with outcasts. Jesus risked himself from the very beginning of his ministry.
When he challenged conventional wisdom to heal on the Sabbath, he re-prioritized self-preservation for the sake of self-giving. When he ate with sinners, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-giving. When he proclaimed “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” rather than coming down from the cross in power, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-denial and self-giving. All this came with a price because it eventually meant giving up his own life for those whom he loved. The peril of self-giving love meant facing death of self, and the threat of personal rejection.
Rejection of the Good News came to fruition for Jesus on the criminal’s cross, the Roman State’s favorite way of eliminating threats to the social order of the day. It was this radical social upheaval that resulted in Jesus’ trial at the High Priest’s court, and at the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate. Challenging conventional wisdom by telling people to risk their own self-preservation and comfort, in order to serve someone else was a very extremist notion for first century Palestine.
Some Christians today do not quite understand Jesus call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross and follow him. Some believe that taking up our cross and following Jesus means we must give up joy and peace, but I do not believe Jesus’ intended life and life abundantly to be a miserable existence. I do believe that when Jesus said that if we lose our life we will find it, he meant that when we re-prioritize what is important, we will find the life of freedom, peace, and joy. In today’s culture, that radical notion may also come with a price.
Watch television for 30 minutes on any given day, and you will soon realize that self-gratification is the greatest value advocated for in our culture. It seems when we focus so much on the consuming mentality of fulfilling our own needs, we can lose touch with who is the center of our lives. In contrast, when we focus on loving others at the expense of our own interests, we participate in Christ’s ministry of pouring out from ourselves, the grace that is abundantly given to us. This is more than a sentimental idea, it is the basis of our baptismal covenant and the heart of the church’s mission in the world.
The promises we make at our baptism are based on the responses to the following questions: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Our own desires, interests, and needs will naturally come into conflict with promises such as these, but living into these promises surely will bring about life.
All around us, the shadow of death abounds. People suffer from economic devastation, from wars, from severe depression, from broken relationships, and from social injustices. Spiritual and emotional death is all around us. Life without dignity, life without justice, life without peace, life without love, is not life giving, but life pilfering. Jesus, by his journey to the cross, calls us to respond to the plight of those suffering around us. When we answer Jesus call to follow him, we may lose our own interests, desires, and priorities, but we will participate in life and life abundantly.
There is great risk in answering Jesus’ to follow him “without looking back, without hesitating, without giving a thought to the danger that such following might pose to our lives.” Jesus promises that those who do so will find life. Joel Marcus wrote an article in the Christian Century, where he stated, “Through that victory the church believes, a strange vitality has been released into the world, a spirit of hope that still erupts in arenas of weakness, suffering and death.”1 “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead and thus, God’s love will never be squelched, it cannot be quieted, and it must not be taken for granted. The cross, although an instrument of Roman torture and punishment, remains for us Christians, the emblem of our hope in God’s eternal love. When we consider Christ’s invitation to “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him,” will we look down that long and winding road of self-denial and truly follow him, or will we like the young ruler, reassess our priorities, and turn around and walk away.
1 Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.)