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. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
There were thousands of people flocking to Jesus every day. Most of them were there just for the miracles or the free food, possibly both, and I think Jesus figured it was time they found out what he was really about. So, he called all of them and said, “You guys wanna become my followers you’re gonna have to do two things: one, deny yourselves; two, take up your cross.” These are among the top two requirements to follow Jesus.
Let us understand what they mean, because many of us believe that the only requirement to follow Jesus is to go to church once a week. And even that is really optional. To deny ourselves simply means to deny that we own ourselves and have the right to run our lives, to decide what we are going to do, or where we are going to go. Sometimes we think we are being told to give up things; no, we are told to give up ourselves. Consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians.
The Corinthians were basically doing whatever they wanted to do, and a lot of it was immoral. Sexual promiscuity was particularly prevalent. Paul told them to “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Much as we might like to claim we are self-made people, we are not. We didn’t make ourselves, and we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to God. We were bought at a price and that was every drop of Christ’s blood. Sometimes, we forget this. So, now having reminded ourselves, we need to pay heed to what God says and let him guide our lives.
And the second thing Jesus says is that we need to carry our cross. This is not, as some of us imagine, dealing with our problems and struggles. Carrying a cross in Jesus’ time meant only one thing. It meant death. Dying to ourselves is what automatically follows denying ourselves. Why should we do this? For the sake of our salvation. Because if we persist in pandering to our needs, we put our eternal life in jeopardy, because what we want is often the reverse of what God wants.
Jesus puts it very well in today’s passage. I paraphrase it. “If you sin it is because you throw your lot with sinful people showing you are ashamed of me and my words. I will be ashamed of you in heaven.” Oops.