“If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8.34)
We stand – or in your case, sit – in a very ancient place. According to the histories I’ve been reading in recent days, Christians have worshipped here for at least a thousand years – and possibly a lot longer. And throughout those years, I’ve no doubt that one of Jesus’ most famous sayings has rung around these walls time and time again: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me”.
As I say, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of sermons on this text – so I hope you won’t object if I now offer you my own take on this saying.
Let’s first breakdown this saying into its constituent parts. Jesus says, boldly, that if anyone wants to be worthy of the term disciple, they must do three things: deny self, take up a cross, and follow him. Let’s examine each of these in turn – meaning of course that I have a nice three point sermon for you!
1. Deny Thyself. One advantage that we modern worshippers have over our forebears is that psychology has taught us a great deal about ‘The Self’. In fact, the notion of ‘self’ is a very ancient idea. Eastern religions have known for centuries that what we call our ‘self’ can be a tricky thing indeed. Our sense of self – our desires, our personal feelings about things, our perceived needs, wants, fears and angers – these can separate us from God and from the world around us. We can become too wrapped up in our self to notice and appreciate what is around us.
Psychologists have taught us the Greek word ‘ego’ – but that has become a problematic word. Tell someone that their ego is too big, and they will think you are calling them arrogant. Whereas what is really meant is that a person’s sense of their own importance in the great scheme of things is blinding them to reality.
The Catholic Theologian Richard Rohr might be able to help us to discover what is truly meant by the term ‘self’. He separates our sense of self into two constituent parts – what we might call the ‘small self’ and the ‘true self’. Another short-hand for this is the notion of our Spirit and our Soul.
What do we mean when we talk about a person’s spirit? We might talk about them as having a spirit of kindness, or a spirit of anger. Our spirit is our ‘small self’. It is our ego. It is what life has made us. It is influenced by all the things that have happened to us…our challenges, our joys, our fears, our wants. It is also the identities that we have built around ourselves…the titles we have given ourselves. Our spirit can dictate the kind of people we are – it can drive us to do wonderful things. It can drive us to do terrible things.
When someone insults me, or fails to give me the respect I think I’m due, it is my small self, my spirit, that is wounded. The spirit is the place where pride resides. It’s the place where hurt pride resides as well.
But our soul…that’s another thing altogether. Our soul is our ‘True Self’. It is the self we were given when we first entered the world. Our soul is the part of us that is unsullied by life, the part that is connected to God from our birth. Our true self is the pure essence of who we are…a son or daughter of God. The danger of course, is that our soul can be polluted, corrupted and changed by our spirit. When we talk about saving our souls, we mean that we need our souls to be washed, purified of the effects of our spirit, our small self, our ego. We need to return to our ‘True Selves’ – the beautiful, divine spark that is within us, unencumbered by the effects that the world has had on our ‘small self’ – our spirit.
So when Jesus says that to be his disciple we need to ‘deny ourselves’ – this is what he is pointing to. We need to be ‘born again’ – that is reborn spiritually. We need to allow our world-affected spirit to recede, and let our True Self as a pure son or daughter of God emerge, washed and purified. In the language of last week’s call to repentance, we need to wake up to who we are – and how we have become who we are. We need to develop our understanding about who we are and why we do the things we do, think the things we think, act the ways we act. These are usually dictated by the small self. Rarely do we find the grace to act out of the beauty of our true self.
But how shall we do this? How can we begin to find our true selves among the noise and chaos created by our ego, our small self, our spirit? This brings us to the second part of Jesus’ three point plan! He calls us to ‘take up our cross’.
The cross has many meanings – many of which we will explore together during Holy Week and especially Good Friday. It may surprise you to know that the Cross is a much older symbol than Christianity. For many ancient religions, including for the Eqyptians and the Hindus, the Cross was a simple symbol that points us to an eternal truth…the truth that we live in the middle of a great battle between the spiritual and physical worlds. The arms of the cross signify the physical plane on which we live. East – West…we live on an apparently flat plane of existence. But the vertical slash of the cross intersects that plane. The world is infused by God, and by the spiritual realms that are unseen, and yet present with us. Our task is to live in the mid-point of the intersection. We need to learn how to live at the very centre of the cross, to find the balance point between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical.
But crucially, as Jesus showed us, this is where we also have to die. On the cross, in the intersection between heaven and earth, we learn how to die to self, and live for God. There, where Jesus died for us, we need to let our small selves die too…so that we can be reborn with him.
How? How can we die and yet live? This is where the third part of Jesus’ three point plan comes into effect. We die to self by following him. Jesus is our leader, our Lord, and our King. It is his rules that we are called to follow. It is his way of loving self-sacrifice that will save our souls from the effects of our spirit. We need to give up the false claims of the world, dying to any idea that having a nice house, or a new car, or money in the bank will have any impact whatsoever on eternity. A wise man once said that no matter how big your house is, your grave will be the same size as everyone else’s.
We who claim the title of disciple are called to a completely new way of being. It’s a way that has been preached for a thousand years in this building…but it is a way that I suggest we are only just beginning to truly grasp. We need to come to Jesus, and follow him and his ways, in order to find rest for our very souls.
That is what disciples of Jesus do.