“If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8.34)
If you’ve heard many of my sermons, you’ll know that I don’t necessarily keep to the time-honoured tradition of preaching on three points! But this week, my chosen text doesn’t really give me any other option. Jesus calls us to (1) deny ourselves, (2) take up our cross and (3) follow him. So, let’s explore each of these ideas together, shall we?
1. Deny Thyself. Eastern wisdom and modern psychology have both taught us that the idea of ‘the self’ can be a tricky thing indeed. Who we perceive ourselves to be can separate us from God and from each other. Our desires, our personal feelings about things, our perceived needs, wants, fears and angers – they can all consume us to the point where we fail to notice what – and who - is around us. We can become the centre of our world – to the point where all our focus and energy becomes directed at our own survival. And once survival that is accomplished, we focus on our own personal happiness.
Those who accumulate massive wealth at the expense of others have fallen into this trap. They have tricked themselves into believing that the accident of their birth, or some lucky business decisions have somehow given them the right to own all the toys, and to cease caring about those who have nothing.
At the other end of the same continuum of the self, we find the drug addict whose entire existence has been shrunk down to the question of when they can get their next fix. All thoughts of what their life could contribute to the sum of human happiness is lost, in the relentless pursuit of the needs of the self.
The truth is, of course, that few of us are at far ends of that continuum. Most of us sit in the middle – neither uber-wealthy, nor totally absorbed by our addictions. But by holding up these two extremes, perhaps we can begin to see why Jesus thought that both too much wealth, and too much self-obsession, were not healthy for anyone’s spiritual life. Perhaps by looking at these extremes, we can begin to notice the tendencies in all of us to place our personal desires above the needs of our community, or of the poor.
Denying the self, then, is not just good for us. It’s good for the world. A world of self-denying, sacrificial givers would be a very different place indeed. It would, in fact, be a Kingdom on earth as is in heaven.
But how shall we do this? How can we begin to truly live in self-denying, kingdom-building ways? This brings us to the second part of Jesus’ three-point plan! He calls us to (2) ‘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 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. The cross symbolises not just Jesus’ death, but his incarnation – the moment when heaven plunged into earth, like lightning from the sky. The moment when ‘God came to town’ and added a heavenly dimension to the flat plane of human existence.
Our task is to live in the mid-point of that 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. We need to avoid being ‘so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use’. But also we need to never let the cares and the struggles of earth divert us from the path of heaven. We need to find balance between worship and action, prayer and living, giving and receiving .
But crucially, as Jesus showed us, this balance point is also 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 focus on The Self 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 (3) following him. Jesus is our leader, our Lord, and our King. It is his Laws for Life that we are called to follow. And we do it, every day, by dying. We let our selfishness die away. We let our greed die. We let our laziness and over-consumption die. Every day, bit by bit, we die with Jesus, so that we can be reborn with him.
It is Jesus’ way of loving self-sacrifice that will save us. We need to give up the false claims of the world: dying to any ‘false truth’ that having a nice house, or a new car, or money in the bank will have any impact whatsoever on eternity. As a wise man once said, “it doesn’t matter how big your house is, your coffin will be the same size as everyone else’s.” Neither will possession of these things bring us true happiness in our earthly life either. Each one brings its own pressures. The nice house must be maintained, and builders and cleaners paid, contracts negotiated, roofs and decorations pondered over. The nice car will quickly lose its appeal the first time it gets scratched along a hedge. Excess money in the bank needs constant managing, and investment or even charitable decisions become a constant source of worry and angst.
We who claim the honour of being ‘disciples of Jesus’ are called to a completely new way of being. It’s a way that has been preached for at least a thousand years on this site in Havant, and for two thousand years in this Land. But it is a way that I suggest we are only just beginning to truly grasp. We need to come to Jesus, deny the Self, take up the Cross of Life-balance, and follow him to find rest for our very souls. We need to develop the wisdom to know when enough is enough, in terms of our possessions and self-preservation. We need to turn away from the sights that dazzle, and the tempting sounds we hear. And we need to know when to reach up with arms of faith from the flat plane of human existence, our arms stretched up the vertical shaft of the cross, with our gaze fixed on our Master and our Friend.
O give me grace to follow Him! Amen.