Take up your Cross

Reading: Mark 8.31-38
We live in a smorgasbord world. Both our diet and our buying patterns reflect it.

We "shop around" with far less commitment to the one grocer or service station. Our electrical appliances come from Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand...

We even have a smorgasbord of relationships and ideas. In many circles it almost seems wrong to be committed. You have to keep a perpetual "open mind" and a "tolerant attitude." "Truth" is no longer absolute - if it's "true for you", that's fine, but that may not be "true for me."

Once a chicken and a pig took a trip together. After many miles and many hours on the road, they got hungry. Finally, the sharp-eyed chicken spotted a restaurant. Approaching the door they read a sign which said, "Ham and Eggs: Our Specialty!" "Hold it!" shouted the pig. "What's the matter?" asked the chicken. "Plenty. All they want from you is a little compromise. They are asking me for total commitment!"

Compromise... or total commitment... Those options are being presented to us continually. Keep an open mind. Live and let live. Go with the flow.

Truth and Commitment

Jesus had come as God the Son - the Word "through whom all things were made", as John put it (Jn 1.3).

He had come into human history because our race rebelled, because we are sinners, because we have got it wrong - have twisted truth, have set up our own ways of relating to life and the universe...

He had come to tell out and live out God's truth - he was the "Word" of God who "became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (Jn 1.14).

In Mark 8.29 (just a couple of verses before today's reading), Peter had rightly called him "the Christ" or Messiah - God's Anointed One for whom they had waited so long.

But - "He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again" (v. 31). Yes, he had come to suffer and die - note the words "must suffer", "must be killed." What would happen was not just a human scheme, but a divine plan, not just the product of human hatred, but the outpouring of divine love.

Now if all that is true, we are dealing with absolutes here. Listen to Jesus, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14.6). There is no other way. There are no other ways.

The call of Jesus was to "the crowd", not just to the disciples - "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (v. 34).

That is a call to absolute commitment. But we have cheapened it into an easy set of religious "add-ons." "Deny yourself". We might give up ice-cream during Lent, or give the equivalent of a cigarette a day to a charity. "Take up your cross" - some little physical ailment or a nagging friend. "Follow Christ" - "Well, I try to do the right thing." We accept a little compromise of our life-style, but it all falls so far short of the total commitment to which Jesus, the very Truth of God, is calling us.

Deny Yourself

Do you believe Jesus is Lord? Do you acknowledge him as your Lord? Have you given up that absolute and final right to yourself? Have you denied yourself?

Who owns your assets? Who owns your farm, your home, your car, your computer...? How is the Lordship of Christ expressed in what you put in the offering plate? Have you denied yourself?

Self-denial has become such a little thing, such a trivial matter.

E. Stanley Jones, missionary to India, told of a Hindu offering a water buffalo to his god. "The long knife falls toward the neck of the buffalo, but just as it is about to strike the executioner deftly turns it and it cuts of the tip of the ear instead. The sacrifice is finished and everyone is satisfied." He goes on, "When you are about to lay low your essential self the temptation will be very strong to cut off the tip of some self-indulgence instead, and leave the matter at that - the essential self untouched" (Victorious Living, p. 115).

When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, he isn't talking about a "nick out of the ear" of our life. He wants us to acknowledge that all that we are and have belongs to him.

In the words of the Covenant Service, "I am no longer my own, but yours. Give me what task you will, assign me with whom you will; give me work, give me suffering; let me to busy in your service or set aside in your service, made great for you or humbled for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have plenty, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly give all things to your pleasure and control."

That is denying yourself, giving up that final right to yourself, acknowledging Jesus as Lord of your life.

Take up your Cross

"Take up your cross," Jesus says.

They had no illusions what a cross was - the cruel Roman instrument of execution. There was nothing at all nice or aesthetic about it. Any Roman citizen judged worthy of death was beheaded. Crucifixion was reserved for the subject races. Suffering and dying was prolonged. Public display gave a grim warning to potential offenders.

"Take up your cross," Jesus says.

How did our reading begin? "He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed..." (v. 31). And what does he go on to say? "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (v. 35).

How does it read to you? Jesus is talking about a commitment so total that it takes precedence over life itself. He can make that call because he is the Truth and can offer life itself. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Protect yourself; live for yourself; amass for yourself - and lose out in the long run. Trust Jesus; receive his forgiveness; receive him; give your all to him and for him - and gain life both here and for ever. His promise to you is far greater than whatever you might lose by denying yourself and taking up your cross.

Follow Christ

Jesus says to us, "Follow me."

He is not alone in making such a call. Pop stars, sporting heroes and political figures all beckon us - as well as a plethora of religious gurus. It seems part of our nature to follow something or someone - even for the most avowedly independent of us! Our most fiercely independent generation is more bound by fashions and political correctness - by the ideas and ideologies of the moment - than ever before. Our lives and lifestyles are moulded by a sickly and sickening environment of unbelief.

Two thousand years ago Jesus counselled his hearers, "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mt. 7.13,14).

We are followers all right - and we will follow the crowd right through the gates of Hell. But Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (16.18b).

Jesus says to us, "Follow me." It is a call to live as forgiven people because of his cross. A call to live in truth and righteousness even if it means being an unpopular minority. A call to be part of his redemptive army reaching out and gathering in as many as possible of the crowd who are on the popular and comfortable but perilous road to Hell.

Don't settle for a little compromise of your lifestyle - a little window-dressing here and there. He is calling for a total commitment, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Come! Let us hear and heed his call! Let us go forward together in sole loyalty to him!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 19 March 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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