If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).
The life of Christian discipleship is not easy. It places unique demands on those who decide to follow Jesus and his teachings. While there are some who call themselves Christians who seem to drift through life without a care, Jesus places real demands on those who would call themselves Christians, that is, those who have chosen to live a life in obedience to Jesus. There are admirers of Jesus, and there are followers—real disciples, who experience the challenge of truly following Jesus each and every day of their lives.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells the story of his conversion to Christianity from the dualist Manichean sect. His mother Monica, a constant irritant to her son, was always begging and cajoling her son to join her in the confession of the Christian faith. Augustine knew that conversion to Christianity would mean a change in his lifestyle and in his relationship with his concubine with whom he already had had a son. He relates how he knew more or less that one day he would become a Christian, but for the moment he was unwilling to change. And so, Augustine tells his readers that he prayed, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” In a larger sense, this is much the same as praying, Lord make me a Christian, but not yet. Augustine weighed the cost of Christian discipleship and found the cost to be much too high for him at that moment in his life. Subsequent generations of Christians, no matter what they think of Augustine or some of his later theological writings, respect him for his honesty and for his recognition that becoming a Christian was not just a verbal consent to a set of creeds or beliefs but something that has a real cost, something that would demand a real change in the way he lived his life.
The life of Christian discipleship is costly. Jesus, for example, calls that those who desire to follow him, those whom he calls disciples, to forgive those who hurt them or with whom they disagree, to pray for their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to renounce their possessions, and to lay down the sword. These are costly demands, ones that many find difficult. It is no wonder that some folks who began to follow Jesus left him saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (John 6:60).
In the Lenten season, Christians are reminded that if they desire to follow Jesus that they are to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. In the earliest church Christians faced the real risk of being crucified as Jesus was. In subsequent generations, particularly when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this became much less likely for Christians. As a result, these words of Jesus have been understood in a more spiritualized manner. Jesus says that if we want to save our lives, we will lose them but if we want to gain our lives, we have to be willing to lose them for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of what he taught his followers, that is, the gospel message. The New Testament Greek word for life here is psyche, meaning one’s life or one’s soul. If we want to experience the life that Jesus imagines for us, we have to be willing to let go of the things that hold us back from truly following him. We need to deny the idols that we have constructed in place of God. There are many idols in our lives to which we cling for assurance and hope but Jesus teaches us that they are not the appropriate object of our ultimate trust and hope. Our trust alone belongs to God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If you decide truly to follow Jesus, the cost may be high. You may not be able to live just as you did before. Our self- denial creates the conditions for the creation of Christian life in community with others. You will have to change. If you want to gain your life, as Jesus teaches, you have to be willing to give it up for God first. That is no easy task. That is the cost of genuine discipleship.