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Denial of Self
(A Lent Reflection)

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Denial of Self 

(Originally preached on the Second Sunday of Lent 2009) 

Read : St Mark 8: 31-38 

Jesus said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me" 

In this Season of Lent, we walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem; towards the Cross. As we travel with Jesus on this way, his words and actions provide a focus for our thinking.  

In this week's striking, disturbing and challenging passage from the Gospel, Jesus speaks of denying ourselves, and he makes it clear that this denial of ourselves is at the heart of our following him And in some sense it involves death; his and ours.  

Not only did Jesus know what lay ahead in the way of rejection, suffering and execution, he also was determined to go that way and not avoid it - he was accepting the Father's will, not his own desires. We are left in no doubt that Jesus knew he would suffer to the point of painful execution. This was God's way to defeat the power of evil for ever; God's way of demonstrating his supreme love; God's way of bridging the gulf between humanity and himself. It was for you. It was for me. 

This is the first occasion on which Jesus predicts his death and reveals the nature of his messiahship. Many anticipated a messiah who would establish a political kingdom in which the messiah and his people would exercise supremacy over all others. This is not Jesus' way. 

The way of love is about sacrifice. Only by going through that dark experience does it become also the way to freedom, fulfilment and joyful thanksgiving. "He will be put to death" Jesus says, speaking of himself, "but three days later he will rise to life". 

There then follows a collection of deeply challenging sayings about the nature of discipleship; what it really means to follow Jesus. The nature of Christ's messiahship has implications for his followers. While his life, death and resurrection were unique, it seems that we are all called to die and rise many times through our following of him. 

Jesus issues his call to true discipleship as the whole drama of the gospel comes to its pivotal point and the direction turns towards Jerusalem. These words of Jesus immediately follow Peter's declaration. He has realised that Jesus is truly God's messiah and has said so (and been commended by Jesus for his insight). Peter is no doubt pretty pleased with himself, but his expectations of what would happen next were very different from Jesus' intentions. When Jesus goes on to predict his arrest and suffering and death for the first time, Peter impetuously rejects Jesus' teaching, only to be told that he is under the influence of the devil: he is relying on human values, not divine ones.  

Jesus then describes true discipleship, and in so doing radically challenges the expectations of the disciples. Jesus was the messiah after all, and the disciples genuinely expected that as they approached Jerusalem they would be called by the Lord to take up arms and engage in battle. 

But instead Jesus calls them - not to take up arms - but to take up their cross.  

God's offer of liberation will be made via death and resurrection, not via armies and military victories.  

What we discover in this shocking passage (and it is a truly disturbing thing to realise) is that if we really want to follow Jesus then it will mean walking a road that is one of suffering, service, sacrifice and self-denial. Jesus said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me".  

Now absolutely none of this was what the disciples expected. They seem to have bought into the common view of the messiah, which explains why Peter, who had only just expressed openly the growing realisation that Jesus was indeed the messiah, now rebukes Jesus for suggesting that he was going to go to Jerusalem and die. That did not make sense of his idea of what a messiah would do. It made no sense. And so he pulls Jesus aside and gives him a ticking off, and earns himself the scathing retort of Jesus "Get behind me Satan". 

Jesus could not allow the temptation to choose a different road to distract or divert him from his mission and destiny. He would conquer only through death, he would wear the robe of triumph only by accepting the mantle of humility, he would save his people only by refusing to save himself. 

Jesus is clear. To be his disciples, to enter the Kingdom of God, we too must deny our selves and pick up our crosses, and follow him on the path of obedience, the road of suffering, service, sacrifice and self-denial. Jesus picks up his cross and urges a cross upon us as well. And striking at the heart of our hopes and desires for an easy salvation and cosy discipleship come the words suffer, rejected, killed.  

The picture he offers the disciples of taking up our cross, would be horrifically clear to the disciples. They knew what that meant. They would have seen people taking up their crosses; condemned criminals on the way to execution. They knew that people carrying crosses were people going to death; a shameful, demeaning and painful death. So what could Jesus be meaning? What was this all about? What does it mean for us? For this call to take up our cross and follow is as surely for us as it was for the disciples.  

Cross bearing as a follower of Jesus means nothing less than giving one's whole life over to following him. Paradoxically, this is the only way of total freedom. "Who ever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it" says Jesus.  

It is about giving one's whole life over to following him. 

As this passage makes all too clear, to be followers of Jesus means walking a road that is at odds with the prevailing values of our society and the natural instincts of our human nature. It undermines our understanding of what life is really all about and punctures our presumptions about what really matters. 

He says to us, "Follow me". 

If we think that our material gain, career fulfilment or personal achievements are the goal of life, then it will shock us that Jesus says "What will it profit them to gain the whole world, and forfeit their life (soul)". 

He says to us, "Follow me". 

If there is a secular anthem that defines our society then it may be Frank Sinatra's "My way". We aspire to live the self- determined life. "I did it my way"!  

As it happens, Sinatra himself hated the words of "My Way" regarding them as self-serving and self-indulgent. How true! Jesus calls us away from going our way to going his way. The way of service, humility, denial and sacrifice.  

When we celebrate the sacraments we symbolise Christ's following even to death - the dying and rising prefigured in the waters of baptism; his broken body and shed blood recalled in the bread and wine.  

As we witness baptism, let us remember that we too are baptised people who have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to new life in him that we may walk in his ways. This is not simply a splash of water; this is renewing and cleansing sign of Christ's love and grace.  

When we gather around the table, this is not only a bit of bread; this is our sharing in his broken body. This is not just a sip of wine, this is us sharing in his shed blood.  

He said that he would be put to death. He then went onto say that anyone who wanted to come with him - wanted to follow - would have to forget self, take up a cross, and follow.  

Jesus said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me" 

He says to us "Follow me" 

Rev David Denniston, March 2009


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