Jesus called the crowd and his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I’m about 99% certain that we have no idea what these words from Jesus really mean. As 21st century, American Christians, we can’t even begin to imagine what it meant for someone to follow Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This isn’t inherently bad, mind you, it is merely coming to terms with the fact that the circumstances of life in America today are just so vastly different than they were 2,000 years ago in the Jordan River Valley. The good people over at WorkingPreacher.org’s Sermon Brainwave did some digging into this point. It is worth a listen.
They point out what many of us learned in seminary, but probably forgot, that the concept of the self has only developed into an individualistic idea over the last 400 years or so, and even then, only in the west. Throughout most of the East and the Global South, selfhood is a communal concept. In 21st century America, who I am as a person is the sum of me: my job, my family system, my living situation, my education, and my religious preferences. I am Steve, a Low Church Episcopal Priest, a first-born to my parents, but a middle-child to my Father, and a married father of two who is 3/5th of the way done with a D.Min from the University of the South. To deny myself and take up my cross in that context simply means to do that which I would not normally choose to do. In the Ancient Near East, the self is defined by the sum of all the people with whom I am in relationship. I am the son of Pat and John, brother of Ed, Mike, and Lisa, husband to Cassie, father of Eliza and Lainey, co-worker of Keith and Penny, Facebook friend of 1,270, and a priest to hundreds more. To deny myself in that context is to brave the realistic possibility that you’ll be leaving behind family, friends, and job in order to take an entirely new identity as disciple of Jesus.
The only real opportunity cost for most American Christians is giving up the ability to sleep in [every-third] Sunday morning. So how do we live into Jesus’ mandate to deny self and follow Jesus? If denying self is, as I suggest, about a fundamental change in identity, then it would seem that following Jesus requires us to take on his characteristics. This means doing the hard work of loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and the even harder work of loving your neighbor as yourself. For example, loving the woman you cut you off in traffic this morning or loving the guy who didn’t wipe down the machine at the gym or loving that family member who always calls at the worst time to talk about nothing in particular or that coworker who smacks his gum in the cubicle next to you or the judge who struck down your state’s same-sex marriage ban or the judge who argues that his interpretation of God’s law trumps federal law, or… you get the idea. Living in love is probably a good first step on the way to a fundamental change in identity from Steve to Disciple of Jesus: a first step that will probably take a lifetime plus to take.