At the end of my post from last week, I asked: what kind of follower are you going to be? Are you going to be a face in the crowd? Or are you going to be a disciple of Jesus?
Should you answer the second one “yes”, the ensuing question is “how?” How do you actually follow Jesus?
Jump in to Luke 9. This chapter is AMAZING, by the way. So much happening. Jesus sends out the 12 and then the feeds the 5,000. Then Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah. Then we get to verses 23 and 24.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
So, what does it mean to follow Jesus? Well, for a start, it’s a whole-life endeavour. Not just a side project to be worked on around the rest of our life. Regardless of vocation or stage of life, discipleship is conducted with our whole life. But where does it actually begin?
At the centre of discipleship to Jesus is a symbol: the cross.
Of course. We sing about it all the time. It’s in our church logos. It’s on our jewellery. It’s in art in our church buildings. Let’s just take a step back for a minute, though, to realise just how desensitised we’ve become to the horror of it. The cross, in Jesus’ day, was an evocative symbol of death.
“Crucifixion was quintessentially a public affair. Naked and affixed to a stake, cross or tree, the victim was subject to savage ridicule by frequent passerbys, while the general populace was given a grim reminder of the fate of those who assert themselves against the authority of the state.” Joel B. Green
The ancient near-east was an honour-shame culture. Which, despite the best attempts of social media (Andy Crouch’s writing on this is spot on), isn’t the case for the UK in the 21st century. In that kind of culture, the most shameful way to die was by crucifixion. In fact, it was considered so shameful that it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen, no matter the crime. It was reserved for non-Romans and the worst of the worst. Note the lack of description about the crucifixion in the Gospels; it’s brutality was hard to write about.
This is the invitation of Jesus: if you want to really live, then first you have to die.
Bonhoeffer was at his best when he said this:
“When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.”
To some people – it’s a call to a literal death. Bonhoeffer himself was an example of that, being condemned to death by the SS in Nazi Germany. Or for a modern example, look to the Middle East where Christians, under the tyranny of the Islamic State, are being killed for their faith. And it happened ever since the time of the first disciples.
James, as you can see if the book of Acts, was the first martyr, beheaded in Jerusalem by Herod. Matthew was killed by the sword in Ethiopia. Mark was dragged by horses through the streets of Alexandria. Luke was hung in Greece. Thomas was speared to death in India. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome – upside down because he considered himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord. John was dipped alive in boiling oil and left to die on a rock in the Mediterranean.
For most of us living in the UK in 2017, it’s not a call to a literal death, but a metaphoric one.
John Calvin – busting out the big guns here – used the phrase ‘self-denial’ to summarise the entire life of discipleship. To say yes to Jesus and his way is to say no to a thousand other desires; to spending your time and money however you want; to a life of individualism; to your self-expression of sexual identity.
There’s a legend about the Knights Templar that’s been batted around for a while. Before going into battle during the Crusades, they would be baptised in full armour, but would keep their swords aloft during immersion as if to say: “Jesus, you can have all of my life, just not this part.” We laugh until we realise that we do the same. Just exchange sword for iPhone, schedule, girlfriend, workout routine, eating habits, spending patterns, etc. At least they were honest. We offer God most of our lives, but keep back that little nugget that we want to hoard for ourselves.
The way of Jesus is based on death, burial and resurrection of Jesus himself. That’s what it means to live as a disciple. This way of the cross, of self-denial, is an invitation to pick up our cross and live this way. This phrase is mentioned in three of the Gospels. The best is Luke, though, because he slides in the word “daily”. It’s not a one-time event, but a way of life. A daily death to all sorts of things. To what Paul calls the flesh. Galatians 5 has a good list for what that looks like.
One of the key tasks of being a disciple of Jesus is learning to crucify our flesh in order to experience resurrection life. Over and over again, on a daily basis, you and I have to crucify all sorts of desires that we carry in the tension of our body. The cross is the foundation of discipleship.
Want to be a disciple? First things first. You must – non-optional – pick up your cross and follow Jesus. It’s an unavoidable first step.
“Self-denial is the overall, settled condition of life in the kingdom of God, better described as ‘death to self’. In this and this alone lies the key to the soul’s restoration. Christian spiritual formation rests on this indispensable foundation of death to self and cannot proceed except insofar as that foundation is being firmly laid and sustained.” Dallas Willard.