In the months leading up to Gathering 2023 - "The Great Exchange," The Recorder is reflecting on different parts of the theme verses Mark 8:34 to 37.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" Mark 8:34-37
As I consider the dose of reality Jesus was giving to the crowd – the cost of discipleship, the “Taking up our Cross”, I began to recall a message Pastor Al Kehler shared more than 25 years ago, when he was Pastor of the Altona EMMC. The church had become home to a number of us who were involved in a biker ministry at the time. It was not unusual for a row of Harley motorcycles to be parked at the front of the church, and people walking in wearing their leathers, ready to be fed. It was a colourful bunch of new Jesus-followers! Bikers for Jesus!
This one morning as Pastor Al was preaching, he made the statement “Following Jesus is not for wimps!” Heads nodded, amens were pronounced, “no kidding” a bunch of us thought. Many of us had left a different life behind. We had lost friends, reputation, turned our back on old habits and old ways, to become followers of Jesus. We continued to pursue those who were not yet followers of Jesus.
Pastor Al told me later, that in the congregation that morning was a young man with a checkered past, recently out of prison, who had taken exception to this statement, and wanted to talk. He met Al in the church office during the week, and declared “I didn’t like what you said!” Al asked him why. “Because you called me a wimp!” Again, Al didn’t back down, “So you haven’t accepted Jesus? Why not?” The young man responded “Nobody asked”. Pastor Al led the young man to the Lord that day. Giving up the old life for this new one was still not easy after that, as there were many relationships that needed mending. But this was the beginning of his life transforming as a follower of Christ. In the years that followed he was able to use his life and story for the glory of God.
As Jesus was addressing the crowd that was following him, he was giving them a bit of a reality check.
Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me, you have to lose your life to save it. There is a cost, and yet, we’ve all heard the statement “We all have our crosses to bear”. That comment is sometimes made as we express some frustration with an inconvenience or a nagging habit we can’t overcome, maybe even a difficult relationship. We seem to have misunderstood the statement Jesus made, and trivialized it. The cross … minimized. Was that Jesus’ intention? The Great Exchange was coming. Did the crowds understand? Do we?
The crowds knew the cross was a dreadful form of execution. When Roman soldiers dragged a convicted criminal—beaten and humiliated—out into the street to where a wooden cross was placed, and commanded that the criminal to ‘take it up’, it was because they the criminal were going to carry it to their death.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for people living in those days to see someone literally ‘take up a cross’. For Jesus to say that whoever followed Him must “take up their cross”, it meant that they had made the decision to die completely to themselves. This word picture would have been shocking!
To take up the cross means to follow Jesus even to the point of ‘crucifying’ our own desires, or our own plans, or our own purposes; even to follow Him to the point of laying down our lives for Him physically, if need be.
Let’s consider a few questions:
If following Jesus means losing your reputation, are we willing to pick up our cross?
If following Jesus means losing your family, are we willing to pick up our cross?
If following Jesus means losing friends, are we willing to pick up our cross?
If following Jesus means losing your job, are we willing to pick up our cross?
If following Jesus means losing your life, are we willing to pick up our cross?
These are jolting questions that some of you may have had to answer at one time or another. During Jesus’ ministry, He asked these questions quite regularly in various ways.
Following Jesus is easier when life is good and running smoothly. But what happens when life gets hard? He was trying to weed out the half-hearted, fair weather commitments.
So, when we consider our willingness to “count the cost” of discipleship, the real issue is not the costliness of following Jesus—it’s our willingness to follow him regardless of the cost. How big or small the cost for each of us is not the point, because every part of our life is to be surrendered to Him.
He is King Jesus. He isn’t looking for us to compete with Him. He wears the crown, not us. He is asking us to put our primary focus on Him and His way – surrendering our life for His.