Great leaders know how to make the ‘big ask’ – asking people to do something which most would assume was too much to expect of them. Jesus was a great leader, and in this passage he asks all of us to make the greatest commitment of all: to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
The cross we have to bear is not a minor inconvenience. It is an instrument of death. In Jesus’ day, if you saw someone carrying a cross you knew he was on his way to a shameful, painful execution. What Jesus is asking is therefore something akin to making the ultimate sacrifice. He obviously isn’t expecting us all to commit suicide. So what exactly does he want us to do, and why?
The context gives the clue. Jesus has just heard Peter saying, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus commended Peter, and went on to tell them that he was not the Messiah everyone expected: he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, and then to rise to life again. The disciples didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, so all they heard was his prediction of suffering and death. Peter knew he was the Messiah; suffering and death were not on his agenda for the Messiah, and he said so. And that is the point Jesus took him up on: whose agenda are we following? Whose concerns do we have uppermost in our minds – ours or God’s?
We take up our cross and follow Jesus when we decide that from now on we will do whatever Jesus wants. This has two implications. The first is that we will be ready to obey any directions Jesus gives, whether to do something new or to continue as we are. The second is that in every choice we make the number one consideration will be whether Jesus approves. We still have our free will; we freely choose to put Jesus right at the centre of our lives, replacing whatever else might be at the centre – self, family, work, hobbies, concern for the world around us. All these have a place in our lives, but not at the centre: Jesus now is the sun around which everything else in our lives revolves, the centre of gravity holding everything together.
The practical effect of having Jesus at the centre may not be very obvious. We still continue with our daily routines, with adjustments to make time to connect with Jesus. When we initially take up our cross and follow him we will still have our old patterns of thinking and acting, and will have to learn Jesus’ ways. That’s what the first disciples did – and they were very slow learners at times! There will be times when, like Peter, we think we have God’s concerns in mind and then discover we are completely wrong. There will also be times when following Jesus will lead us into suffering, maybe even risking life and limb in some parts of the world. The decision to take up our cross and follow Jesus has to be repeated constantly.
But we do so knowing that we are loved more than we can imagine. We are already completely forgiven and accepted, God’s Spirit is living in us with all the guidance and power we’ll ever need, and the end result will be a world and a life more wonderful than anything we could ever achieve ourselves.
1) What does ‘take up your cross’ mean for you in your own circumstances?
2) How can this be good news?