Deny Yourself

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. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 


Will Willimon tells of a friend who hit bottom, spun out of control, and crossed the median heading the wrong way at 100 miles per hour: He fell from his prestigious perch as an attorney to the depths of alcoholism. He came home one day to find his family, his pastor, and three of his close friends all sitting in his living room. And it wasn’t his birthday. Yet it was. He is on his way back, thanks to his loving wife and children and the good work of AA. He was a private man, so he wouldn’t tell Will all the details, but he did tell him this: “I had always gone to church, but always in the back of my mind, thought the Church was for losers, the weak. But you would be amazed at what I’ve learned about God.”

“Like what?” Will asked him.

“That so many phrases I had heard all my life suddenly have become real to me,” replied his friend.

“Like what?”

Like ‘Take up your cross’ and ‘you can only find your life by losing it.Through hitting bottom, I’ve met God,” said Will’s friend.

In this passage, Jesus calls the disciples and the crowds close. He tells them the high price attached to being His follower. Jesus, then, maps out requirements to being a disciple:


First: Deny self. It is the same word used to describe Peter’s denial of Jesus three times in the high priest’s courtyard. Deny self is different than self-denial. Self-denial is withholding certain things like we do during Lent. Here, Jesus means that denying self means to give up all rights and relinquish all control to Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, we are a lesser version of ourselves. Jesus wants us to the best version of ourselves. That’s how He created us! Denying self means, “not” to give into exercising the right to do and say what we want, however we want.   


I know. Some of you are squirming thinking about giving up control. We covet and protect the power to make ultimate decisions for ourselves. Still Jesus says: Deny self! Deny self-trust, deny self-sufficiency, deny feelings of being able to handle life on your own.


And as if that’s not enough, Jesus continues: Take up your Cross. Historians estimate that over 30,000 people were crucified during Jesus’ lifetime. Every person in earshot knew what Jesus was telling them. I wonder if they gasped. I would have! A cross was an instrument of shame, humiliation, suffering, torture and death. When a person took up his cross, he carried the weapon of his own death on his own shoulders. When he reached his destination, he suffered on it and he died. We know that Jesus’ suffering led to resurrection. This is why He can tell us to take up your cross because He knows the end result!


I didn’t begin to understand until ten years ago what taking up my cross meant. I thought a cross was any kind of trial, hardship, illness or difficult relationship. “That’s my cross,” I’d say.  But this is not what Jesus means. The cross in Jesus’ life is connected with shame and humiliation. It’s a criminal’s cross on which He was hung. And so, the cross stands as a symbol of those circumstances and events in our experience which humble us, expose us, offend our pride, shame us, and reveal our basic evil. When you feel hurt or criticized or justified to criticize another, or heartbroken over a stinging conversation or depressed or frustrated or just thoroughly disappointed, taking up your cross means you are not to be offended but to welcome these thoughts in order to bring you to the very depths of receiving the gift of the grace and forgiveness of God for yourself and others!  Taking up your cross means that instead of a disciple becoming callous or bitter, a disciple will take these things to heart and think about what Jesus would do or say. And most importantly, what their part is in it.


How different from the way the world tells us to act and re-act!  The world says, Escape. Avoid the situation. Or, if you can’t avoid it, then strike back. Get angry, get even. Offend in turn. Get upset. But Jesus says: If you’re going to be my disciple, deny yourself, and take up your cross. As church folks, are we willing to not be compromised even if it means being singled out and humiliated? Will you trust that Jesus, who is the Truth, will bring you through?


Finally, Jesus says: Follow Me. Some people follow on Sunday but take a different path on Monday. Some people follow the Lord only when they need help. Jesus is calling for His people to make a radical commitment to follow Him all the time… all the way: Love your enemy, pray for those who hurt you, forgive those who offend you. When we do not feel like obeying or forgiving or praying, He tells us to do it anyway. Be kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. I struggle with this. But the Lord says: Freely you have received, freely giveFollow me!


Living as a disciple is difficult, isn’t it? In fact, John tells us that at this point many turned and followed Jesus no more because these words were too harsh and demanding. Jesus gives us hope for the future, yes, but we are called to follow Him not just for this future, but in this life. As one pastor said, we follow Jesus not just to be saved or to go to heaven; we follow Jesus because it’s worth it. Giving in love to others’ needs and to God almost always includes sacrifice, denying ourselves and our immediate gratification. Each and every time we make ourselves vulnerable to hearing God, each time we follow the great commandment, each time we get out of our own way and seek not what we want, something happens to us! You’ve experienced this, haven’t you? We do these things all the time and each time we do them we experience the life Jesus talks about. Disciples, deny self, take up your cross and follow


I sure love being your pastor!  Joy, joy


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