(A Lection Reflection on Mark 8:34)
Since forever, humankind has been trying to propitiate an angry god. From sacrificing virgins, to self-flagellation, to whatever gift of obligation we can think up, we keep approaching the spiritual world as something to be paid off with a bribe. Then, once we think we’ve paid this week’s protection money, we ignore the divine and move on to something else more pleasant … until the next time the Godfather demands a pound of flesh.
Both of these approaches — the payoff and the ignoring — are wrong. And yet, when many people read this week’s Gospel reading, all they can see is another angry god, telling me that the only way to approach this god is to practice asceticism — oh, and do it for the rest of your life.
Here’s the deal: I think many Christians have the “deny yourself” thing all wrong. AND, I think they are missing the rest of the formula, because we never talk about it.
So let’s talk about it.
First of all, the Greek word translated “deny” is the same one used to describe what Peter does with Jesus around that campfire. Remember? When asked, Peter said he didn’t know Jesus, had no connection with him.
In fact, these are the only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament: Peter denying Jesus, and Jesus saying we must deny ourselves.
What does this mean? Well, first of all, I think it is clear that Jesus is NOT saying that we have to give up this or that, or try to forget our normal human needs, or live some ascetic life. (We can choose to do those things, for various reasons, but that’s a topic for another day.) “Deny yourself” is not about self-abnegation. In fact, it’s harder than that.
The key is the verse before. To deny yourself like Peter denied Jesus is to set aside your own interests in order to ascertain God’s interests. It is to state that, in effect, you do not know You, and since you don’t know You, you also have no idea what that You person would want. Thus, you are ready to do what God wants.
BUT — and this is critical — the verse doesn’t stop there. In fact, Jesus gives us a three-part formula for being his disciple. If we don’t get all three parts, we miss the point of his teaching.
First is the denying of one’s own interests. THEN, there is taking up the cross.
Years ago, I took the MasterLife course on discipleship. One of the key lessons I remember is the one about taking up the cross. In brief, “bearing our cross” is NOT about dealing with some normal suffering or problem or part of human existence. That happens to everyone, every day.
When Jesus took up his cross, what did he do? He chose (he wasn’t forced) to carry out the ministry that God wanted him to do. THAT is what “take up your cross” means — you make an active choice to live into the ministry that God has called you to do, every day.
So we have turned away from our own plans, and turned toward God’s plans, and have chosen to live in ministry, OUR own unique ministry, day by day. BUT WAIT — there’s a third part. “And follow me.”
I have this image of the erstwhile modern-day disciple, putting down his own backpack filled with whatever he needs to live his normal daily life, then picking up a backpack that Jesus hands him that is filled with whatever is needed to do the ministry he is called to do — and then, before Jesus can say anything, this earnest disciple just starts off down the street, walking strongly in exactly the wrong direction.
Jesus said to deny ourselves, take up our cross of personal ministry, and then follow him. Guess what? When you follow someone, you wait on their lead. If I’m going to follow you in your car so you can show me the way to that new restaurant, I don’t leave first, and I don’t pass you on the way! I stay behind, watching for turn signals and such, and I let YOU lead.
There will be times when Jesus will say “go” and times where he will say “wait.” There are times where he will say “work hard, you know what to do,” and times where he will say “stop working and rest.” And there will even be times where he will say “give me your backpack and wait here. I’ll be back with your new backpack in a few days.” It’s all part of “follow me.”
Jesus gave us a three-part formula for discipleship, and we need to understand and do all three parts to be successful: give up claim to ourselves, make a choice to live into our own unique ministry, and let Jesus lead you. Let’s not stop with “deny yourself;” let’s get a full understanding of what all three parts mean.