Today we have reached a turning point in our weekly Sunday reading of St Mark’s Gospel (8:27-35). We find Jesus in a town 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. From here we will find him and his disciples travelling in stages to Jerusalem where he will be arrested and put to death.
In today’s reading Jesus puts two questions to his closest followers that are found in all four Gospels. The first is a general one – he wants to know who and what people think he is. The second is more specific – who do they think he is?
Peter, the acknowledged leader of the followers, says that Jesus is the Messiah, meaning then that Jesus would deliver the Israelites from the Roman occupying power. This answer then leads Jesus to speak of himself in a shocking way, in a way he had never done before and which was totally unexpected by everyone. He warns them that he is not going to be the political liberator they expect but that he, who had been healing the sick and teaching with authority, would soon be arrested put to death but rise again.
When Peter expresses his shock and says this must not happen, Jesus rounds on him, calls him Satan and then declares:
If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let them renounce themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them; but those who lose their life for my sake will find them.
What did Jesus mean by this then and what can it mean for us know? Is it possible, with all our obligations and commitments, to respond in a practical way to this rather harsh statement?
This warning on the cost (and reward) of following Jesus became very relevant for first century Christians by the time St Matthew recorded it. They were experiencing persecution and even being killed for following him wholeheartedly. It was true back then, has been down the centuries for Christians in many lands and is even so in our Christians now form the single largest number of people persecuted for their faith.
The cost of following Jesus may be less physically painful for us and we might things the Lord’s words are less applicable for us. However, there are other ways in which we have to renounce ourselves and take up our cross to follow him. Fr James Martin in his book ‘Jesus, A Pilgrimage’ lists six different ways of doing this and I have selected the following three:
First, we carry our cross with Jesus in the struggle to accept that suffering is an inescapable part of our lives. At some point we have to come to terms with the unalterable fact that pain, illness, loss, sadness and death are a part of our lives and they must ultimately be accepted without bitterness.
Second, renouncing or denying ourselves and taking up our cross can mean that in our suffering we must not pass on our bitterness or misery to those around us. It can be all too easy when we are suffering to cause others to suffer as well. This does not mean that we cannot share our troubles or pain but there will be a healthy way of doing this, where our sharing does not make someone else unhappy because we are unhappy. There’s a difference between healthily struggling and groaning under the weight of our cross and unhealthily complaining about it to the detriment of someone else.
Third, following in the footsteps of Jesus and carrying our cross means that we have to accept some other deaths in life before our physical death. To follow Jesus, he says we have to let some parts of ourselves die from time to time. This is what Jesus means when he says if you want to save your life you have to lose it first. He is not talking about physical death but the many other deaths that we must undergo before we die physically. For Jesus, these are the daily deaths to selfishness which a Christian must undergo. Hence, his command to love selflessly, the opposite of living selfishly.
Fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant in the First Reading (Isaiah 50:5-9), Jesus shows us how to lose our life in order to save it. He is our model for renouncing ourselves and carrying our cross. After a struggle he accepted his cross, did so without bitterness, and underwent a death to his own selfish interests for our sakes. We pray for the grace to be able to follow him as he asks.
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 September 2021