American Disciples at the Cross – Part 1

My sermon this past Sunday made a case that the church, by and large, has embraced one cross and avoided the other. The message of the cross must be two-fold: 1) Bowing in humble repentance at the foot of Jesus’ cross where Christ won the victory and where we receive forgiveness of our sins, and 2) obediently taking up our own cross and following Jesus into a new way of life shaped by the cross. In Peter’s words: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:20).

Our preferred message of the cross, perfected by preachers like Billy Graham, has focused almost exclusively on forgiveness of personal sins resulting in Heaven when we die. American Christians celebrate this cross, happy it removes personal sin while letting us keep the rest of our American way of life.

We have had a harder time leading people to “deny themselves and take their cross and follow [Jesus].” We’re making converts of all nations through a one-time transaction at the foot of Christ’s cross, but often neglecting to make disciples committed to following Jesus into a new cruciform life here and now.

Let’s look at the key passage that emphasizes the oft-neglected second cross and let it have its full weight.

“Then [Jesus] 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” (Mark 8:34).

Let’s split this famous challenge of Jesus into 3 basic parts (over three posts), and see how we’re doing as American disciples faced with the demands of the cross.

  1. 1. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must DENY THEMSELVES…”

American Christians live in one of the most self-indulgent societies in history. When we think about Jesus’ call to self-denial, our minds probably gravitate toward the appetites of the “flesh” first — food, drink, and sex.

While these are certainly areas of importance for the Christian life, Jesus seems to be thinking in larger socio-political and relational-ethical terms in the context. His entire Kingdom ethic is aimed at the formation of a people who have placed their life and future in God’s hands and are no longer feverishly trying to preserve their own existence (i.e., personal kingdom). We see this in Jesus’ very next statement:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:35). 

To paraphrase what Jesus says elsewhere, “Don’t worry about food, clothes, etc….the pagans stress over all these things, but your Heavenly Father will provide if you’ll just seek first His Kingdom” (Matt 6).

Next, I think the totality of Jesus’ other teachings (and rest of the New Testament) point us in the direction of the kind of self-denial that put other’s interests above their own. For Jesus, this especially means people of privilege and status and station in life denying themselves in order to care for the last, the least and the lost in society. At the cross, Jesus was not only paying the penalty for our individual sins, but also giving birth to a new community of cross-shaped love.

Jesus’ brother put it this way:  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27).  Paul was even more to the point: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). 

In our individualistic age, many Christians screen out the social and communal emphases of Jesus’ teachings, and think the life of discipleship means merely denying ourselves chocolate or soda during Lent, or denying ourselves gross sinful indulgences such as sexual promiscuity or drunken binges that we would probably avoid even if we weren’t believers.

Since we don’t struggle with such pagan temptations, we pat ourselves on the back and thereby avoid the real demand of Jesus’ teaching that might instead call us to deny ourselves that well-earned Disney vacation over spring break in order to spend that time and money on a mission trip to build water wells in a third world country instead.

Jesus might have us deny ourselves the comfort of a life that keeps messy and needy people at a distance, and call us to become actively involved in a church family full of people with problems.

Or again, we may deny ourselves Facebook during Lent, when Jesus would rather we deny ourselves of unhealthy preoccupation with worldly politics in order to begin indulging the concerns of Jesus’ Kingdom instead.

Remember Jesus is speaking to his disciples while talking about politics, about Jesus’ unique kind of kingship, how his kingdom will be different from other kingdoms, about his radical redefinition of power and lordship, and how his loyal subjects under his reign must also act.

Such Kingdom discipleship begins with denying oneself the comfort of old ways of thinking about the world and its systems, and in many cases involves a painful reorientation of one’s entire political outlook. “Whoever wants to be my disciple” must pledge allegiance to my Kingdom and deny themselves allegiance to any other kingdom.

Next time we’ll talk about what “taking up one’s cross” means and does not mean.

Let me leave you with a challenging words of Dr. Scot McKnight on Jesus’ invitation to “enter through the narrow gate” and follow the “narrow way that leads to life” — another discipleship text we try to wiggle out of or soften its demand.

“Jesus doesn’t say here anything like what many theologians would have preferred him to say; that is, he doesn’t say, “Enter through the narrow gate by recognizing you are hopeless and helpless and in need of grace.” Instead, he flat-out summons people to enter the gate. Yet the best understanding of the gate is that it is Jesus, and that leads us to this important conclusion: union with Jesus Christ is the origin and source of all spiritual blessings and all discipleship. 

Jesus isn’t here calling someone merely to a better moral life. Rather, his own presence looms in the entire Sermon as the one through whom God speaks, through whom God redeems, and through whom God reigns. So the “enter” demand is a summons to Jesus first and foremost… Connection to Jesus unleashes the grace of God’s bounty.

From Scot McKnight, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 263.

Our union with Christ is most powerfully felt when we’re following Jesus on the road to calvary, and carrying our own cross for his namesake. The grace of God’s bounty unleashed on that narrow road will empower us in our pursuit of a life of self-denial for His Kingdom.

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